The Women (1939)

The Women The Women The Women

A woman is compromised the day she is born.

1939. It is a year cited by many as one of the greatest in cinematic history. Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Ninotchka, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? All released in 1939. On the eve of a war that would forever change predefined notions about humanity, it seems fitting that Hollywood should produce some of its most memorable meditations on the nature of good versus evil, preservation in the face of destruction, idealism apropos reality, and the toll that such struggles reign over its subjects.

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. That very same day, on the other side of the Atlantic, MGM released George Cukor’s comedic classic, The Women. At first glance, The Women seems nothing more than a marriage of style, wit, and star-power, thereby marking it anachronistic to the geo-political battles raging behind its birth. And yet, it proved to be one of the year’s top grossing films, a box-office juggernaut that lifted itself beyond the laurels of Clare Booth Luce’s play, and into a territory all its own. Why? Let’s peel back the onion’s layers and take a peek. . .

After being unceremoniously fired from the helm of Gone With the Wind, Cukor was chosen to direct The Women a mere month before shooting began. What he managed to create remains an astoundingly complete portrait of how feminine identity is impacted by mitigating socio-economic elements. Repeated viewings of the film reveal a text that outreaches even this, and postulates, by extension, a world in which human emotion has been quantified by ownership. Dresses, houses, nail polish, children, social standing; all are objects through which The Women are made to channel their selfhood. This film asks us to address the question of whether any human emotion, especially love, can defined by procurement. If the answer is yes, as the narrative leads us to believe, then we are forced to accept that all we feel and experience is nothing more than a mortal, expendable echo of what the collective body deems worthy of purchase.

Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) is a married, Manhattan socialite who learns through the vicious gossip grapevine that Mr. Haines, Stephen, (never seen on screen) is carrying on with a perfume counter girl named Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford). The plot focuses on Mary’s confusion over how to deal with the infidelity. Should she follow the tribal dictum of her girlfriends and openly confront the guilty pair? Or should she heed the advice of her mother (Lucile Watson), and silently wait for Stephen to tire of Crystal?

The trouble begins in the shadow of a ritzy beauty salon, Sydney’s (named for famed coiffure Sydney Guilaroff), where Mary’s catty cousin, Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell), is informed by a manicurist that Stephen Haines is “stepping out”. What better backdrop to sew the seeds of discord than one who’s financial dependence relies upon a woman’s belief that she is a constant work in progress? The opening sequence is a bird’s eye view of this feminine “haven,” gliding through the conversations of employer and employee alike, Cukor reveals a shockingly savage discourse on how women view themselves, and their peers. The audience comes away with the feeling that their lives are a constant fight for survival, no woman is safe.

The Women The Women The Women

Sydney’s // Work in Progress // Delicious Gossip

Sylvia could not be more delighted by the news of Mary’s plight, and wastes no time in spreading the gossip amongst their set, all of whom are getting ready to assemble at the Haines home for lunch that very afternoon. When luncheon begins, the joke is of course on Mary, who has no idea what Stephen is getting up to behind her back. While Sylvia and her partner in crime, the perpetually pregnant Edith Potter (Phyllis Povah, reprising her role from the Broadway production) take every opportunity to exploit the situation for their own amusement, naive newlywed Peggy (Joan Fontaine) and cynical spinster Nancy (Florence Nash) attempt to quell the brewing storm.

This close-knit gathering of women is more a storyboard of brutality than of social grace. As Sylvia and Edith rehash the situation in the powder room, they agree that the worst part of the whole affair is that they are not acquainted with the girl, Crystal, which would thereby raise the stakes, and no doubt, their pleasure. Back in the drawing room, Nancy and Sylvia square off, with Sylvia taking swipes at Nancy’s career, and Nancy opining that while Mary is contented to be a woman (i.e. a mother and a wife), the rest of the group, Sylvia in particular, are merely “females.”

The Women The Women The Women

Great guns!  What are you made up for, the seeing eye? // Holding Court // Chit-Chat

Mary, innocent of the gossip that surrounds her, is keen to make every excuse for Stephen’s absences and lapses in attention. Even as he makes plans to be with Crystal, Mary is seen in the kitchen, dreaming up the perfect dinner for him (Pancakes Barbara!), and later on reminiscing with their daughter, Little Mary (Virginia Weidler), about her honeymoon.

