My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon: The Women (1939)

SSTheWomen1When 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?

Crawford. Shearer. It's a Pre-Code/Noir Crossover Mashup Thingy!

Crawford. Shearer. It’s a Pre-Code/Noir Crossover Mashup Thingy!

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.

Nothing. But. Women.

Nothing. But. Women.

  1. 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!
  2. 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.

    The more I see this fashion show, the more I love it. It's kinda crazy.

    The more I see this fashion show, the more I love it. It’s kinda crazy.

  3. 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!)

    I LOVE this scene. I cannot get enough of this scene. This is the BEST scene. (Or, one of them.)

    I LOVE this scene. I cannot get enough of this scene. This is the BEST scene. (Or, one of them.)

  4. 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!”



  5. 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!”

    Mayweather and Pacquiao didn't have nothin' on these two.

    Mayweather and Pacquiao didn’t have nothin’ on these two.

  6. 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 yanks 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?”

    Your real friends will tell it like it is.

    Your real friends will tell it like it is.

  7. 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 was a standout as Little Mary.

    Virginia Weidler was a standout as Little Mary.

  8. 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.

    This has absolutely nothing to do with the scene I described, but it's another favorite and I absolutely LOVE the beautiful colorization. (You're welcome.)

    This has absolutely nothing to do with the scene I described, but it’s another favorite and I absolutely LOVE the beautiful colorization. (You’re welcome.)

  9. 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.)
  10. 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.

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!

My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon 2If 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.

* * * * * *

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!


~ by shadowsandsatin on May 16, 2015.

22 Responses to “My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon: The Women (1939)”

  1. Wow! If there was one blogger who I thought would write about a noir, it was you. I am shocked (LOL). Once I recovered, I read on and enjoyed your take on the film. I watched it some years ago and enjoyed it completely. A fabulous cast of ladies. Thanks for shaking me up.

    • LOL, John — you know how I love my noir, but I had to do something I hadn’t covered before, and I really have always wanted to figure out a way to write about The Women. You wouldn’t believe how often I’ve seen it — it’s one of those where I just sit and watch it and do all the dialogue!

  2. Is this the right site? No explanations necessary, even if I did do a double-take when the post mailed to me. Those opening credits hook me every time, and I agree about Joan, she was a star whose acting remains underrated. What could seem gimmicky, no men in the cast, is something I barely notice until it’s over. Love your list!

    • You crack me up, Cliff. I really have been wanting to write about The Women for the longest time, but I just figured I’d never get the chance. I figured there wasn’t going to be a better opportunity than this one, LOL! Thanks so much for your comments!

  3. Great review. Big surprise for audiences of 1939 must have been Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell, in roles so different from what they usually did. I like to think Joan and Roz jumped at the chance to do something different, and boy did they succeed.
    You highlighted some great scenes.

    • Thanks so much, Vienna. So funny that you mentioned Rosalind Russell — I’d originally written that both Crawford and Russell gave the performances of their lives (but it made my bullet point so unwieldy!). But you’re so right — Russell was so GREAT.

  4. Great post. Very well done. Feel free to check my entry out. Link is below

  5. A classic film full of great women. Shearer and Crawford take such a beating from modern audiences some times – but what do they know? These 2 ladies pull out all the stops and claws (in jungle red). I actually love Paulette Goddard in this film, too, She comes across as the smartest cookie of them all. Great post! I enjoyed it.

  6. Thanks for the fine appreciation. I saw this on screen in the 70’s at one of the great old revival houses, the Carnegie Hall Cinema. I was already head over heels for Roz Russell after His Girl Friday and I loved her in this too. It’s like a totally different (and for me, lesser) picture when she’s not on screen.

    • Michael, I am a native New Yorker and reading you mention the Carnegie Hall Cinema makes me say “Mi hermano!!” I miss that theater and the Regency and 80 St. Marks etc etc etc. Are you or were you a New Yorker?

  7. I can’t tell you what a pleasure it was for me to read your incisive thoughts on “The Women”. Recently, over on the IMDb there has been much discussion maligning this wonderfully entertaining movie. I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone trying to make the crowd see reason. You made me relax. It’s not me, it’s them. “The Women” still rules!

  8. To me, this movie is such perfection that I didn’t even consider watching the recent re-make. I also never watched the the earlier re-make with June Allyson. Every one of the women in the original cast was just right, the writing was just right, everything was just RIGHT. I’m a big fan of Norma Shearer anyway, and I agree that Crawford did a stand-up performance. And yes, I LOVED the fashion show! There is one scene that makes me cry, even with all the incredible humor. When Mary learns that her husband has married that slut Crystal, she turns her face to the wall, grasping it with her hands, and cries in hopeless despair. That was a tearjerker in every good way. Wonderful article!

  9. Oh, and I forgot — wasn’t the Countess just a howl? L’amour, L’amour! One of the biggest laughs for me is in the women’s room at the nightclub, when she throws herself on the couch and says that Buck didn’t want to hurt “an old beef like me.” Her performance was just perfect!

