A delicious peek at the gossiping rich, featuring a glorious all-female cast
Jungle Red. Who could believe that a nail polish could instigate two hours and thirteen minutes of nefarious fun? Well, this week’s uproarious classic, “The Women”, proves it’s possible. While getting her nails painted Jungle Red, a Park Avenue socialite hears from her loose-lipped manicurist that another socialite’s husband is cheating. She immediately spreads the news with glee, and thus begins a merry game of cat and mouse between New York’s idle rich housewives in one of the most wickedly electrifying comedies ever made. Released in 1939 (often referred to as the Greatest Year in Movies), this film emerged as one of that year’s Top Ten box-office hits while nestled among the largest cluster of masterpieces ever in a calendar year (including “Gone with the Wind”, “The Wizard of Oz”, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington", “Stagecoach”, "Young Mr. Lincoln", "Wuthering Heights", "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and “Ninotchka” (to name a few). This hilarious film can be watched time and time again and still leave a smile on your face and a chuckle in your gut.
The blabbermouth socialite at hand is “Sylvia Fowler”, and the woman being cheated on is none other than her cousin, “Mary Haines” (wife of “Stephen Haines” and mother of “Little Mary”). The "other woman" turns out to be the gold-digging “Crystal Allen”, a perfume salesclerk whose societal status is not up to snuff with “Mary”, “Sylvia”, or any of their crowd, and the bulk of the film becomes a fight for “Mary” to keep her husband while not losing face among her society peers. “Sylvia” tells all her friends to get Jungle Red nails and ask for her gossiping manicurist (knowing they will get the dirt on “Mary”), and that tropical color somehow brings out the beast in everyone who wears it, as these wealthy women try to ruin one another’s social standings with whatever gossip they can ferret out – which almost always involves uncovering whom the other’s husband is sleeping with. Don’t let this cutthroat plot throw you. While there are serious scenes of a troubled marriage and family, they are surrounded by outright comedy bordering on farce all blending into one solidly enjoyable film. Even the strongly comical opening credits showing the main ten actresses and their characters coupled with their animal counterparts (from a hissing cat to a cud-chewing cow), slyly set up a farcical feeling that no one should take anything shown in this film too seriously.
To add to the fun, the entire cast of 135 speaking parts and countless other non-speaking roles are all filled by women. No males of any kind appear in the film – including its large array of animals. More than just a simple gimmick, it brilliantly shifts the film’s focus from the marriages and husbands, to the women’s relationships with each other and their wonderfully catty gossip. Be forewarned though, by today’s standards this film is filled with political incorrectness. As I’ve mentioned in a few posts (most specifically in “Gone with the Wind”), one must watch these films from a historic perspective. For better and worse, they are inseparable from what was deemed acceptable at the time they were made.
“The Women” was based on the 1936 Clare Boothe Luce play by the same name, which (as the opening credits boastfully display) ran for 666 performances in its triumphant Broadway run, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) bought the rights as a vehicle for its star Norma Shearer. Because of the play’s racy jokes and expletives, the screenplay needed to be toned down to comply with the Motion Picture Production Code. A series of writers were hired (including F. Scott Fitzgerald) and in the end Anita Loos and Jane Murfin completed the script and are the two who received screenwriting credit. Known for her wit, Loos was hired last minute and sat on the set during filming ad-libbing jokes, and this film contains many famous quips. You can read more about Anita Loos in my post on “Red Headed Woman”.
Besides being wonderful entertainment, “The Women” is a spectacular example of an MGM film made during Hollywood’s Golden Age. MGM (the largest and most profitable movie studio at the time) was known for their overwhelming roster of movie stars (their catchphrase was “More stars than there are in heaven”) and for making films with glamour, polish, and escapism. MGM had everything and everyone needed at its disposal to mass-produce high quality films (and what it didn’t already have, it would make, buy, or rent), and as such, this film explodes with a flurry of fetching fashions, lavishly lofty sets, a muster of movie stars, and a myriad of movie extras.
