1939 was the most momentous year in moviemaking. Absolutely astonishing in its high quality and high quantity of output. Off the top of my head, I think of GONE WITH THE WIND, THE WIZARD OF OZ, STAGECOACH, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, GUNGA DIN – everlasting classics all. A quick dip into the Wiki pond tells me that no less than 145 movies were made that year – a staggering number – among them, DARK VICTORY, THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, GOLDEN BOY and BABES IN ARMS.
George Cukor’s THE WOMEN holds an important place on this stellar list. One of the top-grossing films of that miraculous year, it incomprehensively (or should I say,’reprehensibly’ ?) received no Academy Award nominations. A real crime, but it was so tightly-embraced by audiences and critics both, and over the years has become so loved that the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress singled it out for preservation for being “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant.” A real winner!
Based on Clare Booth Luce’s hit Broadway play of the same name, “The Women” (the play) tells the story of Mary Haines, a sweet, simple but definitely well-heeled, well-cared for New York society wife and mother. So naive and trusting is Mary that she is knocked for a loop to learn, via the beauty parlor grapevine, that her husband is cheating on her with some show biz floozy. Her pals rally around her for coffee and comfort, her enemies rally around her like vultures waiting for their latest meal. THE WOMEN is basically about Mary’s disillusionment with men and marriage, her circle of friends and the women she meets as she struggles to understand what is happening to her life.
But let us go back to how THE WOMEN came to be a film.
Luce’s play was scandalous in its day – a clever thrust and parry at how abominably the female gender is treated – by the male of the species, and sometimes by each other. Luce felt so strongly about her design for where women’s wounded sensibilities should head – away from men and toward each other, that she titled her initial draft, “Sappho’s Daughters”, and kept the play rife and ripe with lesbian intimations – several of the characters in the play, to begin with anyway, were gay and this is what drew George Cukor (a gay man known for being a strong director of women’s films) to the project. Producers tried to sweet talk playwright and memoirist, Lillian Hellman, and later plawrights, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, into fashioning the screenplay and MGM star, Claudette Colbert, into playing Mary Haines. All four declined; Hellman because she was occupied with other projects, and Kaufman, Hart and Colbert because they felt the controversial subject matter could hurt their careers. Anita Loos and Helen Merkin were hired to do the write-up, Cukor climbed on board to direct, and THE WOMEN was off and running.
Delightfully estrogen-heavy, the movie is a wonder in many ways, and was a first of its kind; its cast consists entirely of females. Not a single male sullies its screen time. Not a drop of testosterone is to be found. Men are talked about but not seen. Even the animals that appear in the movie are females and only females are found on props such as magazine covers, or on bus ads and billboards.
Many of MGM’s top contract players of the time grace its reels – Norma Shearer (Mrs Irving Thalberg) as the suffering (but not for long) Mary Haines, Joan Crawford as nasty mantrap Crystal Allen (this was the first time Crawford played the type of brassy, golddigging, tough-as-nails character she was to play so often in the years ahead), wonderful Roz Russell as catty gossip Sylvia Fowler, to say nothing of the considerable talents of Mary Boland, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, Virginia Weidler (as Little Mary, Mary Haines’ wiser-than-her-years daughter), Lucile Watson (of GONE WITH THE WIND fame), Virginia Grey, Ruth Hussey, Cora Witherspoon and the incomparable Butterfly McQueen, as funny here as she is in GONE WITH THE WIND, the movie that immortalized her. Women!
This movie is smart. It is savvy and sophisticated in ways that movies were not in those days. Silly and witty both, it condescends neither to its audience nor to its characters and celebrates each woman for who she is or who she wants to be. It has an un-stoppable energy, reel-to-reel, and I was surprised that a film almost 80 years old plays as fresh and as modern and as intelligent as the women who populate it.
Lines of dialogue are as brittle as ice. Think – icicles being slipped down the back of an unsuspecting friend, most obvious in Rosalind Russell’s character who clearly loves her friend, Mary, but who delights in sticking it to her deliciously in the back if she can get a group of beauty parlor hens to cackle over her latest feed of juicy humor.
Loos’ and Merkin’s script has a cranky, crackling wit throughout. Much of the acerbic dialogue is delivered so maleficently, it peels the skin right off your bones. “She didn’t really just SAY that, did she?”
My memories of the amount of bitchiness prove true but I had forgotten (if ever my younger self noticed the first time I saw THE WOMEN) that there is a tenderness to it, a simpatico element in the scenes between Mary and her daughter, between Mary and her mother, between Mary and her more sincere friends.
And “L’Amour, l’amour” has got to be one of the briefest, and yet one of the most immortal lines in movie dialogue – it says so little and yet speaks worlds – about the relations between women and their men, what draws them to each other and what tears them apart.
Every performer is in top form. When our gals head out to the Nevada desert for divorce, dissing and support, it is at this point that the proceedings become carnivalesque, the girls, by turn, snapping at each other like rabid dragons, then soothing one another with words or a touch. These women may not all be fond of each other but they are less fond of the way men have treated their sex. They link arms as armor, and even a lady who despises another because she has a better figure than they do, or sports a more expensive mink, will protect that rival to the death against Mister Man.
The great Cukor infuses his movie with a buoyancy, a vitality that hardly ever stops to breathe. It was a happy accident that he was available to direct; he was tied up filming GONE WITH THE WIND when Clark Gable had him fired because he did not want to be directed by “a women’s director” (Interesting tidbit – what Gable really said was that he did not want to be directed by “a faggot”. Hollywood lore has it that Gable was uncomfortable working around Cukor because Cukor knew that when Gable first came to Hollywood, he had survived by becoming a male hustler). Whatever the reason, Cukor’s dismissal from GONE WITH THE WIND freed him up to helm THE WOMEN. Lucky us!
You cannot miss out on the chance to see THE WOMEN, especially on the big screen. It remains a blueprint for feminism long before the word or concept ever existed.
It carries within its totally female reels a wisdom only women who have suffered and survived can cull from their experiences. And it is darned funny, to boot!