How does one take the acidic wit of Anita Loos and her downright risqué Broadway smash The Women and transform its wickedly perverse dialogue into an even more brutally funny cinematic experience – particularly when Hollywood’s censorship forbade the slightest hint of sexual promiscuity? Well…if you’re director George Cukor you simply ask Loos to pen even more corrosive double entendre to get the point across. The Women (1939) is a scathingly bitchy and divinely hilarious comedy gem starring 135 women and NO men. Only Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio known in its’ heyday for a stellar roster of female stars, could put together and pull off such an adroit coup. And quite a coup it has remained. The Women is a claws-out cat fight with an exquisite cast.
It’s interesting to note that by 1939 neither Norma Shearer – once dubbed ‘queen of the lot’ at MGM – nor Joan Crawford’s careers were what they had once been. While neither was a has-been, per say, each had seen their popularity slide. As such, both had individual reasons for wanting to appear in this film. For Shearer, The Women marked a final jewel in her star-studded crown. As Irving Thalberg’s wife, Norma Shearer had enjoyed unprecedented autonomy to pick and choose her own material at the studio. Guided by Thalberg’s magic touch, she starred in some of MGM’s most lavish, beloved and successful movies from the 1930’s. As Thalberg’s widow (after his untimely death in 1936) however, Shearer was to find the pickings decidedly slimmer, and L.B. Mayer – owing to a bitter dispute over paying out Thalberg’s studio shares to Shearer - decidedly disinterested in maintaining her screen popularity.
As for Crawford, she had been recently branded ‘box office poison’ along with several other prominent names in an article for Variety – the showbiz Bible. Crawford, who had been beholding to Shearer for her hand-me-downs continued to harbor an intense resentment; making no apology for her jealousies or contempt and publicly declaring “How can I complete with her? She sleeps with the boss?”
Crawford used The Women as leverage, agreeing to a pay cut, to renegotiate her contract at MGM. She campaigned heavily and heartily to secure the role of vicious man trap, Crystal Allen. Asked by L.B. Mayer why she should so desperately desire to play the unrepentant bitch, Crawford bluntly replied, “I’d play Wally Beery’s mother if the part were right!” In hindsight, the part of Crystal seems tailor-made for Crawford; an elegant clothes horse with delicious venom lurking just beneath her more glamorous façade.
That The Women should star these two exceptional female titans, slightly unruffled George Cukor. Established as the premiere director, capable of coaxing superior performances from temperamental beauties, Cukor exhibited minor concerns at the start; The Women would become the catalyst to unleash a tidal wave of mutual animosity. He had nothing to fear. Crawford and Shearer were professionals through and through on the set, friendly even – with only a minor frost brewing between takes. It never impacted the work. To this mix, Cukor cast Rosalind Russell – then, rising through the ranks – as the spiteful Sylvia Fowler, and Joan Fontaine, perfectly cast as the naïve ingénue, Peggy Day. It wasn’t much of a part for Fontaine, but it would bring her to the attention of audiences and directly lead to her casting the following year in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940).
There was no shortage of fine female talent on tap at MGM during this golden heyday. Thus, Cukor cast The Women from an exemplar of stellar actresses; Charlie Chaplin’s paramour, Paulette Goddard as sultry vixen, Miriam Aarons; Mary Boland - the ebullient scatterbrain, Flora – the Countess DeLav; Phyllis Povah, the odious Edith Potter, and Lucille Watson as the benevolent matriarch, Mrs. Morehead. But Cukor knew the success of the picture rested squarely on the kinetic sparing between Crawford and Shearer – and in these two women he was not to be disappointed.
Viewing The Women today, one is immediately struck by the delicate balance achieved between these polar opposites; made even more tantalizing when one stops to consider Shearer’s early career consisted of playing déclassé tramps while Crawford’s early tenure was earmarked by a perpetual roster of vibrant ‘shop girls’ make good. In The Women these career-making stereotypes are reversed; Shearer, now the devoted and slightly wide-eyed Park Avenue wife and mother; Crawford, the tough-as-nails viper with ice water running through her veins, all set to pluck out her eyes and heart.