The opening sequence alone is enough to get a full sense of the studio’s gargantuan resources. In the film’s first two minutes, from the time we see two dogs fighting until “Sylvia’s” nails turn Jungle Red, the camera sweeps through a dozen or so rooms inside a health spa. Each room has its own distinct look with specific furniture, props, spa-equipment, and its own individually costumed actresses and extras. If it weren’t for the actresses, construction workers, set-designers, seamstresses, and property people all under studio contract, as well as MGM’s warehouses of costumes and props, it would be financially absurd (if not impossible) to merely set the tone of a film with such extravagance. This sequence alone offers a visibly tangible slice of the magic that MGM could easily generate. “The Women” was produced just as World War II was beginning to influence Hollywood films, and it marks the end of an era of glamorous, breezy, devil-may-care comedies, when movie queens dominated the screen.
The film’s producer Hunt Stromberg immediately assigned George Cukor to direct the film when he was fired from “Gone with the Wind”. It was a blessing, as Cukor’s tremendous instincts and ability to create tone are largely the reason this film works. In what could easily become fragmented and inconsistent, he manages to invisibly meld such diverse moments as the above mentioned opening with its hoards of frivolous women cavorting at the spa, scenes of “Crystal’s” wanton ways, “Little Mary’s” pain at the news of her parents’ divorce, and a slapstick fall into a cart near the perfume counter – while keeping them all unmistakably in the same film.
“The Women” also amplified Cukor’s reputation for being a “woman’s director” (though he directed many male actors in their best performances), and true to his expertise he managed to extract first-rate performances from all the actresses in this film. In an interview with Roy Newquist in his book, “Conversations with Joan Crawford”, Crawford said, “George simply has an uncanny ability to define the character of a woman, any type of woman, and how she would react to any given situation. This is what made this screen version of ‘The Women’ better than the play. It could have been played strictly as farce and still have been a good picture, but George picked up on so many subtle things, that each character had a reason to be and do and say whatever happened on the screen”. Cukor’s work leaves the viewer glued to the screen every step of the way, waiting impatiently to see what will happen next. This is the fifth film on this blog by this incomparable director, the others being “Gaslight”, “Camille”, “Born Yesterday”, and “The Philadelphia Story”. You can read more about George Cukor’s life and career in those previous posts.
The film stars, Norma Shearer, as “Mary” (“Mrs. Stephen Haines”), the woman whose husband is stepping out on her. “Mary” is the emotional "Straight Man” to all the biting comedic women, and because Shearer plays her so truthfully, she gives the film its grounding. Shearer bursts with energy, warmth, and vulnerability and we care about what happens to "Mary". She can be subtle or borderline overly dramatic, but no matter what, she is always honest. Shearer has many exquisite scenes, from the quick and simple way she interacts and looks at family photos with “Little Mary”, to the emotionally complex phone call with “Stephen” after learning of his infidelity. In both those examples, Shearer has laser beam focus, and is completely lost in her character. Because hers is the least flamboyant character, it’s easy to miss how fine a performance Shearer actually gives. She was one of Hollywood's biggest stars.
The youngest of three siblings, Canadian-born Norma Shearer decided to become an actress after seeing a vaudeville show on her ninth birthday. When she was sixteen, her father lost his money and business and the family became impoverished. Her parents soon divorced and her mother took Norma (and her sister Athole) to New York to pursue acting and arranged a meeting with Florenz Ziegfeld, producer of the legendary "Ziegfeld Follies", known for its beautiful girls. Upon seeing her, Ziegfeld flatly turned her down, calling her a "dog", pointing out her crossed eyes and dumpy figure. Being ferociously ambitious, Shearer left the meeting undeterred. She and her sister found out Universal Studios needed eight pretty girls as extras for a film, and just as the casting person picked the seventh girl, Shearer coughed and smiled to get his attention. It worked, and she got the job, and in 1919 began to appear in uncredited film roles. One of them was D.W. Griffith's silent 1920 classic, "Way Down East". While on the set, she told Griffith her intention of becoming a star, and he told her she'd never make it because of her crossed eyes. Unstoppable, she sought out the famous ophthalmologist Dr. William Bates who helped her conceal her condition through specific eye muscle exercises.