Meanwhile, Sylvia has set a trap for her cousin, leading her to Sydney’s for the “Jungle Red” special by her favorite manicurist. When the manicurist repeats the tale, unaware of Mary’s identity, Mrs. Haines is forced into the circle of knowledge, receiving a baptism by fire. She is now no longer an outsider, but a participant in the unduly feminine atmosphere of intrigue.

At this point in the film, the main characters begin to operate on a plane of their own. While the men are never seen, their influence is felt throughout the narrative. However, until the women claim Mary as their own, the masculine point of view, namely that of independence from a communal authority, continues to be represented by her. It is not until she allows herself to be swayed by the gossip about Crystal, that she succumbs to the behavioral patterns of her sex. The lesson here could not be clearer. If women are expected to be the reflected desire of a male perspective, it comes as no surprise that when removed from a masculine environment, their perceived autonomy is still asserted through an identification with male need or desire. In this case, Mary’s person is judged by her peers based on her ability to please Stephen. As he has sought comfort in a mistress, she is regarded as lacking.

Though her friends are keen to advocate confrontation and separation for their own entertainment, even those who support Mary’s inner desire to work things out do so with the full knowledge that it is she, not he, who is deficient.

After cautioning her daughter to ignore the prattle of her girlfriends, Mary’s own mother delivers this soliloquy:

This story isn’t new. It comes to most wives. Stephen is a man. He’s been married ten years. Stephen is tired of himself, tired of feeling the same things in himself. Time comes when a man must has got to feel something new, and he’s got to feel young again, just because he’s growing old. We women are so much more sensible. When we tired of ourselves, we change the way we do our hair, or hire a new cook, or decorate the house. . .A man has only one escape from his old self. To see a different self in the mirror of another woman’s eyes. This girl probably means no more to him than that new dress means to you. . .so take my advice, keep still, keep still when you’re fairly aching to talk. It’s about the only sacrifice spoiled women like us ever have to make to keep our men.

In a similar vein, when Mary eventually decides to divorce, street-smart chorus girl Miriam (Paulette Goddard) tells her that, “a woman’s compromised the day she’s born,” and that since Mary’s “run out of the trenches under fire,” she’s no more than a coward.

On the opposite end of the social spectrum, shop girl Crystal is under no illusions when it comes to love. However, she too understands that her worth as a woman is defined by her ability to capture a man capable of supporting her in the style to which society tells her she should be accustomed. When she at long last meets Mary in the midst of a fashion show, she expresses as much:
What have you got to kick about? You’ve got everything that matters. The name, the position, the money!

This outburst earns a murmur of pity from Mrs. Haines, “You are a hard one, aren’t you!”

Yet, ironically, it is Mary who is ultimately forced to learn the same lessons that Crystal has already memorized. By the end of the film, she acknowledges the necessitation of growing claws (Jungle Red!), in order to sustain a marriage, and by proxy, an identity.

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Confrontation

Crystal is economically excluded from the world that Mary and her friends live in, but she knows that in order to obtain validation for her existence, she must try to become a part of it. Her goals and aims are the same as the other characters, although her methods of achievement are depicted as somewhat more savage. Through Stephen, she hopes to gain the symbols of status that will ultimately bring her from what Nancy has so aptly termed a “female” into a “woman.”

That she should feel genuine love for Stephen Haines is a moot point. Of all the women, it is only Mary, the ditzy Countess de Lave (Mary Boland), and the younger, more naive, Peggy who speak of love as an ephemeral, untouchable projection. The others demonize it, trivialize it, or quantify it. Mary, Peggy, and the Countess are shown as living in a fool’s paradise. Mary, for not understanding that her “love” is a mere affectation of Stephen’s fluctuating state of emasculation, and Peggy for believing that “love” is dependant upon her ability to negotiate the price of her husband’s pride. The Countess is painted as a complete buffoon, one who earns the enmity and embarrassment of her conquests by behaving indecorously in her pursuit of them.

Sylvia often chides Peggy about John’s unwillingness to allow her access to the things she might purchase with her own “little income”: a car, membership to a day spa. Although Sylvia is portrayed as being both predatory and spiteful, she is also the jester of the film. As such, her character is afforded the luxury of speaking certain truths. One of which is that if we accept a coupling as an equal exchange, than yes, it is indeed ridiculous to quarrel over methods of acquisition.

