1939 Film: The Women

The Women is a 1939 American comedy-drama film directed by George Cukor. The film is based on Clare Boothe Luce's play of the same name, and was adapted for the screen by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin, who had to make the film acceptable for the Production Code in order for it to be released.

The film was a success. It starred Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, Lucile Watson, Mary Boland, and Virginia Grey, as well as Marjorie Main and Phyllis Povah, the last two of whom reprised their stage roles from the play. Florence Nash, Ruth Hussey, Virginia Weidler, Butterfly McQueen, and Hedda Hopper also appeared in smaller roles. As of February 2012, Fontaine is the only surviving actress with a credited role in the film.

Women MoviesThe film continued the play's all-female tradition—the entire cast of more than 130 speaking roles was female. Set in the glamorous Manhattan apartments of high society evoked by Cedric Gibbons, and in Reno where they obtain their divorces, it presents an acidic commentary on the pampered lives and power struggles of various rich, bored wives and other women they come into contact with.

Throughout The Women, not a single male is seen — although the males are much talked about, and the central theme is the women's relationships with them.Lesbianism is intimated in the portrayal of only one character, Nancy Blake. The attention to detail was such that even in props such as portraits only female figures are represented, and several animals which appeared as pets were also female. The only exceptions are a poster-drawing clearly of a bull in the fashion show segment and an ad on the back of the magazine Peggy reads at Mary's house before lunch.

Filmed in black and white, it includes a ten-minute fashion parade filmed in Technicolor, featuring Adrian's most outré designs; often cut in modern screenings, it has been restored by Turner Classic Movies. On DVD, the original black and white fashion show, which is a different take, is available for the first time.

PLOT

The Women follows the lives of Manhattan women, focusing in particular on Mary Haines (Norma Shearer), the cheerful, contented wife of Stephen and mother of Little Mary (Virginia Weidler). After a bit of gossip flies around the salon these wealthy women visit, Mary's cousin Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell) learns from a manicurist that Mary's husband has been having an affair with a predatory perfume counter girl named Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford). A notorious gossip, Sylvia delights in sharing the news with Mary's friends; she sets up Mary with an appointment with the same manicurist so that she hears the rumor about Stephen's infidelity.

While Mary's mother (Lucile Watson) urges her to ignore the gossip, Mary begins to have her own suspicions about her husband's increasingly frequent claims that he needs to work late. She decides to travel to Bermuda with her mother to think about the situation and hope the rumors will fade. Upon her return, Mary heads to a fashion show and learns that Crystal is in attendance, trying on clothes in a dressing room. Mary, at Sylvia's insistence, confronts her about the affair, but Crystal is completely unapologetic and slyly suggests that Mary keep the status quo unless she wants to lose Stephen in a divorce. Heartbroken and humiliated, Mary leaves quickly. The gossip continues, exacerbated by Sylvia and her friend Edith (Phyllis Povah), who turns the affair into a public scandal by recounting Sylvia's version of the story to a notorious gossip columnist. Mary chooses to divorce her husband despite his efforts to convince her to stay. Mary explains the divorce to Little Mary.

On a train to Reno, where she will get her divorce, Mary meets several women with the same destination and purpose: the dramatic, extravagant Countess de Lave (Mary Boland); Miriam Aarons (Paulette Goddard), a tough-cookie chorus girl, and, to her surprise, her friend Peggy Day (Joan Fontaine), a shy young woman. Mary and her new friends settle in at a Reno ranch, where they get plenty of unsolicited advice from Lucy (Marjorie Main), the gruffly warm-hearted woman who runs the ranch. The Countess tells tales of her multiple husbands and seems to have found another prospect in Reno, a cowboy named Buck Winston. Miriam reveals she has been having an affair with Sylvia Fowler's husband and plans to marry him. Peggy, who has discovered that she is pregnant, is urged to call her husband, resolve their misunderstanding and end the divorce proceedings, which she successfully does. Sylvia arrives at the ranch, now that her husband has requested a divorce("Well girls: move over."). When she discovers that Miriam is to become the new Mrs. Fowler, a catfight ensues. Mary succeeds in breaking up the fight. Miriam convinces her that she, too, should forget her pride, get her husband on the phone and try to patch things up before their divorce becomes legal in a few hours. Before Mary can decide, it rings — the call is from Stephen, who informs Mary that he and Crystal have just been married.

Two years pass. At the Haines apartment, Crystal, the new Mrs. Haines, is taking a bubble bath and talking on the phone to her lover, who turns out to be Buck Winston, now the husband of the Countess de Lave (Mary Boland) and a successful radio star. Little Mary overhears the conversation before being shooed away by Crystal, who, unsurprisingly, has no time or patience for the child. Sylvia figures out with whom Crystal has been speaking and having an affair. Still an unrelenting gossip, Sylvia tucks this information away for later use. Mary hosts a dinner for her Reno friends to celebrate the two-year anniversary of the Countess and Buck, after which the Countess, Miriam, and Peggy go to a party and urge Mary to come along. Mary decides to stay home. She chats with Little Mary, who inadvertently reveals how unhappy Stephen is and mentions Crystal's "lovey dovey" talk with Buck on the telephone. This news changes Mary's mind about the party. She gets dressed up, intent on fighting to get her ex back: "I've had two years to grow claws, Mother -- Jungle Red!"

Women moviesAt the party, Mary manages to worm the details of the affair out of Sylvia, then makes sure that a gossip columnist (played by a real-life one, Hedda Hopper) is alerted to it. Mary tells the Countess that her husband Buck has been having an affair with Crystal, then informs Crystal that everyone knows what she's been doing. Crystal doesn't care and tells Mary she can have Stephen back, since she'll now have Buck to support her. The Countess reveals that she has been funding Buck's radio career and that with Crystal he will be penniless and out of a job. Crystal resigns herself to the fact that she'll be heading to Reno herself and then back to the perfume counter, adding: "And by the way, there's a name for you ladies, but it isn't used in high society -- outside of a kennel."

Mary, triumphant, heads out the door and up the stairs to win back Stephen, who is waiting for her.

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