Shearer’s first break came in the 1921 silent B-movie, "The Stealers", and from it she was discovered by Louis B. Mayer Pictures, a studio in Los Angeles, run by Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg. She moved west in 1923 and signed with the Mayer Company. Originally considered for the lead in her first film with them "The Wanters", after seeing her screen-test they deemed her un-photogenic, and the film's director relegated her to a minor role. When the director of her next film, "Pleasure Mad", made it clear he thought she couldn't act, Shearer pushed herself harder and her talent became evident to many, including Thalberg. The Mayer Company merged with Metro Pictures and the Samuel Goldwyn Company in 1924, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) was born with Thalberg as its head of production. He cast Shearer as the female lead in the first film produced entirely by MGM, "He Who Gets Slapped", opposite Lon Chaney. The film was a hit, helping the newly formed MGM and Shearer’s popularity. She was now starring in films and quickly became a movie star. She regularly met with Thalberg to discuss her career and the two fell in love. She converted to Judaism and they married in 1927 and she thought of retiring after the birth of their first child but he convinced her to continue acting. Her brother Douglas Shearer (who you can read about in my "Mrs. Miniver" post), followed Norma and their mother to Los Angeles and began working at MGM. With the arrival of sound films in 1928, Douglas became the studio's sound expert (and soon head of MGM's newly created sound recording department). Nervous about transitioning to talking pictures, Shearer consulted her brother about performing in sound films and he helped prepare her for her first sound film, "The Trial of Mary Dugan" in 1929. Her voice and the film were both a success. Later that year she appeared in "Their Own Desire", and earned her first Best Actress Academy Award nomination.
Thalberg was making a film titled "The Divorcee", which he intended for Joan Crawford, not even considering Shearer, thinking she lacked sex appeal. Shearer hired unknown portrait photographer George Hurrell to take seductive shots of her to prove she could play the role and it worked (and began Hurrell's career as a top Hollywood portrait photographer). Her performance earned her a Best Actress Academy Award. She finally broke free of playing good girls and during the Pre-Code Era established a new screen persona as a loose woman, but with dignity and class. She was a top star (known as "The First Lady of MGM"), competing with Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow for the top spot. When the Motion Picture Production Code was enforced in 1934 (which I talk about in my "Red Dust" post), out went sexual women, so she turned to making period dramas and big-budget films and remained a top star all through the 1930s. Her other notable films include "Marie Antoinette", "Romeo and Juliet", "The Barretts of Wimpole Street", "A Free Soul", and "Private Lives". With her fifth Best Actress Oscar nomination for 1938's "Marie Antoinette", Shearer became the first actor (male or female) to earn five Academy Award nominations. Her last film was 1942's, "Her Cardboard Lover", after which she retired. She quickly faded from the spotlight and was rediscovered through television decades later. Thalberg unexpectedly died in 1936 at the age of 37. In 1942 she married former ski instructor, Martin Arrougé (11 years younger than her) and they remained married until her death. Before their marriage, she briefly dated actors James Stewart and George Raft. Norma Shearer died in 1983 at the age of 80.
Joan Crawford is phenomenal as the predatory “Crystal Allen”, a virtueless woman the manicurist says has “those eyes that run up and down a man, like a searchlight”, and calls her “a terrible girl. I mean, she’s terribly clever and terribly pretty”. It's not a large part but Crawford makes a stunning impact every time she’s on-screen. Take her extended phone call with “Stephen” while working at the perfume counter. She devilishly puts on her seductress act for “Stephen” while getting angry with her teasing coworker. It is another of the film’s outstandingly acted phone calls. Crawford also has one of the film’s most famous lines, delivered with perfectly nasty glee when “Crystal” and “Mary” meet for the first time in “Crystal’s” dressing room at a fashion show. When "Mary" disses the gold outfit with very short shorts "Crystal" is wearing, saying "Stephen... doesn’t like such obvious effects”, “Crystal” replies, “Thanks for the tip. But when anything I wear doesn’t please him, I take it off”. Crawford somehow makes a vile woman thrillingly pleasurable to watch.
