Friday, January 6, 2012

The Women (1939): Color It “Jungle Red”

Start with one highly seasoned Norma Shearer. Next, add a fairly hard boiled Joan Crawford (she will toughen even more during cooking). Take one second string star, Rosalind Russell, just waiting to blossom. Mix in a couple of fresh faces with fresh figures, preferably Paulette Goddard and Joan Fontaine. Then sprinkle the whole thing with colorful supporting players like Marjorie Main, Mary Boland and Lucile Watson. Serve up with art direction by Cedric Gibbons and couture by Adrian (no last name necessary) and you’ve got a recipe for cinematic success known far and wide simply as, The Women (1939).

With a cast largely consisting of discarded Scarlett O’Hara wannabes, The Women was produced the same year as Gone with the Wind and was second only to that gargantuan film in profits for its studio, MGM, in 1939. Director George Cukor was signed on to tame these lipsticked lionesses after also being discarded as director from the Civil War epic, when the films’ star, Clark Gable, complained that he was giving too much attention to the female leads. Cukor said of The Women: “ At the time it probably wasn’t as silly as it seems now, because it came from a different world. ‘Kept women’ and marital break ups were big moral questions then. Now, of course, everybody would be screwing everybody, and everybody would know about it. Crystal wouldn’t be a kept woman, she’d be carrying on with another girl.” But Cukor’s deft and skillful directing aside, the classic comedy belonged entirely to its title characters.
The plot is indeed as Cukor described it about ‘kept women’ and marital break ups, in a gossipy modern high society circle of “friends” in NYC. Based on the hit Broadway play by Clare Booth Luce, it ran 666 performances on the Great White Way in 1936. In a nutshell, wealthy and elegant socialite Mary Haines (Shearer) goes through her privileged tasteful life in bliss with her handsome, engineer husband, Stephen and their daughter, Little Mary (it must be noted that nary a man steps in front of the camera during the two plus hours of celluloid. They are merely referenced….A LOT!). Her happy existence is threatened big time with the onset of Crystal Allen (Crawford, pictured here with her signature designer Adrian), shopgirl, home wrecker and floosie supreme. Enter Sylvia Fowler (Russell), et al, Mary’s dearest “friends” who verbally and maliciously take her (and each other) apart piece by piece.

Most, if not all, of the movie’s stars were in some sort of career shift. Norma Shearer, whose MGM high-up honcho husband, Irving Thalberg had died two years earlier, was in a state of dated star decline, holding her own basically because she was also holding substantial MGM stock left to her by her dear departed spouse. Joan Crawford was also on the verge of “has been” status after a string of flops at Metro. Pop columnist Sheila Graham noted in early 1939, “After three misses in a row, if Joan Crawford doesn’t come up with a hit picture soon, she will be joining Luise Rainer in the Hall of Forgotten Stars at Metro.” Never any love lost between Shearer and Crawford, the two divas had an long standing feud over who was the female powerhouse at MGM. Crawford always felt that Norma got the choice roles at the studio, merely because she was sleeping with the boss and was fond of calling her “Miss Lotta Miles”, a moniker Shearer had worn back in the 20’s as a model for a tire manufacturer. Their attempts to one up each other on the set were legendary, including Crawford’s clacking knitting needles during many of Shearer’s scenes.

Rosalind Russell had been at MGM for half a decade, relegated to second tier status for most of that time with a few exceptions, most notably on loan out to Columbia for Craig’s Wife (1936). With the success of The Women, Russell’s talents as a comedic gem had been discovered and utilized. Like Russell, both Paulette Goddard and Joan Fontaine were actresses who were just on the verge of stardom. Goddard had actually been a hair’s length away from winning the coveted role of Scarlett in GWTW before losing out to Vivien Leigh. On loan out from producer David O. Selznick for The Women, she would leave the showman’s employ later that year to enter a long term, very successful run at Paramount where her star would shine. Fontaine would also shoot to stardom in 1940, when Alfred Hitchcock cast her as the second Mrs. deWinter in his classic Rebecca. Not as high profile as most of the other females on the Women set, Fontaine had up until that time, fell mostly in the shadow of her more successful, higher profile sister, Olivia de Havilland. In “Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography” the star praises Cukor and most of her cast mates (except Shearer, of course!) with the noted exception of Fontaine. “I think the only one I could have done without was Joan Fontaine. She wasn’t a bitch, she wasn’t nasty - there was just something about her. She had the smallest part of all of us and maybe she was just a little jealous."

