Program Notes: The Women (1939)
No good parts for women?
Not in 1939. That was the year director George Cukor gave us The Women, an alternately satiric and heartstring-tugging comedy featuring an all-female cast. (No man is seen on screen...not even depicted in a photo hanging on the wall.)
Our heroine is well-to-do Mary Haines (Norma Shearer), who learns from a gossiping beautician that her husband has been gallivanting with a slutty perfume counter girl (Joan Crawford). As if that wasn’t upsetting enough, the catty rumor monger Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell) is having a field day spreading the news of Mary’s dilemma through the Park Avenue grapevine.
That’s the basic setup, but the film has an endless supply of subplots and supporting characters. Among the actresses you’ll see here are Mary Boland, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, Marjorie Main, Virginia Grey, Ruth Hussey, and Hedda Hopper (who was an actress before becoming one of Hollywood’s most powerful gossip columnists).
The film was based on the hit Broadway play by Clare Boothe Luce, who in addition to being an accomplished woman of letters was the wife of the powerful Henry Luce, publisher of Time, Life and Fortune magazines. Later she would be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Connecticut and would become a U.S. ambassador.
Luce was a notorious wit whose axioms have entered our common language: “Widowhood is a fringe benefit of marriage.” “A hospital is not the place to be sick.” “No good deed goes unpunished.”
Naturally, her women characters share their creator’s talent for bon mots. As one character in The Women says of her husband: “I wouldn’t trust him on Alcatraz.”
Shearer was one of America’s most popular actresses throughout the 1930s. She was often referred to as the Queen of MGM, a label that referred not only to her box office clout and her regal, tasteful bearing, but also to the fact that she was the wife of the brilliant MGM producer Irving Thalberg, who died in 1936.
Notwithstanding her classy demeanor, Shearer was noteworthy for portraying sexually liberated women (at least until the Production Code in the early ‘30s left Hollywood a more chaste place).
But The Women was her swan song. Though she went on to make more three largely forgettable movies, most critics view this film as the one that brought the curtain down on her career.
Here she plays the noble, suffering wife. Audiences in 1939 loved Shearer in this sort of thing. Today, she takes some getting used to.
Far more immediately enticing to modern sensibilities is Crawford’s tacky gold digger. Crawford hated Shearer but correctly predicted that appearing in The Women would resuscitate her faltering career.
Rosalind Russell, who up to this point had been considered a straight dramatic actress, proved herself a fast-talking comedienne, which is how we remember her today. She handled her sarcastic dialogue with ease.
Behind the camera was George Cukor, a closeted gay man whose affinity for the female point of view made him a hugely effective director of “women’s pictures.” That reputation would come to haunt him a year later when Clark Gable had Cukor removed from Gone With the Wind, ostensibly because Cukor was devoting all his attention to co-star Vivien Leigh.
Despite its verbal dexterity, Clare Boothe Luce’s was a conservative voice, and the “moral” of The Women is that a successful woman makes a home for her husband. Which is curious because her personal life seems to have been replete with affairs with famous men. Go figure.
Curious note: Halfway through The Women comes to an abrupt halt for a 10-minute fashion show. While the rest of the movie is black and white, the fashion show is in glowing Technicolor. Seventy-five years ago audiences were wowed by this...now it just seems bizarre.
Other films in the series “Hollywood’s Greatest Year, 1939: Romance”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- April 5: Love Affair (1939) Not Rated
- April 12: The Women (1939) Not Rated
- April 19: Dark Victory (1939) Not Rated
- April 26: The Old Maid (1939) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.