Joan Crawford’s career was in trouble at the time. She had been one of Hollywood’s (and MGM’s) top stars for about a decade and her star was dimming to the point she was being labeled box-office poison. “Crystal” was a risky part, for it was her first completely unsympathetic role, and it helped revitalize her career. It was known to just about everyone that Crawford and Shearer were actual rivals. Crawford was jealous of the roles Shearer was given, feeling it was because she was married to Thalberg, and both were ambitious wanting to be number one. Everyone was bracing themselves for a live catfight on the set. While the two had their moments (such as Crawford loudly clanking her needles while knitting when Shearer filmed her close-ups), Cukor managed to handle the two with kid gloves and for the most part, filming was smooth and uneventful. I wrote much more about Joan Crawford in my post on “Mildred Pierce”. Click on the title to check it out.
Rosalind Russell plays "Sylvia" ("Mrs. Howard Fowler”), the main troublemaker. She portrays this sharp-tongued gossipmonger with such dynamic zeal, “Sylvia” comes across more as a hurt woman who can’t help herself than purely evil. This type of character was new for an actress who exclusively played refined women. When Russell heard about “The Women” she wanted the role of “Sylvia”, but because she had never appeared in a comedy no one wanted her. She knew Stromberg and asked him why she wasn't being tested. He said she was too beautiful and not a comedienne, and Ilka Chase (who originated the role on Broadway) was to play the part. Russell told him that until he saw her do comedy and fail he shouldn’t assume she's not funny. So he had Cukor (who didn’t want her either) test her. She asked to play it different ways, including one in an exaggerated fashion. She got the part. When filming began, Cukor wasn't happy with her performance and took her aside and told her, "Don't be the heavy in this piece. You must be a woman who makes trouble but you must do it with humor. Otherwise, when you break up the marriage with a child involved, you are a real villainess. Don't do that. You'll throw this thing off-balance. I want you to do it the exaggerated way you did it in the test". Russell adjusted her performance and nearly walks away with the film.
“The Women” made Rosalind Russell a star. She proved not only could she handle rapid wisecracking quips but also physical comedy as seen in “Sylvia’s” iconic fight with “Miriam” which begins when “Sylvia” pulls “Miriam” off a horse. Unknowingly at the time, it changed her life in another way as well. Danish-born theatrical agent Frederick Brisson happened to see “The Women” while crossing the Atlantic aboard a ship, and upon seeing Russell told himself, “I’m going to marry that woman”. When he arrived, he called his friend Cary Grant and asked if he knew Russell. Grant happened to be working with her at the time on her next film, the classic comedy, “His Girl Friday” and he introduced them. A few years later Brisson married Russell, helped shape her career, and they remained happily married until her death. You can read more about the life and career of Rosalind Russell in my post on “His Girl Friday”.
Another standout performance is that of Mary Boland as the zany, oversexed and probably alcoholic, “Countess De Lave”. She meet "Mary" on the train to Reno (the divorce capitol of the world) en route to her fourth divorce, and shares with "Mary" her unconventional approach to life and husbands: “I don’t pick them for character… My way, your marriage may not last until death, but it’s fun while it hangs together”. Boland’s brilliant comedic timing squeezes the most juice out of every one of her lines, even something as simple as “Cheer up, chérie. Wait until you’ve lost as many husbands as I have. Married, divorced, married, divorced, L’amour, L’amour. That’s French for love”. Boland’s on-the-mark delivery and big-hearted approach to “The Countess” is a constant joy to observe.
Philadelphia-born and Detroit-raised Mary Boland began her career in regional theater and touring productions, making it to Broadway in 1907’s “The Ranger” and continuing to work steadily. She also appeared in eight silent films beginning with "The Edge of the Abyss" in 1915. Her first whimsically unbalanced character (a type she often played) was in Booth Tarkington’s 1919 original Broadway production of “Clarence”. Before 1933, Boland spent the bulk of her career on Broadway and by the end of her career, appeared in a total of thirty-three Broadway productions. In 1931 she signed with Paramount Pictures and began a very successful movie career as one of the most popular characters actresses of the 1930s, often as scatterbrained or fluttery mothers or dowagers. She starred opposite Charlie Ruggles in a series of comedy films including "Ruggles of Red Gap" and “Boy Trouble". From her 51 film appearances and 8 television shows, other notable films include "Pride and Prejudice", "Julia Misbehaves", and the musical, "New Moon”. After appearing on Broadway in 1954's "Lullaby", Boland retired. She never married. Mary Boland died in 1965 at the age of 83.
