The Women (1939)

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Image via miff.com.au

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Revisiting this gorgeous example of an era in Hollywood when women’s films gave women agency, though with limitations, was an indulgent treat. It is one of my favourite films of the time and beautifully captures how women can be contained and yet will always seek to subvert their boundaries.

Directed by George Cukor and with the sparkling script by Claire Booth Luce and Anita Loos, who wrote the original play, The Women is known for having a cast of only women. And this includes all of the animals. Norma Shearer plays the graceful and conformist Mary Haines, blissfully married to the unseen Stephen Haines and mother of little Mary (Virginia Weidler in preparation for her memorable role as Dinah Lord in The Philadelphia Story the next year).

Mary is surrounded by friends – cynical Silvia (Rosalind Russell), innocent new wife Peggy (Joan Fontaine) and gauche Edith (Phyllis Povah). When Silvia is getting a manicure at prestigious Sydney’s, the manicurist lets slip that Mary’s husband is ‘stepping out’ with shopgirl Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford). Silvia is delighted to have some dirt on her respectable and rather priggish friend and wastes no time in spreading the news. When Mary finds out, she must decide whether to stick to her principles or fight for her man.

The dialogue and action is non-stop with crackling one liners vying for attention. All of the characters except Mary and Crystal are played for laughs and the verbal and physical humour is delightful. One of my favourite scenes is Silvia and Peggy in their exercise class and Russell divulged that Cukor had told her to play Sylvia broadly so that the audience wouldn’t hate her. From this, she said, came a recognition of her comedic skills.

The hostility between Crystal and Mary is well played and Crawford is at her haughty best as the working girl trying to better her station in life. Along the way Mary meets up with Miriam (Paulette Goddard, told by Cukor to play her character as if she was Spencer Tracy) and the Countess De Lave (Mary Boland) – “L’amour! L’amour!”

The ending is a cracker and even though, like so many films at the time, the final choices made are conventional, for two hours we have seen women at their most self-assured and powerful. And whatever you do, don’t watch the 2008 remake.


Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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