The Women (1939)

Estrogen: The Movie

The Women is surely one of the greatest celebrations in cinema of femininity and the female form; even the animals featured in the film are all female in this unabashed display of women being women. Unless you’re easily offended by a movie in which the majority of its female cast are vicious gossips then stay away; stereotypes are greatly exaggerated as part of the film’s humour. As Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell) puts it, “You know how those creatures are, babble babble babble babble babble, never let up for a minute”. That’s probably the best way to describe The Women by using one of its own lines of dialogue. Like the other notable female ensemble Stage Door, the dialogue in The Women is delivered so furiously it’s impossible to keep up with it. Watch the movie with subtitles turned on, it’s worth it to find gems of dialogue which can easily be missed (“It’s marvelous to be able to spread out in bed like a swastika”). I can also give the movie a few bonus points being a heterosexual male and all.

The Women explores the tribulations and dilemmas of whether sleeping dogs should lie. After Mrs. Mary ‘Stephan’ Haines (Norma Shearer) discovers her husband is having an affair with Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford) she receives advice from her mother (Lucille Watson) in one of the film’s most telling scenes. Her mother tries to justify Stephan’s infidelity under the guise of that’s what men will do (“A man has only one escape from his older self. To see a different self in the mirror of some woman’s eyes”) and ultimately that Stephan doesn’t actually love Crystal. Mary’s response to this? The classic “It’s current year” argument; “Back in your day mother when women were chattel and they did as men told them to. But this is today. Stephan and I are equals. We took each other at our own free will”. Mary ultimately agrees it’s not worth the destruction of the family to confront Stephan about his infidelity. The married women of The Women have a strong dedication to their husbands yet in this world adultery seems to be the norm rather than the exception, even Mary’s mother tells Mary that most wives do find out about this.

Norma Shearer really was made for the silver screen with a truly dominating movie-star aura. The character of Mary Haines is distinguished for being a bit of a tomboy in contrast to her more glamorous side. In her introductory scene as well as in her vacation reels she is dressed like a man (similar to how Shearer dressed in The Divorcee), poses with a pipe and can apparently fish better than her husband. Likewise, Joan Crawford is delightfully mean in the role of Crystal Allen, particularly with her scene in the bathtub which so ridiculously villainous she could be playing a mafia boss. Crawford’s first screen appearance was in 1925’s Lady of the Night in which she acted as a screen body double for Norma Shearer. Crawford and Shearer since became the two biggest rivals in MGM and The Women would be their second and final appearance on screen together in the closet thing at that point to a Baby Jane showdown, a battle of the egos. I believe you do have to give the Crawford the credit for her willingness to play such a nasty character especially considering she has the least amount of screen time of the three leads. This is a character after all who has no remorse for helping destroy a family and the impact that will have the Haines’ child Little Mary.

The stealer of the show, however, is the great greatness that is Rosalind Russell. She succeeds in being the center of attention in any scene no matter whom she is sharing the frame with thanks to her comedic timing (both verbally and physically) as well as her over the top outfits. Myrna Loy and Greta Garbo, on the other hand, were the only two major actresses at MGM who did not appear in the film. I can picture Myrna Loy in Norma Shear’s role although she would have been too big a star otherwise to play a supporting role. Garbo, on the other hand, is well, too much of an oddball to fit in with an ensemble like this.

The Great Depression? Ha, what depression?! There’s no sign of it here. It feels like there is no other time period than the 1930s in which it was easier to make a movie about rich people and their rich people problems without it coming off as a metaphorical dick waving display of wealth. The Women is one of the most decadent movies of the depression era, maybe even the most. The majority of the cast is dressed like a million dollars, every actress is light like a goddess and inhabiting a world which largely consists of retail stores and beauty salons. There is even time for a Technicolor fashion show which has no relevance for the rest of the plot, but it looks pretty. Lose yourself in this world of wealthy rather than being aghast at how bourgeois they are (“Weren’t you going to Africa to shoot?”). This kind of being made today (which unfortunately it was in the form of a remake) with the likes of the Sex and the City films would come off as a ghastly exercise in consumerist pornography (a term borrowed from Mark Kermode). On a side note also keep an eye out of the postcode sex references they got in there  (“Whatever Stephan doesn’t like I take it off”) while also look out for the topless woman in the mud bath at the beginning of the film not to mention Paulette Goddard’s clear lack of a bra.

With two hours of some of the finest actresses of the 1930’s spewing nonstop machine gun fire dialogue, scenery chewing and competing for the camera’s attention amongst an art deco wonderland, then I’m in movie heaven.

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