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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War Nurse (1930)

Hell’s Angels

I watch a lot of obscure movies, films which 99.9% of people will never watch. It’s like discovering a world that only I know about. Occasionally I will come across a hidden gem which I absolutely love usually because it meets my personal preferences. But then there are movies like War Nurse in which I’m in disbelief that a movie of such quality on many levels could fall tough the cracks of obscurity.

War Nurse follows a group of women who volunteer for nursing duties in France at the outbreak of the First World War. The film is a perfect companion piece to All Quiet on the Western Front, released the same year. Similar to how the young army recruits in All Quiet… have a distorted, glamorised view of what war will be like, so do the nurses at the beginning of War Nurse  (some of them are barely into adulthood) expecting to be “holding hands all night with good looking sick officers” and to spend “Moonlight nights up on no man’s land, with a general in each arm”. Little do they expect the extremely strenuous work, horrendous conditions, the lack of supplies and the near insanity caused by the constant firing of shells.

One scene in which the nurses retreat to bed for the night only to be woken up shortly afterward by the arrival of injured troops during the middle of the night, I can feel just how tired and physically exhausted these people must be. War Nurse is full of powerful moments both big and subtle such as when a soldier played Robert Montgomery asks a nurse played by Anita Page out on a date, literally seconds after she told him one of his close comrades just died; death is that common of an occurrence

The copy of War Nurse I watched was not of the greatest of quality so I couldn’t always distinguish the cast members apart. Yet I was still fully engaged and can say the production values are superb. I don’t have any information on the filmmaking locations for War Nurse but the exteriors feature lush countryside backdrops to large-scale recreations of baron no man’s land with shells constantly exploding.

Get this baby onto the Warner Achieve Collection!

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

It’s a Scene Right Down on Sunset Boulevard

Despite Louis B. Mayer’s comments to Billy Wilder that “You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you!” – I feel Sunset Boulevard enhanced the Hollywood mythos. Who knows what Norma Desmonds may have existed; crazed celebrity lunatics living in their run-down ghostly mansions in the Hollywood area, not just back then but in the decades which have followed. However, the film also makes you feel sentimental for the silent era, that something really was lost when Hollywood made the transition to sound.

Gloria Swanson’s role as Norma Desmond is my favourite female performance of all time. Overblown, over the top, flamboyant, fantastic! A performance which could have been unintentionally comical (ala John Barrymore’s Oscar Jaffe) but her insanity can be taken completely seriously; same goes for her butler Maxilillian played by Erich von Stroheim. In many ways she is that character, as Gloria Swanson has even said so herself; just looks at her reactions to watching her own pictures. Desmond is a character whose relevance for the modern world has not been lost, in an age when people are obsessed with celebrity, youth, and beauty more than ever. Likewise, Cecil B. deMille’s performance feels entirely genuine, as if two old friends have just met for the first time in years.

I also find the dynamic shared between William Holden and Gloria Swanson to be of fascination; an older woman seducing a much younger man who eventually gives into her when in classic Hollywood films it was often the other way around. It’s clear from their actions as the film progresses the two characters are likely sleeping with each other, such as Joe happily flaunting his shirtless body in front of Norma by the poolside and she even starts drying him with a towel; there is a bit of Mrs. Robinson to her.

Sunset Boulevard is possibly the most quotable film of its genre, although none its lines have become as famous in the pop culture lexicon as a film like say Casablanca, in which everyone knows its famous quotes whether or not they’ve seen the film or are even interested in classic cinema. Yet among circles of classic Hollywood fans, Sunset Boulevard is one of the most widely quoted films in discussions. Joe Gillis (William Holden) narrates the film despite his character being dead but it still works in an otherworldly way, like he’s narrating from the afterlife. Holden holds an ideal narration voice to showcase Billy Wilder’s ability to turn exposition into poetry. Likewise, Buster Keaton’s appearance may be my favourite celebrity film cameo ever; there’s something about his reaction when playing poker (“pass!”).

For as cynical a film as Sunset Boulevard is, ultimately it is a movie for movie lovers. Particularly the scene in which Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson) tells Joe Gillis of how there is no shame working behind the camera while walking through the empty back stages of Paramount Studios at night as she tells him about her childhood spending time on studio back lots, is very life-affirming. It’s such a beautiful and romantic scene; it’s easy why these two were paired in several films together. Olson’s character is the opposite of Norma Desmond, humble and down to Earth, not concerned with her looks or fame and fortune; and unlike Norma she can actually write movie scripts.

Say goodbye to Hollywood, say goodbye my baby.

The Barbarian (1933)

Complete and Utter Bonkers

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Barbarian has to be seen to be believed. That’s if you’re able to believe this unbelievably ridiculous plot. Ramon Navarro’s Jamil is the textbook definition of a creep and why the characters in the movie take as long as they do to realise this is beyond me. Throughout much of the film, he treats the Myrna Loy’s Diana like dirt. He kidnaps her, drags her into the desert, has her whipped by another man so he can pretend to save her and on top of that, or at least what’s implied, he rapes her. Throughout The Barbarian I was thinking there’s no way these two are getting together at the end of the film but with only five minutes run time left to go, Diana ditches her nice loving fiancé for the man who earlier in the film kidnapped her and made her life a living hell. Why?! Stockholm syndrome, abused wife syndrome, girls just love a bad boy syndrome?

The final scene of the movie shows the two in a loving embrace on a barge under the moonlight, implying that his ending is supposed to be happy. Uh no, this is dark and disturbing. This woman is with a man who is the most morally dubious character being presented as the hero of the story I’ve ever seen. Is it supposed to be ironic or just horribly misguided? The Barbarian, however, is a rare instance of a movie which I feel kind of bad for having enjoyed, like I have to have the TV facing the wall in the corner of a room with the volume lowered, not letting anyone knowing I’m watching such a thing; or at least that was the case until I decided to post a review on the internet.

So what makes this movie enjoyable? For starters, there is the unmitigated joy that comes from watching politically incorrect pre-code movies. I’ve seen some crazy pre-code films but this just takes the cake.  It’s like a train wreck, it’s so shocking but you can’t look away. Moments of The Barbarian are shocking, other times it’s unintentionally funny, yet despite this bizarre mishmash, the film works. It’s engaging and there’s tension throughout, the sets and locations are superb, feeling like a tourist brochure at its exotic interiors and landscapes and there’s Myrna Loy’s bathtub scene, a moment of astounding risqué beauty and one of the sexiest scenes in all of cinema. Loy actually shows a lot of skin throughout the film in a range of skimpy attire. This is also the only movie I’ve seen to date which shows that the Pyramids of Giza are right beside the city of Cairo and not in the middle of nowhere – Who knew! Watch and observe The Barbarian in all its unbelievable pre-code glory.