Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Women (1939)

The Women
Director: George Cukor
USA 1939
133 min
Starring: Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, Mary Boland, Ruth Hussey, Hedda Hopper and Muriel Hutchison, among others.

An all-female cast in a snappy Anita Loos play under the direction of George Cukor.

George Cukor and his cast of beautiful women.

Since The Women is considered a favorite my many a classic film devotee, I thought it a great shame that I waited until a sleepless night in the beginning of January before I finally watched it. Now I think the greatest shame is that I had too high expectations.

I will make my problems with this movie clear soon enough, but first I will make a brief summary of the plot and what was really great with it.

The story, naturally, circles around a group of women. Our protagonist is Mary Haines (Shearer), the wife of a wealthy and (unknowingly to her) cheating husband. Her chattering friend Sylvia Fowler (Russell at her best) finds out about Mr. Haines affair with shop girl Crystal Allen (Crawford) from her manicurist and arrange with the help of her constantly breeding friend Edith (Phyllis Povah) for Mary to meet the manicurist and hear the gossip. The plan works, and soon enough Mary decides that a divorce is the best solution.

On the train to a Reno divorce with another friend with marriage troubles, Peggy (Fontaine, sweet as ever), Mary meets soon-four-times-divorced Countess De Lave (Boland) and her friend what's-your-name-again Miriam Aarons (Goddard), the latter one having an affair with Sylvia Fowler's husband. When Sylvia herself joins the women for a divorce of herself, the whole thing results in a magnificent cat fight (which Goddard got a permanent bite mark on her leg from). When Countess De Lave remarries a man named Buck, she also has to suffer the menacing claws of Crystal Allen, who goes after Buck and even more money after having married Mary's ex-husband.

How's that for a plot? The wonderful thing is that all this is accompanied by great actresses (not a man is in sight or sound) and a clever script full of quotable wisecracks.

I did however have two major problems with The Women. The first problem is the Technicolor fashion sequence. I just don't understand what it has to do with anything, and it slows down the pace fatally. Did MGM feel a need to show off the fact that they could use Technicolor on a whim just for the heck of it, if they wanted to? The whole thing is just ridiculous, and even though the sequence in itself was quite thoughtfully planned, I would rather see the fashion show itself and not having to suffer through it out of context.

The other thing that bothered me was the complete lack of dignity for Norma Shearer's character, that is towards the end of the film. I buy the whole divorce thing: the woman files for divorce after a humiliation (or that they have "fallen out of love", as Mary beautifully explains it to her daughter), the husband agrees out of remorse (and probably also out of convenience) and takes the easy way out by marrying the woman directly in front of him, i.e. his mistress, in this case. It's just too bad for a man to be alone, you know?
Anyway, I buy that whole thing including regretting the decision for divorce - I've seen it happen around me innumerable times. My parents are a good example: they "fell out of love", divorced and re-married after a three year separation.
What I don't buy is the absolute last minutes (or even the very last minute) of the film, where Mary throws away every bit of sense by saying that she has no pride: "That's a luxury a woman can't afford."
And that's where I say: "What the heck?!" A woman can in fact go back to her cheating husband, and still keep her dignity and pride. Forgive the mistake (most people get a crisis à la the-7-year-itch every now and then, for Jack's sake), but learn from it. But no, that's not what post-code Norma Shearer does: she just admits that she has been wrong the whole time, and then everything is jolly good again.

This is so below her dignity.

I hate when I sound like a feminist, because I'm not. At least not in the modern sense of the word. But the post-1934 movies that demanded the independent woman's complete surrender (or death) are just ridiculous. Norma Shearer should have left her acting career when the Hay's Code made an entrance, for no roles after that made her justice. For me, Norma Shearer is Jerry in The Divorcee (1930), and nothing less than that.

But if I ignore these two disturbances, I really adored this film. I didn't even dislike Joan Crawford (this is about that time when she, according to me, started to look a bit scary). Shearer is a talented actress and makes the best out of this part, which works really fine until the humiliating end. Joan Fontaine is adorable as the naïve and not very bright Peggy, and Paulette Goddard is cool as hell.

How can one not love Joan Fontaine?

Another actress who's performance impressed me was one Muriel Hutchison, who played Mary's spying maid Jane. She doesn't seem to have appeared in many movies, but more so on Broadway. When she re-enacts Mary's and her husband's marital fights for the other maid in the kitchen I couldn't help but fall in love with her immediately - she imitates Norma Shearer's manner and way of delivering lines to perfection!

Muriel Hutchison keeping her co-maid up-to-date with the masters' quarrels.

Who I adore the most though, is Rosalind Russell. She reminds me of myself after a couple of drinks: babbling like crazy, throwing around minor insults in every direction and never abandoning that image of complete self security and narcissism. The only thing that didn't go hand in hand with myself was the fact that her character has money and works out, I guess.

In conclusion, this film is a definite classic and something that I will watch many more times - at least now that I know where to fast forward and where to cut off the end. George Cukor really was a women's director - he has certainly managed to bring out the best in every actress in every little role in this project.


Kim said...

I totally agree with your dislike for the fashion sequence and love for Rosalind Russell. Russell played my favorite character in the film. Sometimes you got to love the bad ones. I also really enjoyed Virginia Weidler. She was really a talented child actor.

As for the pride issue, I didn't really mind that she went back to her husband (probably even wanted her to go back) but I didn't like the message that we should understand that our husband will cheat on us because that is just how they are. Not to mention the movie seemed to say it wasn't the husband's fault but the "other woman's" fault who seduced him. Product of its time I guess.

Lolita said...

Oh yes, Virginia Weidler was really good, as she is in The Philadelphia Story. I was really amazed by her acting when Shearer told her about the divorce plans.

I agree with you to some extent, but those "your husband will cheat on you no matter what, and just keep quiet about it" ideas was her mother's, and Mary (at least at first, don't know how to interpret the end) argues with her logic. And she did file for a divorce, as opposed to what her mother told her to. But then again, the end could be interpreted as that Mary realized that her mother was right all along, and then it's disturbing any way ;)

Chris Edwards said...

I haven't watched this, but I think I would. There's something about infidelity--it makes for memorable movies.

Also, I'm biased, but I kinda prefer silent-era Joan Crawford. She had a more approachable beauty then, as opposed to the trademark look of her later work. By the end, it seemed as though she was trying to resemble her own caricatures.

Lolita said...

Chris Edwards:
The only silent I've seen with Crawford is The Unknown with Lon Chaney, but she is great in that one. And beautiful. Hehe, you really made me laugh with that "resembling her own caricatures" remark - it's sad but true. Still, she could act.
See this film, it is great! Maybe I overdid the highlighting of the negative parts a bit in my review?

Chris Edwards said...

Check out 'Tramp, Tramp, Tramp'; she's the love interest for Harry Langdon. The film's not great, but her meet-cute with Harry is an all-time fave of mine:


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