Marjorie Main presented a trial run of her Ma Kettle character ten years early and it suited her Lucy character in The Women to a tee. Comedy veteran Mary Boland spouted her faith in “l’amour” throughout the film, cracking many hilarious one-liners along the way and in a small but fun part, luscious Virginia Grey, as one of Crawford’s department store co-workers, makes one wonder why Stephen Haines didn’t sniff around HER end of the perfume counter instead of the world weary Crystal’s.
Above, MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, with Paulette Goddard and director George Cukor at The Women premiere

The Women was an enormous hit. It’s premise was successful enough to warrant not one but two remakes, albeit sad disappointments, both. First in 1956 with The Opposite Sex starring June Allyson and Joan Collins, then again over 50 years later under the original title with Meg Ryan and Annette Benning. Neither even came close to the sparkling wit and vicious bite of the original film. It’s phenomenal ensemble may never be duplicated under such circumstances again.


  1. Nice post. The Women is a fun film to watch--the Meg Ryan version was horrible. As for Joan not liking Joan, Crawford must have been jealous of Fontaine's talent and youth! LOL

  2. always wanted to watch this film!!

    1. I love the movie of the Woman's. Must see absolutely. I love the TCM and all old movie's. Better then going to a Theatre. I enjoy all the movies. Thank you, Happy New Year.

  3. Love Love Love this film, if you haven't seen it- do.
    Great job on this article Rupert.

  4. Thanks Connie. I appreciate it alot. I really enjoyed writing it and aren't the photos a peach!?

  5. Great post! It's also fun to see who the other MGM contract players were at the time like Virginia Weidler & Ruth Hussey (co-stars in Philadelphia Story a year later). Other tidbits include Hedda Hopper essentially playing herself andthe COLOR fashion show sequence!Fun stuff

  6. I really enjoyed your post! The Women is one of my very favorite movies, and one I think I've seen more times than any other. I just sit and watch and quote the dialogue with the characters, LOL. And I think it contains one of Joan Crawford's best performances -- she was simply outstanding in this.

  7. The gossip about what happened behind the scenes during filming are almost as entertaining as the movie. Apparently, Crawford and Shearer were in rare form - including the rejection of any photo the other appeared in. Consequently, Goddard & Russell got lots of publicity. Great post and great photos!

  8. I love Norma Shearer and I thought she was excellent playing Mary Haines, who's husband has fallen for the charms of Crystal Allen, beautifully played by Joan Crawford.

    I also, love the style and a sophistication of 1939. What a thrill it must have been to have been around New York in that glamorous era!

  9. The remake failed in large part because if the characters had been played as the clawing, man-hungry creatures the film could get away with in 1939, feminists would have been torching theaters! But with the venom of the original extracted, what you wound up with was an unnecessary female 'buddy movie' just months after the theatrical Sex And The City had drained the market.

    While Crawford and Russell had to lobby for their parts, producer Hunt Stromberg had wanted Norma immediately for Mary Haines. So did Louis B. Mayer, for her marquee value; "Marie Antoinette" had been an enormous success just the year before. Norma wasn't thrilled, finding Mary rather bland and "too noble," and nervous of appearing with so many actresses younger than she, but she was also a trooper and a "company man" since the founding of the studio.

    Her biographer, Gavin Lambert, exactly nails what's great about her 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."

    Crawford took a dangerous chance and aced it to the heavens. Mayer had warned her that she'd likely alienate her fans by playing such an unredeemed bitch, but Joan knew the scheming Crystal would be a striking presence among the genteel society women.

    The polite hostility in the Shearer-Crawford relationship off-screen was certainly real, but in less than five years, both would be gone from MGM, and both could look back on respective bodies of work to make each actress proud the rest of her life.

    Russell moved from "The Women," to another enduring comedy classic, "His Girl Friday" with Cary Grant, and after these two, nobody ever again questioned whether she could make audiences laugh.

    "The Women" was a masterpiece of movie making, and everyone involved with it could count it among their finest successes.

  10. Great post, Rupert, about one of my very favorite films! The June Allyson remake was disappointing (no male ban!) and the Meg Ryan version lost something in the modern day translation. The original most definitely was, and remains, a masterpiece of movie making. And what an ensemble cast!

  11. so true. the original really captured the essence of how jealousy, cattiness, and misanthropy stunts the development of our gender. it was really ahead of its time in terms of its relevance among female relationships today. i have not seen the 1956 remake, but i unfortunately did catch the meg ryan version, which is completely different from the original. in a sense, the only reason it could be called a remake is due to its use of the same title. this wouldn't bother me if it made the material its own in an authentic and original style. unfortunately, it had already had been done several years earlier in a television show and eventual spin-off movie called Sex and The City

  12. Truly a classic, I never tire of this one, one of my all time favorite movies. I love every character especially the countess. La publicite!

  13. One of my all time favorites, I never there of this one. The Countess" La publicite!"



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