The Women (1939)


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The Women (1939) Review

Although one could have fun imagining a film in which Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford are simply tossed into a tiger cage and fight to the death, the 1939 film The Women will do just fine in its stead. Adapted from the hit stage play by Clare Booth Luce, it's a gabby, urbane comedy that takes a (for its time, especially) steadfast look at adultery, divorce, and why men court idiocy with such abandon. It also takes its title quite seriously, with not a single male appearing onscreen.

The film is powered by a can't-miss trio of top-line actresses, all playing to their strengths. Norma Shearer is the gentle and naïve Mary Haines, whose husband Stephen has been stepping out on her with Crystal Allen (Crawford, at 35 maybe a little long in the tooth to play a perfume counter girl, but you try telling her that...), a fact that is known to everybody in New York save Mary due to the gossipy efforts of Sylvia Fowler (Russell, firing on all bitchy cylinders). It's a slow build-up to Mary's discovery of the truth, with an intricate elaboration of the social circle she runs in and the backstabbing that it's rife with - her purported friends making absolutely sure that not only does she find out the awful truth, but that they're there to witness her reaction.

Marking The Women as more than a battle-of-the-sexes comedy is the care with which Mary finally decides she can't live with the betrayal any longer. Instead of immediately shunting Stephen and leaving with their daughter (Virginia Weidland, just precocious enough), Mary finds every single excuse not to leave her marriage: He's just having a fling, it's all a big misunderstanding, he truly loves me and could never marry that awful Crystal, and so on. But with Crystal an obviously formidable opponent - even lathered up in a bubble bath and eating bon-bons, the icy rage and gold digger's sense of entitlement just palpates off Crawford - Mary is finally forced to do what women in her situation at the time did: Hop the train for Reno and a divorce.

Once in Nevada, the film takes a sharp and welcome turn towards slapstick, with New York divorcees bottled up in some sort of dude ranch/motel, many quickly turning on the other. The verbal assaults that before had been cool and deft (Crystal responding to Mary's weak jibe about Stephen not liking the outfit she's wearing: "Whenever anything I wear doesn't please Stephen, I take it off") now come fast and furious, everyone working themselves up for a big showdown back in Manhattan.

Director George Cukor evinces a smart touch from the beginning, with a credits sequence that prefaces the appearance of each actresses' close-up with a shot of an animal: Shearer as a fawn, Crawford as tiger, and so on. Though making a film so concerned with the cruelty that women do to each other, and thick with zinging putdowns (the first shot is of two women's dogs fighting outside a Park Avenue salon) - not to mention some seriously attitudes towards marriage and the incompatibility of women's inability to be in love and keep a sense of pride - Cukor somehow avoids turning it into a sexist catfight and gives the proceedings a rather surprising sheen of dignity. This is helped along by the complete absence of men, who come off in the abstract as a rather pathetic species who simply have to be saved from their simple, easily confused natures. And every time The Women threatens to drag, there's always Russell and Crawford, towering over the cast with their cold stares and queenly hauteur, reminding us what being an A-list actress once meant.

Yep, women.