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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A Majority of One (1961)

Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages

Should an actors’ race limit the roles they can portray on the basis that they are not of that race? Isn’t this essentially a racist argument and an ethno-nationalist one at that? To state that a white actor playing a non-white character is offensive is then one is stating they are offended on the basis of race – this is racist. To state a white actor playing a non-white character is offensive to a culture is to say that culture is tied to race. – This is essentially the argument the alt-right makes. If culture is what matters and race is irrelevant then an actor playing a character of another race should also be irrelevant. There is also the double standard at play in which for a non-white actor to be cast in a role or as a character originally conceived as white it will be viewed as forward-thinking and progressive; for a white actor to be cast in a non-white role then it is considered racist? The only question that should matter is does an actor of one race convincingly play a character of another race? I could write a whole article on this but as I’ve addressed the crux of the matter, let’s talk about A Majority of One.

I’ve never seen another love story like A Majority of One. A story of two elderly individuals who are worlds apart having to overcome their prejudice, as well as being one of the few films in existence about love at old age. These imperfect and flawed characters feel so real and human and while two and a half hours may seem overlong, I believe this time is justified. – I wish more films could have the level of honest storytelling on display here.

Many reviewers can’t buy into Alec Guinness in the role of Japanese businessman Mr. Koichi Asano, but not this viewer – I thought Guinness was marvelous. His character is flawed, he’s not the stereotypical wise old Asian man who is full of otherworldly knowledge which he easily could have been; he makes mistakes and doesn’t have the answers to everything. Unlike many Asian characters in Hollywood films before, he doesn’t talk in broken English or exhibit any other commonly seen Asian stereotypes. Compared to Japanese stereotypes seen in World War II propaganda films 20 years earlier, A Majority of One was certainly a sign of progress.

Rosalind Russell plays a potentially unlikable bigoted character as Bertha Jacoby but she manages to make the role endearing with her lovable nature and witty comebacks. I didn’t see her character as an exaggerated stereotype. I’ve seen far more exaggerated representations of Jews in other films (do I even need to list examples?). Her character has led an ingrown life in Brooklyn, however, the movie shows the younger generation of her daughter and son in law holding more progressive views and are less conservative than their elders, and more argumentative at that. The film also has the greatness that is Eddie (Marc Marno). A whiny little brat but in a funny way who is comically Japanese but not in a disrespectful way, such as when he insists on watching sumo wrestling in the middle of a family crisis. – I love this guy.

A Majority of One highlights westernised trends in Japan such as Alec Guinness wearing a western flat cap to the popularity of American music and Hollywood movies (and Robert Taylor in particular) in Japan, while still acknowledging the anti American sentiment which exists in Japan (“Many people in my country hate the Americans unreasonably because of the war”). This scene in which Asano attempts to bond with Jacoby after their awkward first encounter shows the lack of logic in hating a country based on the actions of its government. Jacoby tells Asano that her son died in battle “All because you [Japan] and Mr. Hitler wanted to rule the world” and Asano responds “My wife and I did not so wish Mrs. Jacoby…what most of us wished for was a happy and peaceful existence”. – The government is not the people.

Fours a Crowd (1938)

Release the Hounds!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland and Rosalind Russell in a screwball comedy? These are the kinds of cast ensembles which unleash the inner fanboy in me. Errol Flynn rarely got the chance in his career to perform comedy and here he proves he was cable of doing Cary Grant-esque comedy on the same level as well, Cary Grant. Sadly Four’s a Crowd’s lack of box office success prevented Warner Bros from putting him in more comedies

Although The Women is seen as the film which launched Rosalind Russell as a fast-talking comedic actress, Four’s a Crowd is the first film in which she plays such a character and her first turn as the working career woman (or “newspaper man” as she refers to herself here) which became synonymous with shades of Hildy Johnson coming through. She takes full advantage of the role, stealing the show with her impeccable timing which reportedly made Olivia de Havilland envious. De Havilland though is tasked with playing a dim-witted character which she performs without coming off as annoying as such characters can easily be.

Four’s a Crowd owes a certain debt to Libeled Lady featuring some similar plot trends and themes with its slam on the upper classes, the socialite lifestyle and the desperate lengths newspapers will go to in order to get a story and control the narrative. Even the opening title sequence is taken from Libeled Lady in which the cast do the same arm in arm walk but is full of moments of inspired zaniness to distinguish itself. The model train sequence which lasts for 16 minutes had to have come from creative minds; plus what’s funnier in an innocent, cute kind of way than grown men playing with model trains. However, there is one moment in Fours a Crowd which is one of the most bizarre gags I’ve ever seen in a film in which after escaping from a pack of guard dogs to the other side of a gate, he grabs one of the dog’s legs and bites it. I still don’t know how to react to it, whether I should laugh or be horrified or both! The plot gets very confusing very fast but in a good way culminating in a finale in which Errol gets the wrong girl at the end! Although the manner in which this happens is screwball antics at its finest.

Evelyn Prentice (1934)

The Thin Woman

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Movies like Evelyn Prentice give me one of the greatest satisfactions I get from watching films; discovering an obscurity from an actor’s filmography which I end up considering to be one of their finest films. Myrna Loy superbly carries Evelyn Prentice, dominating the majority of the screen time, with William Powell delivering one of his finest dramatic turns while seeing Rosalind Russell in her screen debut is just a mere bonus. Russell doesn’t have a whole lot to do but she still comes off as a memorable screen presence despite this, although it is a little odd hearing her speak in an English accent and not at a machine gun rate. Loy and Una Merkel make for a fun duo, with Merkel having a very memorable comic sounding voice. Just the deco of Evelyn Prentice itself makes me love this film more, whether it’s a smoke-filled nightclub, the lavish interior of Powell and Loy’s home to even the clothes worn in the film (the costume department really knocks this one out of the park), sucking me into the world of the 1930’s.