  10. First, I love how you justify writing about THE WOMEN on your blog–and, yes, it works for me! I still remember the first time I saw it and, believe it or not, it took awhile for me to notice the absence of men. I think that’s because it doesn’t come across as a gimmick, but as a natural way to explore the relationships among the female characters. The whole ensemble cast is in top form and, while I’m not sure if it’s Joan Crawford’s best performance, it is certainly one of them. It’s so well made that it almost looks easy. But, in comparison, consider the 2008 remake which floundered horribly despite a good cast.

    • I totally agree with all of your points, Rick — especially that the movie doesn’t seem at all gimmicky despite the lack of any male actors. I couldn’t even watch the remake — just awful.

  11. I’m another one who was surprised you didn’t pick a noir for the blogathon, but your reasoning is sound, so it meets with my approval (ha ha).

    Loads of great lines in this film. My problem, though, is that I get so distracted by the marvelous wardrobe that I forget to pay attention to what’s going on. Every time I watch it, I think “Ok, this time I’m going to concentrate on the performances”, and then I get lost in the clothes and sets. There’s no hope for me.

  12. “It sings with biting dialogue, honest, true-life revelations, and moments of poignancy that can move you to tears.” Perfection! I adore this movie, too, and it never gets old! And I agree, the fashion show is awesome. The weird capelet with the attached hand is my favorite. So strange!

  13. Karen, I’m glad you found a way to talk about your favorite film in a way you could live with it. And even though you’re the Noir Queen whatEVAH you want to write about, just know you’ve got a captivated audience. “THE WOMEN” is one of my favorite films of the thirties. ( Did you see it at TCMFF last year? ) Your bullet points were great. I literally laughed out loud when you mentioned Mayweather and Pacquiao. Where in the world will we ever again hear their names mentioned in connection with classic film? I adore Paulette Goddard, and wait the whole movie to hear her tell Shearer “You’re lying.” ( Or is it “you’re a liar”? You know…when they’re having that wonderful heart to heart talk of theirs just before ‘Mary’ gets the word that Stephen’s marrying Crystal ). I also wait to hear the “that heel” line delivered so perfectly by an actress who didn’t live too long into the forties. After the fashion show, my favorite saleslady is the woman with the upswept hair who I believe is going to look for the hat for Shearer. Do you know she ( Carol Hughes ) was married to character actor Frank Faylen? So many good moments in this classic, I don’t want to risk being repetitive. As usual you write so cleverly. Great read.

  14. I really want to watch this but it seems to be impossible to source in the UK – think I’m going to have to pay the expensive import duty as it certainly sounds like it’s worth it. Reading your post it’s obvious how much you love it – your enthusiasm shines through. And you know I can’t resist a film with so many strong female characters 🙂

  15. Let me give you Shearer biographer Gavin Lambert’s succinct assessment of Norma’s work in this one:

    “Her face rather plump, a slight bulge around the hips disguised for the most part by Adrian’s wide, pleated skirts, Norma gives an effectively spare performance. Warned by Cukor the character could easily appear a worthy bore, she brings a minimum of weight to the pathos of betrayal and concentrates on the struggle not to betray her feelings. With impeccably restrained technique, she gains sympathy by never playing for it.”

    Despite the film’s robust acceptance and reception, Norma never counted it among her favorites, and indeed didn’t want to do it. She found Mary Haines bland and too noble, and was privately nervous about appearing with so many actresses younger than she.

    The story goes that Louis B. Mayer learned that 36 year old Norma was in a dangerous romantic entanglement with a just barely legal Mickey Rooney, begun just as Idiot’s Delight was going into release in January 1939, and that Mayer quashed immediately. It put him in a position to apply some pressure, and Norma to make ‘amends’ by yielding.

    Norma’s initial reluctance in regard to Mary is an instance where her instinct wasn’t her friend. She’s magnificent in the part, and extremely well-timed after the expansive opulence of Marie Antoinette and her outrageous countess Irene. While certainly affluent, Mary Haines is a character with two feet in the real world, and so very likable we wish we knew her.

    Crawford’s real-life and misplaced enmity toward Shearer certainly found a constructive venting space in this film, and she plays it royally. The Women was also the proving ground of whether Russell could succeed in comedy, and only a fool would hold she didn’t settle that question for the rest of her working life!

    I don’t wonder that you love this film so much. It is – by a long measure – my number one favorite comedy.

    • Thank you so much for sharing the information from Lambert’s bio, Dave, and for your insightful comments! That’s so interesting that Norma did not count the part among her favorites. Of course, Mary Haines pales in excitement next to, say, Norma’s character in A Free Soul, but Mary had a whole lot going for her! In scene after scene, she demonstrated warmth, intelligence, thoughtfulness, and guts! It’s nice to come in contact with someone as fond of this film as I.

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