Paulette Goddard plays “Miriam Aarons”, a woman “Mary” also meets on the train to Reno. Goddard engagingly portrays this tough, no-nonsense former chorus girl with world-weariness and mystery. According to Anita Loos in her book “Kiss Hollywood Goodbye”, Cukor told Goddard, “Look, kid, just forget those female tricks of yours and try to give me the best imitation you can of Spencer Tracy”. After that, the character of “Miriam” instantly clicked within her. During “Miriam’s” iconic fight with “Sylvia”, no stunt people were used and according to Russell, Russell actually bit Goddard on the leg, leaving a permanent scar, though the two remained friends.
New York born Paulette Goddard began as a model in her early teens, and made it to Broadway (her only appearance there) as a chorus girl in Florenz Ziegfeld’s 1926 revue, "No Fooling". She married in 1927 at the age of 17, and in 1929 began appearing in small uncredited film roles starting with the Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy short film, "Birth Marks”. After more uncredited roles, a divorce, and a brief trip to Europe, Goddard moved to Hollywood in 1930 in pursuit of stardom. After more than a dozen bit parts (all uncredited), Charlie Chaplin noticed her, and the two started dating. He then cast her as the female lead/love interest in his 1936 masterpiece "Modern Times", which was her first credited film role, bringing her much attention. She then signed with David O. Selznick and appeared as the second lead in "The Young Heart" in 1938. Selznick liked her work and she was the leading contender for Hollywood's most coveted role of "Scarlett O'Hara" in Selznick's landmark, "Gone with the Wind", but lost the role to Vivien Leigh (some say because she was living with Chaplin while not married). Goddard was lent to MGM for "The Women", and shortly after signed with Paramount Pictures, appearing in "The Cat and the Canary” (also in 1939) opposite Bob Hope, which proved a career breakthrough. In 1940 she played female lead to Chaplin in another of his immortal classics, "The Great Dictator”.
With her spirited screen quality, Goddard was on her way to quickly becoming one of Paramount’s top stars of the 1940s. Her other notable films include "Kitty", "Hold Back the Dawn", "The Diary of a Chambermaid", "Reap the Wild Wind", and "So Proudly We Hail!", for which she earned her only Academy Award nomination (for Best Supporting Actress). By the end of the decade she was less in demand and Goddard and Paramount parted ways. The 1950s found her mostly in B movies and after making "The Unholy Four" in 1954, she retired from films, turning briefly to television. She was lured back for one final film in 1964, "Time of Indifference”. Goddard was married four times. After her marriage to Chaplin, she briefly married actor Burgess Meredith, and German novelist Erich Maria Remarque in 1958 (remaining married to him until his death in 1970). In addition to being beautiful, Goddard was articulate, blunt, and energetic, and famously befriended many artists, including George Gershwin, Andy Warhol, Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera (with whom she reportedly had an affair - possibly with Kahlo as well). She was an avid art and jewelry collector and philanthropist. Paulette Goddard died in 1990 at the age of 79.
If you are watching the films on here, a face you should recognize is that of Joan Fontaine, who plays “Peggy Day”, a newlywed less wealthy and sophisticated than the others. Still part of “Mary’s” clan, "Peggy" is not quite up to speed with all the insults and nasty banter, and Fontaine brings enough truth to the part to make her interesting. She too gets a phone call scene and displays the wealth of fragility and naïveté for which she would become known. “The Women” was the last in a string of supporting roles for Fontaine in A-list films. Her next film expanded on the qualities seen during her phone call, won her a Best Actress Academy Award nomination, stardom, and a place in cinema history – as the lead in Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar winning, “Rebecca”. You can read more about Joan Fontaine’s life and career in my post on that film favorite.
