The Women (1939)
Comedy, black and white, 131 minutes, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Directed by George Cukor
Produced by Hunt Stromberg
Screenplay, from the play by Clare Boothe, by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin,
with uncredited assistance from F. Scott Fitzgerald and Donald Ogden Stewart.
Norma Shearer . . . Mrs. Stephen Haines (Mary)
Joan Crawford . . . . Crystal Allen
Rosalind Russell . . Mrs. Howard Fowler (Sylvia)
Paulette Goddard . . Miriam Aarons
Marjorie Main . . . . Lucy
Joan Fontaine . . . . Mrs. John Day (Peggy)
Mary Boland . . . . . The Countess de Lave (Flora)
Virginia Weidler . . Little Mary
Phyllis Povah . . . . Mrs. Phelps Potter (Edith)
Lucile Watson . . . . Mrs. Moorhead
In 1938, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought the rights to Clare Boothe's long-running play The Women. The studio assembled a completely female cast for the production - not a single male throughout the entire movie. Even the the animals used in the film, and the works of art depicted, are female.
Clare Boothe was ideally suited to write a play about gossipy, bitchy society women. She knew the territory, having been a member of New York society, and managing editor of Vanity Fair magazine. Miss Boothe later married Henry Luce, the power behind Time and Life magazines. She became the United States' first female ambassador when President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed her Ambassador to Italy in 1952. Ten years later, through her own surveillance efforts, she alerted the American government to the presence of missiles in Cuba.
PLOT SYNOPSIS (warning: spoilers!)
The Women's opening credits give a clue to the general tone of the movie. Each of the principal actresses is introduced, with first a shot of an animal, which cuts to the actress herself. In sequence, it's Norma Shearer (a doe); Joan Crawford (a tiger); Rosalind Russell (a black cat); Paulette Goddard (a fox); Marjorie Main (a mule); and Joan Fontaine (a lamb).
The story opens at a posh Fifth Avenue salon. A manicurist, Olga, tells Sylvia Fowler, the sad story of how Mrs. Stephen Haines' husband is straying with a shopgirl she knows:
OLGA: Crystal Allen. This Crystal Allen, she's a friend of mine. She's really a terrible man-trap.
One day Stephen came into the shop where they both worked, Olga says, to buy some perfume. He’s a handsome man, and Crystal goes for him right away. After a product demonstration, he's hooked.
The story spreads to Mary's closest friends, until one day she's receiving a manicure from Olga. As before, Olga starts gossiping, asking Mary if she's heard about poor Mrs. Stephen Haines. Before Mary can reply, Olga tells her the whole story. Too late Olga finds out to whom she's talking. Mary asks her to stop telling the story - and don't tell her friends that she knows.
Back at her home, Mary's mother, Mrs. Moorhead, arrives and she, too, has been manicured by Olga. Mary is shocked to learn her own mother has been through this sort of thing herself. Mrs. Moorhead advises Mary to just move on, that the affair will blow over since Stephen really loves Mary. However, Mary is a modern woman, not chattel, and refuses to just go quietly.
One day, at the same salon, Mary attends a fashion show. (At this point, the movie switches to Technicolor for the fashion show sequence. It returns to black-and-white at the show's end). After the show, Mary learns that Crystal is also at the show, and enters her dressing room to get a look at her. Words are exchanged, and Mary storms out of Crystal's dressing room, stopping at the door for a last barb:
MARY: May I suggest if you're dressing to please Stephen, not that one. He doesn't like anything so obvious.
CRYSTAL: Thanks for the tip. But when anything I wear doesn't please Stephen, I take it off!
Mary returns home and has off-screen blowups with Stephen. They both decide that they can't go on, and ending the marriage is the only answer, for the good of their daughter Little Mary.
The action changes to Mary on board a train for Reno (in those days, a quick divorce could be had by establishing residency in Reno). While on the train, she meets the Countess de Lave, a fluttery matron. The Countess is divorcing her fourth husband and sighs constantly about "l'amour, l'amour". They invite Miriam Aarons, another would-be divorcee, to join them for a drink. The women, bonded by their common goal, form a quick friendship.
Arriving at Reno, they settle in at a boarding ranch run by Lucy, an old hand at dealing with divorcees. They're joined by Mary’s friend Peggy, a waifish woman who doesn't quite know why she's there. Mary, meanwhile, passes each day hoping to hear from her husband, while the Countess begins to get friendly with Lucy's ranch hand, Buck Winston.
Things liven up at the ranch when Sylvia arrives, having been thrown over by Howard for an unknown woman. It's soon revealed, though, that the unknown woman is Miriam and a real catfight ensues. The next day, Mary's divorce becomes final and she prepares to leave. Miriam advises her to forget about the divorce and call Stephen, since he probably didn't really want the divorce. Just as Mary's about to call, the phone rings. It's Stephen, calling to wish her well and tell her that he's married Crystal. Mary dissolves in tears.
Back in New York, some time has passed. We learn that Stephen is growing tired of Crystal, and that she has a new boyfriend. A visit from her only friend, Sylvia, reveals that the boyfriend is none other than former ranchhand Buck Winston. Later, Mary, the Countess, Miriam, and Peggy gather for a "reunion" of sorts. The women are off to a party, and Mary declines to go. She prepares for bed and has a chat with Little Mary, who tells her what she knows about Crystal's latest escapades.
Suddenly, Mary gets an idea. She changes her mind, dresses, and goes to the party, now ready to fight for her husband using the tactics that have been used against her. In just a few hilarious scenes, she turns Sylvia against Crystal, and makes sure the Countess (who's been bankrolling Buck's radio career) knows whom Buck's taken up with. Crystal, thinking she's ending up on top anyway, tells Mary she can have her husband back. The glee is short-lived, though, when the Countess blurts out that Buck has no money and no career anymore. Crystal, realizing her defeat, starts to leave the room, but not before delivering a parting shot:
CRYSTAL: Well, girls, I guess it's back to the perfume counter for me. And by the way - there's a name for you ladies, but it isn't used in high society ... outside of a kennel. So long, ladies!
The movie ends with Mary, happy again, running to retrieve her husband.
The Women was remade in 1956 as The Opposite Sex. This version was built around a musical motif and included males in the cast.
The Internet Movie Database
.<http://www.imdb.com>. (26 January 2003).
personal viewing of the film