My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon: The Women (1939)
When I first heard about the “Favorite Classic Movie” blogathon sponsored by the good folks over at the Classic Film and TV Café, I was tickled pink. My colorful reaction began to fade a bit, though, when I really started thinking about it.
After all, my site is devoted to film noir and pre-Code, but I’ve already written about my favorite film noir, Double Indemnity, and while I’ve yet to identify a single pre-Code feature that stands out as my favorite, I’ve also already covered those that would be serious contenders – Private Lives, Baby Face, Bombshell, Red-Headed Woman.
What I really wanted to do was write about the film that I consider to be my favorite movie overall (outside of Gone With the Wind, which will always have my heart) – the film that I’ve seen more often than any other, the film I own on VHS and DVD, AND have seen on the big screen (thank you TCM Film Festival!), the film whose lines are most likely to flit through my head at any given time.
The Women (1939).
Yes. The Women.
But how to justify writing about The Women on my blog? It was released too late to qualify for pre-Code, and it’s far too sunny for film noir – what kind of reasonable spin could I put this one?
And then I hit on it! The Women stars the great Norma Shearer, who was a shining star in numerous pre-Codes, including The Divorcee, A Free Soul, and Let Us Be Gay, and the fabulous Joan Crawford, who straddled both the pre-Code and the film noir worlds in such features as Sadie McKee, Letty Lynton, Possessed (both versions), The Damned Don’t Cry, and Mildred Pierce. And The Women is the film where these two forces came together in a spectacular display of beauty, talent, and just plain DAYUM!!!
So whaddya think – is that enough of a pre-Code/film noir tie-in to merit coverage on the pages of Shadows and Satin?? I hope so. ‘Cause I love this movie so much I could marry it (or at least sleep with it), and I’ve been wanting to write about it for years!
Incidentally, if you’ve never seen The Women, its plot is a simple one – it’s about a housewife and mother who discovers that her husband is having an affair, and the impact that this reality has on her life and the lives of those around her. That’s it, in a nutshell. Doesn’t really sound too earth-shattering, does it? Well, trust me – it’s the shiz-nit. And here are the top 10 reasons why I love it so.
- There’s not a single male in the film – the cast is fairly busting at the seams and spilling over with dames – even the dogs and the horses were females!
- The opening credits, which depict each of the film’s stars as a different type of animal, provide a perfect tip-off of what’s to come. There’s altogether affable Mary Haines (Shearer) as a gentle deer. Her backstabbing cousin Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell) as a hissing cat. Crystal Allen (Crawford) as a man-eating tiger. Mary’s mother (Lucile Watson) as a wise, wide-eyed owl. And so on. It’s so unique and inventive – I’ve never seen anything like it in any other film.
- Smack-dab in the middle of everything, the movie comes to a screeching halt to offer up a Technicolor fashion show with outfits by famed designer Adrian. (Some – like esteemed TCM host Robert Osborne – are none too fond of this event, but I’m absolutely wild about it. It’s a little like a car wreck – you just can’t take your eyes off it!)
- For my money, Joan Crawford gives the performance of her career in this movie. I know that some people don’t appreciate Joan Crawford as an actress, but more as a movie star, but if you look carefully at her portrayal of the conscienceless man-stealer Crystal Allen in The Women, you will see that she could act her ASS off. I think my absolute favorite Crawford scene is the one where her character is talking to Steven Haines – Mary’s husband – on the phone, who has contacted her to cancel the night’s planned assignation. Crawford’s Crystal plays her lover like a fiddle once she realizes the reason for his call, at first telling him that the disappointment is “such good discipline for my selfishness about you,” then hinting that it’s her birthday, and finally playing the sympathy card by telling him about her “neuralgia” and the “rather gloomy letter” she’d gotten from her sister that day. And when she finally convinces Steven to keep their engagement, she hangs up the receiver and grouses to a co-worker, “Say, can you beat him? He almost stood me up for his wife!”