Virginia Weidler does a fantastic job as "Little Mary Haines", the child whose parents are headed towards divorce. Weidler should be recognizable to anyone watching the films on this blog, as she gave a standout performance as Katharine Hepburn's younger sister in "The Philadelphia Story" (the year following "The Women"). This very popular child actress appeared in 47 films between 1931 and 1951, including "All This and Heaven Too", "Babes on Broadway", "Too Hot to Handle", "Souls at Sea", and "Out West with the Hardys", as well as some TV and radio appearances. Her final film was alongside Lucille Ball in the 1943 musical comedy, "Best Foot Forward", after which the sixteen year old Weidler retired. She was married once until her death. One of her brothers was big band jazz saxophonist and songwriter George William Weidler who was briefly married to Doris Day. The Los Angeles born Virginia Weidler died of a heart attack in 1968 at the age of 41.
Because this film is filled with so many talented actresses, I can’t possibly cover them all but will point out several who have previously appeared in this blog so you can have fun looking for them. One is Marjorie Main who plays “Lucy”, the gravelly voiced, warmhearted, rough-around-the-edges woman who runs the Double Bar T Ranch in Reno. A major character actress, I wrote about her in my post on "Meet Me in St. Louis". She was one of only a handful of actresses (including Phyllis Povah as “Edith Potter”, Mary Cecil as “Maggie", and Marjorie Wood at “Sadie") who reprised their role from the original Broadway cast.
Another actress you might recognize from “The Philadelphia Story” (she played the photographer and James Stewart’s love interest) is Ruth Hussey, who plays “Stephen Haines’” secretary “Miss Watson” in one quick scene, asking “Mary” to sign some papers. You can read about Ruth Hussey’s life and career in my post about “The Philadelphia Story”.
Actress and real life gossip columnist Hedda Hopper makes a brief appearance as gossip columnist “Dolly Dupuyster”, in the ladies lounge near the end of the film. I mentioned Hopper once before on this blog, in “Sunset Boulevard”, in which she played herself.
You will undoubtedly recognize Butterfly McQueen as “Lulu”, the maid at the perfume counter who “Crystal” enlists to cook dinner for her and “Stephen”. This was McQueen’s film debut and her very next role as “Prissy” in “Gone with the Wind” made her immortal. She appeared again with Crawford in the 1945 classic, “Mildred Pierce”, and you can read about McQueen's life and career in my posts on both those films.
As the film opens, we see two dogs fighting. If the one with the bow looks familiar, you guessed it, that’s “Toto” from “The Wizard of Oz”. She’s billed as Terry, as her owner changed her name to Toto in 1942 because of the popularity of “The Wizard of Oz”. You can read more about Terry/Toto in my post on that classic.
In addition to many of these actresses, you might recognize the names of Art Director Cedric Gibbons (art director/set designer for many of the films on this blog who you can read about in my post on "The Good Earth"), Recording Director Douglas Shearer (Norma's brother, who you can read about in my "Mrs. Miniver" post), and one of the film's two Directors of Photography, Joseph Ruttenberg (who I wrote about in "The Philadelphia Story").
Last and certainly not least is a mention of the work of costume designer Adrian, who designed over 200 glorious gowns and fashions for the film (you can read about his life and career in “The Philadelphia Story” post). In addition to the many styles and personalities of clothes worn by the stars and supporting players, he also created 1930s haute couture fashions featured in the film’s nearly six minute Technicolor fashion show. This color segment in this black and white film can be quite jarring for first time viewers, and Cukor wanted it cut from the film but producer Stromberg insisted it remain. Even if it sticks out, it somehow remains zanily consistent with the film’s madcap fun.
A dark subject presented in a mischievous tone, this film manages to bring out the schadenfreude in us all, as backstabbing was never so fiercely pleasurable. With its sharp wit, it has also become a camp classic. Enjoy the highly enjoyable, “The Women”!
This blog is a series on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications for every new post. On THE MOVIES page you can find a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog with family, friends, and on social media, and subscribe so you don’t miss a post. Thanks so much for reading!
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