The Women was not my first choice for this edition of Classic Movie of the Week, but after the wrist slashing / bottle o’ pills swallowing pathos of last week’s entry... I figured “geez, lighten up Nathaniel” So instead I’ve opted for a gem from what many consider to be the pinnacle year of Hollywood, 1939. That was the year that brought us Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Ninotchka and at least a dozen other extremely beloved films. Also strutting around in theaters that year was this bitchy but endearing comedy/melodrama mix. The film's impressive line up was headlined by Norma Shearer as Mrs Stephen Haines. She was orbited by stars of similar (or then just-lesser) stature: Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, Paulette Godard, and Joan Fontaine among them. Even with the mega-wattage and box office pull delivered onscreen the film bore the sexist and reductive tagline: “It’s all about men!”
Not that it isn't about men, I must quickly add. Or at least women's ideas about the men in their lives. The film's drama and comedy comes from the way women fight over men, adore men, adjust themselves for men, connect themselves to men, and sabotage each other. What? You thought with Russell and Crawford in the mix that this wouldn't be catty? The film is often so feline that I remain surprised that director George Cukor opts to open on dogs barking rather than cats fighting as the first reel unspools. For those hoping for enlightened gender roles, this is not the film. Alas, not all the ideas promoted in the film about the way marriages crumble or survive are so dusty. Though bits of it may have aged unflatteringly, the movie has a sharp wit [why are 30s and 40s movies so funny and today's comedies so strained?] and though it's often cacophonous with the sounds of children, pets, and gossiping groups, a good sense of balance. Cukor knows when to shut off the noise and allow Norma Shearer's strong and dignified performance to hold the chaotic processions together. Improbably, she even seems like an admirable pillar of feminine strength when she's learning to get catty. "Jungle Red!"
Despite regular Oscar love for 'The First Lady of MGM' (Norma Shearer had 5 Oscar nominations and 1 win behind her when this film premiered) AMPAS voters dismissed The Women with nary a nomination. Not even for the celebrated stars empathetic turn as the wronged housewife. Perhaps it was too fluffy? Nevertheless it remains a jolly good, surprisingly serious time at the movies. Whether you're after a witty comedy, old Hollywood eye-candy, or memorable performances, the film delivers. The jokes are funny, the sets and parade of outfits are glamourous or amusingly outre (you have to see Rosalind Russell's "eye" dress to believe it), and the gaggle of movie stars are a collective hoot.
Hollywood, always seemingly bereft of new ideas, have been planning a remake forever. The latest attempt has Diane English (TV’s Murphy Brown) at the helm and is currently set to star Annette Bening, Meg Ryan, Uma Thurman, Sandra Bullock, and Ashley Judd. But we’ve been here before with other gltizy line-ups. I’ll believe it when filming commences. With enough lawyers, agent, and star cooperation they may eventually be able to arrive at a start date and produce a film that matches the glamourous star wattage from the 1930s. But they’ll be hard pressed to match the fun of the original film itself.
Read more about The Women?
Norma Shearer: First Lady of MGM
Jon Danzinger Review (funny bit on the film as 'millinery porn')
The Best of Everything: A Joan Crawford Encyclopedia