Although women’s pictures were popular throughout the classic movie era, “The Women” (1939) is a Hollywood rarity in that it features an all-female cast, without a single male character appearing on screen. Directed by George Cukor, the film shows us an entirely feminine world, which revolves around men as lovers and husbands but has very little to do with them as an actual presence in women’s everyday lives. Not surprisingly, the movie depends on a veritable who’s who of leading ladies to bring its characters to life, from A-list stars like Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford to character actresses like Marjorie Main and Mary Boland. While the premise of the picture might strike modern viewers as dated and even sexist in its treatment of the theme of marital infidelity, the performances of the actresses make for lively entertainment, especially when the fur flies between pairs of romantic rivals.
The plot focuses on devoted wife and mother Mary Haines (Norma Shearer), who little suspects her husband’s affair with a gold-digging perfume clerk named Crystal (Joan Crawford) until her catty friends make sure she finds out. Her mother (Lucile Watson) advises Mary to say nothing of the affair, but her conniving pal, Sylvia (Rosalind Russell), pushes Mary to confront the trespassing Crystal and cause a public scandal. Eventually, Mary ends up at a divorce ranch in Reno, but fate repays Sylvia’s meddling by dropping her into the same situation.
The opening credits clue the audience in on the film’s attitude and the characters’ basic personalities by pairing each character with an image of an animal. The sympathetic heroines are compared to does, while the scandalmongers are matched with cats, foxes, and cows. Mary’s mother, the wise and experienced counselor, is, of course, an owl, so we know that we are supposed to take her advice to heart. It’s a humorous way to start the picture that sets the stage for many comical scenes, including the back-stabbing machinations of the gossips and a really fantastic catfight between Rosalind Russell and Paulette Goddard. Each of the actresses is adept at balancing the film’s mix of melodrama and comedy, although the worst characters are inevitably the most fun to watch, with Crawford and Russell really tearing up the scenery to see which one can be the most badly behaved.
Of course, a lot of the humor depends on well-worn stereotypes about women’s behavior and interests. Even the sympathetic characters lead fairly vapid lives, whiling away their days with beauty treatments, card games, and shopping while fretting over their relationships with invisible men. More disturbing is the film’s suggestion that a good wife ought to patiently endure her husband’s infidelity without letting on that she knows anything about it. Mary’s mother tells her that most wives suffer the same fate sooner or later and advises her to “keep still when you’re aching to talk.” Mary is punished for openly engaging her rival, but the ending offers some consolation by giving her a very pointed victory over both Sylvia and Crystal.
Take time to appreciate the entire cast, including Joan Fontaine, Mary Boland, Virginia Weidler, Marjorie Main, and Hedda Hopper. You’ll even find Butterfly McQueen appearing briefly as Crystal’s maid. For more of director George Cukor’s best work, see “The Philadelphia Story” (1940), “Adam’s Rib” (1949), and “My Fair Lady” (1964). Norma Shearer won an Oscar for her performance in “The Divorcee” (1930), but you can also see her in “Romeo and Juliet” (1936) and “Marie Antoinette” (1938). Don’t miss Joan Crawford in the terrific “Mildred Pierce” (1945) or the gruesome “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962). Look for more of Rosalind Russell in “His Girl Friday” (1940) and “Auntie Mame” (1958). “The Women” was remade in 2008 with another all-star cast of leading ladies, including Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, and Bette Midler, but the second time around the picture flopped.
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