The Women (1939)

The tagline for the 1939 comedy The Women is “It’s all about men!” This is a blatant lie. The Women was initially written as a stage play based on gossip overheard in a nightclub powder room. Including the playwright and the film’s two credited screenwriters (Clare Boothe Luce, Anita Loos, and Jane Murfin), that makes three women behind its script, which is a remarkable feat for a Studio Era feature. What makes The Women even more remarkable is its enormous all-female cast. Men are never seen nor heard in the picture, a casting choice that even applies to the women’s yipping lapdogs. The joke in that “It’s all about men!” tagline, then, is that when these (uniformly white, wealthy) women are alone together, all they discuss is the men in their lives. I suppose that’s technically true in a broad sense. It is odd that it could be questioned if this all woman-starring feature would pass the Bechdel Test. That doesn’t meant the film is about men at all, though. The off-screen men referenced constantly in The Women‘s dialogue as husbands, ex-husbands, and secret lovers aren’t functioning in their corresponding women’s lives as conquests of romance, but rather as bargaining chips. They’re pawns, foot soldiers, personality-free tokens that represent wealth & power, but not much more. The Women is better understood not as a romantic comedy, but as a social circle war film where its female cast of characters gun each other down with rapid-fire barbs & insults. Divorces & marriages are like battles temporarily won; the men are territories claimed. Nothing matters as much as the women calling the shots in the war room, though, which in this case happens to be an upscale health salon.

Norma Shearer stars as a wealthy mother whose husband is becoming increasingly absent as he spirals further into an extramarital affair. She had previously held illusions that their marriage was a modernist arrangement of equal partnership. Her mother suggests, coldly, that she remain married and keep her feelings about the affair to herself, suggesting an age old tradition in their social sect. It turns out many wives treat their husbands this way, allowing for secretive betrayal as long as they can publicly keep the wealth & social status. Others march through a long line of divorces & affairs to match their needs as they shift through time. Our protagonist has two enemies in her fight to retain her dignity in her decision to remain in a loveless, compromised marriage. The obvious enemy is the husband’s mistress, played by a devilishly callous Joan Crawford, who is nakedly exploiting the man’s lust to improve her drab life as a futureless counter girl at the social circle’s central meeting place: the salon. The less obvious enemy is one of her closest friends, played by the deliciously wicked Rosalind Russel, who deliberately stirs shit among her peers out of pure, idle boredom. She specifically sends Shearer’s character to the salon to hear the gossip of the affair from a chatty manicurist instead of telling her directly or letting her be. She herself also gossips behind her friend’s back for sport and, worse yet, joins forces with the mistress against her as soon as it’s personally beneficial. This picture is soaked to the bone in gossip, so it likely won’t win over anyone disinterested in overtly catty power plays, but watching Shearer’s dignified defiance openly clash with Crawford & Russell’s gleeful cruelty is intoxicating fun for those onboard. The film is frank & darkly humorous in its discussions of adultery & marriage, an impressive honesty for its 1930s cultural climate.

The pacing & dialogue saturation in this film is immediately overwhelming, opening with some of the most rapid-fire wordplay this side of a cattle auction. What’s truly impressive amidst that dialogue, though, is how much Rosalind Russel is able to outshine Joan Crawford as the film’s central heel, despite not playing the romantic rival. Drag queens looking for tips on how to construct #iconiclooks & #classicreads are advised to bring a notebook and keep their eyes locked on Russell, who eats up the screen no matter how many hundreds of women she’s asked to share it with. Crawford’s part is relatively small by comparison, especially given its impact on the plot. You could easily cut yourself on her eyebrows or put out an eye on her shoulder pads, but most of the damage laid in her warpath is dwarfed by Russell’s larger than life Gossip Queen persona. I will say, however, that Crawford is afforded the single best line in the film, when she complains to her coworkers at the salon, “Can you believe him? He almost stood me up for his wife!” Her coldly calculating efforts to gain power as a rich man’s mistress is an early sign of the shockingly modern-feeling territory the film eventually explores for laughs. There’s a 1950s musical remake of The Women titled The Opposite Sex that I gather isn’t nearly as daring or as subversive as the version that came before it. in the remake, men share the screen and generate in-the-moment romantic conflict with the women at the helm. In The Women, any argument held between a married couple isn’t heard directly by the audience, but rather filtered through gossip in later retellings & traded like currency. There’s a real subversion to that kind of one-sided perspective, especially for its time. As a great as Norma Shearer is as the film’s lead, it’s Russell & Crawford’s gleeful indulgence in that subversion as a deliberate tactic of social war that really makes it feel special. I imagine that’s all lost in the neutered-looking musical.

It’s worth noting that not all of The Women‘s strengths begin & end with its deviously witty dialogue. The film also impresses as a grand visual spectacle, an expensive-looking feat of Studio Era craft. The salon setting that stages most of the film’s social battles is a cavernous compound complete with mud baths, gyms, ballet studios, perfume counters, and a central foyer decked out with massive landscape murals & a modern art fountain in the shape of a woman’s hand. It’s staggering. The camerawork often matches the majesty of the production design. In one pivotal scene, Norma Shearer is confronted with a shocking detail of the gossip surrounding the affair in front of a mirror that reflects three images of Rosalind Russll (a dream, that); stunned, she walks away in a daze directly towards the audience in a momentum-heavy tracking shot while the world around her slips away. I’d also be foolish not to highlight the film’s The Red Shoes style centerpiece that breaks up its black & white cinematography for a single sequence filmed in Technicolor. Described in-film as “an adventurous voyage into Fashionland,” the Technicolor sequence is a narrative-free fashion show that pushes the film just over the edge from sharply-written comedy to aggressively feminine high art. There are plenty of other visual achievements to drool over. I’m especially in love with the set design of a scene where Joan Crawford smokes & chats on the phone in a see-through bathtub, complete with its own set of drapes. There’s just something about the Technicolor fashion show fantasy that elevates every scene around it by proxy. My only complaint about the entire movie, really, is that I had to leave the fantasy of that sequence. My reality felt comparatively drab after that.

The opening credits of The Women pairs each of its main players with their animal kingdom equivalent, suggesting a world of predators & prey: a deer, a lamb, a leopard, a fox, etc. I didn’t see the film’s conflicts as an extension of animalistic nature, however. Rather, the carefully planned, deceptively complex attacks of gossip & romantic maneuvering in The Women feel more like strategic war games & game theory to me. To say this film is “all about men!” was drastic misunderstanding of its basic rhythms by the film’s marketing. I’m honestly not sure I’ve seen many films less about men in my entire life (although Sofia Coppola’s recent The Beguiled remake does come to mind). I’d love to see any other film on that same intensely feminine wavelength, whether from the 1930s or just last month. There’s certainly enough immersive dives into masculinity out there to require a counterbalance.

-Brandon Ledet

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One thought on “The Women (1939)

  1. Pingback: Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 33: Singin’ in the Rain (1952) | Swampflix

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