- The writing in the film is stellar. The screenplay is by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin, based on the stage play by Clare Booth Luce (with uncredited assistance from F. Scott Fitzgerald and Donald Ogden Stewart). There are so many great lines that it would take an entire separate post to share them all. One of my all-time favorite exchanges, though, takes place in a dressing room, where Mary Haines is confronting Crystal. The two swap barbs, and just before Mary leaves, she snarkily advises Crystal to consider another outfit if she’s trying to impress Mary’s husband. “Thanks for the tip,” Crystal shoots back. “But when anything I wear doesn’t please Steven, I take it off!”
- The film includes a knock-down, drag-out cat fight, featuring Sylvia Fowler and Miriam Aarons (Paulette Goddard), a showgirl who is having an affair with Sylvia’s husband. The battle royale takes place on a dude ranch in Nevada, where Mary has gone to obtain a divorce. Sylvia shows up as well, and soon learns that her husband is divorcing her to marry Miriam. After Sylvia drags Miriam off her horse and Miriam retaliates by removing Sylvia’s glasses and slapping her across the face, it is ON – hair-pulling, clothes ripping, butt-kicking (literally), rolling in the dirt – even biting! Best. Fight. Ever. Even Lucy, the ranch’s caretaker, remarks, “Pretty well matched, ain’t they?”
- Mary’s relationship with her friends – her true friends – is touching and real. There’s the naïve and innocent Peggy (Joan Fontaine), who admires and looks up to Mary; protective Nancy Blake (Florence Nash), a self-proclaimed “old maid – a frozen asset”; and Miriam Aarons, who talks to Mary with a raw but caring frankness, calling her a “blithering coward” for divorcing her husband. These are the friends who never delight in Mary’s misery, but instead serve as her unflagging support system, sounding board, and champion.
- Virginia Weidler turns in an extraordinary performance as Mary’s daughter, Little Mary. I’ve seen Weidler in several films – Peter Ibbetson (1935), The Philadelphia Story (1940), All This, and Heaven, Too (1940) – but I love her best in this one. She’s at once spunky, snarky, touching, and shrewd. And in one particular scene, when she’s told that her parents are divorcing, she’s positively heart-shattering.
- The conversation between a woman and her young daughter, on the train to Reno, Nevada, for the woman’s divorce, is yet another reason why I love this movie. The little girl inquires whether her father will be coming to Reno, and she plaintively asks her mother where he is. The mother responds matter-of-factly: “I don’t know and I don’t care. In the future, you’ll please refer to him as ‘That heel.'”(I don’t know why, but this tickles me every time.)
- One of my favorite scenes (and honestly, I have so many I can’t even count them) has to do with an argument between Mary and Steven, after Mary’s confrontation with Crystal in the dressing room. But the film never shows us or even lets us hear the participants in this dispute. Instead, the spat is described by Mary’s maid, Jane (Muriel Hutchison), who runs upstairs to eavesdrop, and then dashes back down to the kitchen to share the latest with the cook, Maggie (Mary Cecil), who offers a running commentary. “You can’t trust none of them,” she says at one point, “no further than I can kick this lemon pie.” It’s a uniquely inventive way to depict a squabble in a manner that was far more entertaining than it would have been to see the real thing. For your viewing pleasure, here’s part of the scene:
The Women is a riveting look at friendship, love, deceit, envy, infidelity, gossip, passion, marriage, and divorce. It sings with biting dialogue, honest, true-life revelations, and moments of poignancy that can move you to tears. For me, it’s like comfort food – I watch it whenever I want to be cheered, soothed, diverted, or contented – and it’s always so delicious!
If you’ve never experienced this movie, you really, really have a treat ahead. (I envy you!) And if it’s been a while since you’ve seen it, I highly recommend that you dig it out, dust it off, and enjoy!
You only owe it to yourself.
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This post is part of the Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon, hosted by the Classic Film and TV Café . Click the banner on the right to check out the many awesome posts that are participating in this fabulous event!