The Women: Review
The Women are catty, two-faced, conniving and fabulously glamorous in this very stylish look inside the world of New York’s upper class women in 1939.
MGM produced the hit Broadway play The Women just as it had been presented on the stage, without a single male performer. According to studio records even the animals (such as dogs and horses) were female. A stunning choice by today’s standards, but not so for Hollywood in the late 1930’s, when female stars not only carried a film, they reigned equal, if not supreme to their male counterparts at the box office.
What is more amazing than an all female cast is just how many heavy hitters MGM wrangled into one movie. Known for having “more stars than there are in heaven”, the acclaimed studio had the greatest stable of talent from which to cull. As a matter of fact, the studio’s only so-called top tier talents of the time not utilized for the production were Greta Garbo and Myrna Loy (although producers did try). Otherwise, virtually every female on the lot played one of the 130 roles available in the film, starting with the “First Lady of MGM”, Norma Shearer.
Shearer was well-respected and admired, and was the current number one talent, due greatly to her acting ability, but also for being the widow of recently deceased “Wonder Boy” producer, Irving Thalberg. So, naturally, she played the protagonist, Mary, a lovely and loving socialite who has absolute faith in her husband and the world they have created. That is, until she finds out otherwise via her dearest friend and gossip hound, Rosalind Russell. Being a woman of principal, Shearer’s Mary runs off to Reno where she meets other divorce bound women, including the sassy Paulette Goddard and a demure Joan Fontaine.
Goddard and Fontaine were easy to place in the secondary roles as a “minx and doe” with Goddard not yet breaking away from Charlie Chaplin’s shadow (Modern Times) and Fontaine having just played the love interest in Gunga Din. But casting the other roles was something of a balancing act. Russell was already a big star but had to fight for equal billing as well as the role of Sylvia. Up until now Russell had been portraying women of noble character but insisted on an opportunity to show off her comedic side and did so in spades (which led to being cast in the comedy classic, His Girl Friday). Russell aptly devours each scene (and at one point Goddard’s shin) as a rumormongering shrew that enjoys spreading the news of Mary’s husband’s infidelity with another woman.
Of course, out of all of MGM’s stars, Joan Crawford was best suited to portray scheming shop girl, Crystal. With beauty beyond belief, Crawford also had an edge about her that could sometimes be a little too hard and a little too brash. These were the perfect characteristics for an ambitious hussy with designs on other women’s husbands. The role offered a unique departure from those Crawford had been use to playing, but more importantly it was equal in size to that of Shearer’s and Russell’s, thereby guaranteeing her name alongside the other two above the title. Rumors (of course) ran rampant about hostilities and petty grievances (neither Shearer nor Crawford ever wanted to appear on set before the other). And as hard as the studio tried to play down the animosity between the ladies whatever friction did exist only worked to serve the picture well.
Written by women (Clare Boothe and Anita Loos), The Women is as sharp and biting with its humor as it is touching and poignant with its drama. Neither before nor since has the female sex looked so good while behaving so badly, often while plotting against one another. And although it is clear in this movie that men are at the center of their universe, these women do not need a male present to provide a complete and satisfying story. If only someone would have the same presence of mind today, we might once again see more great films about women for women.