In one of The Women’s best loved moments, inside an impossibly lavish fashion salon, Shearer’s Mary Haines confronts Crawford’s Crystal Allen about a late afternoon rendezvous with her off-screen husband, Steven. Crawford’s Crystal quickly abandons her surface sheen of faux respectability to spearhead Mary’s pride, telling her “You have the position, the name, the money…” to which Mary replies “My husband’s love means more to me than that.” Crawford is cold and calculating, fluffing off the strength of sentiment even as Mary explains that “its beauty is something you’ll never know”. Attempting to meet the cougar on her own turf, Shearer’s Mary disdainfully eyes Crystal’s shimmering lamé from head to toe, telling her “If you’re dressing to please Steven…not that one. He doesn’t like such obvious affects,” to which Crawford smites back, “Thanks…but when anything I wear doesn’t please Steven I take it off!”
Reading between the lines it must have irked Crawford immensely that Shearer’s private life had been idyllic – at least for the most part; her marriage to Irving G. Thalberg based on genuine mutual affection rather than the social-climbing entrepreneurial spirit of a ruthless starlet out to bag her boss. This is especially revealing when one considers that by 1939 Crawford had already tried - and miserably failed, twice - to be a happily married women: first, with Douglas Fairbanks Jr., then Franchot Tone.
Shearer would find enduring love a second time and for the rest of her life; with ski instructor Martin Arrouge, whom she met on a vacation in Sun Valley in 1942. Crawford would try her hand at love again and again, but with no lasting success; an ominous precursor foreshadowed in the movie. As such, Crawford’s career became her life, while Shearer willingly surrendered fame to fade into obscurity after her second marriage.
The Women, in effect, puts a period to Crawford and Shearer’s flourish at MGM, the studio that had made them both stars. Loos’ plot concerns the ever-loyal – if slightly pampered - Mary Haines (Norma Shearer); a woman of culture and means blissfully living in her fool’s paradise as a contented wife to Steven and mother to Mary Jr. (Virginia Weidler). That is, until she accidentally learns from Olga (Dennie Moore), a gossipy manicurist working at Sydney’s Beauty Salon that her husband, Steven (whom we never see) is having an off-camera affair with a common sales girl; the heartless Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford). Determined, at first, to save her marriage, then later, to live out the remainder of her years as a carefree divorcee, Mary eventually comes to an inevitable realization. She wants Steven back!
Mary’s gaggle of fair-weather friends include her vapid and vial cousin, Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell), Sylvia's cohort in perpetuating the scandal - Edith Potter (Phyllis Povah), naïve, Peggy Day (Joan Fontaine); also the obtuse, Countess DeLav (Mary Boland) and vixen-on-the-make, Miriam Aarons (Paulette Goddard), whom Mary will meet on the train to Reno for her divorce. At various moments in the screenplay, each gal pal confides in Mary how best to proceed when confronting Crystal. But Mary’s mother, Mrs. Moorehead (Lucille Watson), advises prudence and a quiet tongue. “I’m an old woman, my dear,” she tells Mary, “I know my sex.”
The narrative moves effortlessly from the rustic splendor of Mary and Steven’s hunting lodge to the fashionable moneyed rooftop penthouses and casinos of mid-town Manhattan, and finally, to Reno where the divorcees gather for tea and sympathy – neither doled out by den mother Lucie (Marjorie Maine); the delightfully off kilter proprietress of the ranch. In actuality, cast and crew went nowhere – the locations lavishly reproduced on the MGM back lot.
At one point the plot degenerates into a riotous cat fight complete with hair-pulling and even a racy, full-blooded bite on a bare thigh. Buttressed by its stellar performances, sparkling dialogue and an eye-popping fashion show sequence photographed in blazing Technicolor – celebrating the fanciful high-style fashions created by MGM’s resident guru – Adrian - The Women is 99½% pure Hollywood magic. Only its’ ending (Mary rushing toward her off-camera philandering spouse, arms thrown open and aching for his embrace) leaves something to be desired.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray is reference quality. The B&W image is pristine; the gray scale exquisitely rendered with pitch-perfect tonality. Grain has been very naturally reproduced. The Technicolor fashion sequence explodes with lush and vibrant colors. Fine details belie the fact the movie is well over 70 years old. Point blank, The Women has never looked more alluring on home video. The audio is mono but exhibits exceptional clarity.
Warner has carried over all of the extras from its DVD incarnation; including David Snell and Edward Ward’s superior underscoring; which greatly benefits and is presented in stereo from original isolated stem recordings. We also get three vintage short subjects and the movie’s original theatrical trailer. None of these extras have been remastered in hi-def and some are in fairly rough shape. It would have been admirable of Warner to produce a ‘making of’ featurette. No such luck, alas. Bottom line: The Women on Blu-ray is perfect entertainment presented perfectly in hi-def. Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)