Scenes such as the family exercising or the father and daughter playing the piano together help humanize them, making me more fearful that a character played by the sweetheart Myrna Loy could be going to prison, or maybe get the electric chair! The tension builds as the film progresses. The scene in which a witness arrives at the Prentice household while Evelyn is present to describe the women she witnessed leaving the murder scene, this woman, of course, being Evelyn buy nobody else knows that, feels like the type of moment you would get from a Hitchcock movie. In fact, the entire premise of the movie could be given the Hitchcock treatment.

I often feel like Hollywood makes being a lawyer look like the coolest job ever. Even if John Prentice (William Powell) is missing time from his family, his turn during the film’s courtroom climax makes the profession look like a constant flow of hair-raising excitement. The film’s final twenty-minute courtroom sequence had my heart pounding, eating up every minute of its melodramatic glory while screaming in anticipation of how the characters are going to get themselves out of this situation.  At the same time, however, I was tense that the movie would pull the characters out of their intense dilemma in a contrived manner, I’m pleased to say I was not disappointed. The outcome of the case is movie fantasy but it didn’t feel like a cop-out. Throughout this sequence, Powell and Loy do some of the finest acting work of their careers. Myrna Loy is generally not highly regarded as a dramatic actress but I would defy anyone says otherwise as she lays on the tears and the passionate pleas. I must also give credit to Judith Wilson, whole also left an impression during these proceedings. As a fan of Powell & Loy partnership and courtroom dramas, their third film together satisfied more than I could ask for. Manhattan Melodrama, The Thin Man and Evelyn Prentice all in one year, ain’t too stingy.

Auntie Mame (1958)

Live! Live! Live!

It’s hard for me not to be complete enamoured by a movie and a character like Auntie Mame. Two and half hours of zany histrionics with a central character who is a free-thinking, non-conformist and constantly has a joyous, optimistic outlook on life; oh, and did I mention she is a total screwball. Few other fictional characters seem to lead such an exciting life that I as the viewer am actually is jealous off (“Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are just starving to death!”). If I ever amass a huge fortune then perhaps I can try to emulate the lifestyle of Mame. Ok even with a huge fortune that probably wouldn’t be possible in this mundane realm that is reality but I can at least try.

Auntie Mame is one of the most liberal movies to come out of the 1950’s. Mame’s carefree, flamboyant, free thinking and non-conformist lifestyle clashes with a decade which is thought of as being the most conformist of the 20th century. It should come as no surprise this movie has a huge gay following as the title character is essentially a drag queen. At the beginning of the movie, we see Mame throwing a party full of bohemians, intellectuals and champagne socialists (“Karl Marx, is he one of the Marx Brothers?”), essentially the predecessors to the modern day hipster. During the first 50 minutes of Auntie Mame the liberals are the ones having fun while the stuffy, puritan conservative Mr Babbock is being driven mad by Mame’s antics and instance that her nephew be sent to a be sent to a progressive school over a conservative prep school, a school with ancient Greek principles, has no uniforms and as the movies implies, teaches sex education in a very odd manner.

However, Auntie Mame isn’t a total demonisation of conservatives. In the middle portion of the movie she does end up getting married to a southern gentleman and an oil tycoon of whom lives on a plantation and goes fox hunting, which does show you that love can overcome ideology. Likewise, when Mame returns to her apartment after the death of her husband, the next few incarnations of her constantly redesigned apartment as well as her outfits are not as camp, possibly suggesting her husband’s influence on her. Well at least until the second last incarnation of her apartment which is very avant-garde.

With the movie’s references to sex and homosexuality among other things, Auntie Mame falls into the category of “how did they get away with that?”. Yet as liberal as the movie is for its time (and in many respects still is), the liberal of today is the conservative of tomorrow. Some of Mame’s actions wouldn’t rub with the modern left such as her desire to settle down with a man and her motherly instincts.

The Kaleidoscope opening credits set the stage for a film which is a feast for the eyes and ears. They really put effort into these early widescreen era title sequences in one of many attempts for a film to compete against television. Likewise, Mame’s lavish apartment is a masterpiece of set design as it evolves throughout the movie, with each incarnation being as impressive as the last. The movie doesn’t lose its stage roots which each act ending with the dimming of the lights with the spotlight on Mame before completely going to dark.

I am a huge Rosalind Russell fan and I know it’s a cliché expression but it usage couldn’t be any more adept here: this is the role she was born to play! How is it possible of a human being to talk at such a voracious rate? I do wonder how long the script for Auntie Mame must have been. There are probably more words in this movie than the Encyclopedia Britannica. Whenever there is a moment free of any dialogue I have little think to myself, “Oh yes, silence, I forgot what that feels like”.  When Roz’s motor mouth isn’t running, she’s pulling at my heartstrings; there are times when I wish I could just go into the screen and hug her. I can’t stress enough my love for the actress, the performance and the fictional character. Auntie Mame is an encapsulation of pure unmitigated joy. When I’m feeling down, I know what movie I’ll be turning to.