Moreover, it is Sylvia who is able to survive on the farthest fringes of this feminine enclave without the security of a man. She constantly mocks and undercuts her husband, Howard, and when she discovers that he is leaving her for Miriam, she is less concerned with his departure than she is with circulating the idea that there is nothing within her that should merit a desire for separation.

Of all the women who either divorce, or flirt with the idea, it is Sylvia alone who does not remarry. She remains an idiom in a world of symbiosis, able to project without reflected light, and for this she is reviled by the pack-like mentality of those doomed to partnership. Her rumored flirtations with a psychiatrist provide humorous fodder for the women, but only because Sylvia is not the sort of woman they consider suitable marriage material. Behind every good man, as they say, and Sylvia Fowler is not a “good woman,” in the eyes of her peers.

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Mrs. Prowler *ahem* Fowler

In regards to Mary’s decisions throughout the film, her child is a keynote upon which many plot points turn. Although her girlfriends’ gossip about Crystal engages her pique, it is only upon learning that the mistress has been seen cavorting with the child that leads Mary to confrontation. Later on, it is the child’s remarking upon her father’s despondency that pushes Mary to reclaim what she sees as her rightful title of Mrs. Stephen Haines. In this sense, the notion of motherhood is linked to that of possession. Little Mary is only one more physical asset begat to Mary by marriage. Like property, she is a tool of negotiation for her mother’s plan of action. This could not be made plainer than in the scene where Mary tells her daughter there is to be a divorce. For this emission, she chooses the day of her departure to Reno, clearly demonstrating that she feels her duty will be amply discharged once the truth is made plain. Whatever lingering emotions Little Mary may have about the event are considered redundant and left to the discretionary care of her grandmother, with whom she has been passed to in the wake of her mother’s leave-taking.

Other depictions of children serving as interchange between husbands and wives are Peggy and Edith’s respective pregnancies. Upon discovering that she is pregnant, Peggy abandons the idea of divorce. Like Mary, her notion of children is linked to how parenthood serves marriage, and not the other way around. Edith, who already has several children (all girls), gives birth to another one (girl), placidly going about her motherly business, even though it is rumored that Phelps Potter also has a wandering eye. Edith, determined to “see no evil, hear no evil,” relies on her progeny to keep her marriage on solid ground. Kids are co-owned, co-opted, in the world of these women. They exist only to serve as neutral objects through which the desires of their owners are passed.

The notion of pride, or that a woman should jeopardize her marriage in order to give credence to personal emotion, is brought up numerous times throughout the film. Is Peggy’s pride over her marriage’s economic inequity worth leaving John? Is Mary’s disdain at discovering Stephen’s unfaithfulness a reason to divorce? Everyone from Mary’s mother, to been-around-the-block Miriam, to Reno ranch owner, Lucy (Marjorie Main) says “No.” Miriam herself settles the question plainly. “I come from a world where a woman’s got to come out on top,” and apparently that holds true, even if it means swallowing self worth and reclaiming a partner who has little consideration for his spouse’s feelings.

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Motherly Advice // Buck up kid, you’re going to granny’s // Girl talk

Sylvia alone remains the voice of dissent, constantly chastising her friends for their lack of self-respect. This battery is played for laughs, since Sylvia is an incorrigible gossip, however Mary herself echoes Sylvia’s beliefs in the earlier stages of the picture. She believes that the idea of a wife as chattel is old fashioned, and finds her mother’s advice appalling. That Mary comes around to the ideals of the majority, noting at the end of the film that pride “is a luxury a woman in love can’t afford,” gives a terrible sense of sadness that such a price can be placed on love.

One of the most discussed shots of The Women is the final sequence of Mary, eyes wide, melodramatically rushing the camera with her arms open. It is a pantomime of silent-film emoting, which seems incongruous to the film’s style as a whole. Many critics level the hokeyness of the scene on Norma Shearer’s beginnings as a silent picture star, however there remains the possibility that this is an intentional submission on Cukor’s part. For like the Countess de Lave, who runs cock-eyed from one husband to another, women are expected, nay, sanctioned, to do whatever it takes to keep a man. If they end up looking ridiculous, or feel inwardly less as a result, they are reminded by their cohorts that the ends justify the means.

The Women The Women The Women

Running to Stephen

Crystal’s undoing and exposure as a man-snatching, social-climbing harridan has less to do with any discovery by the women, and more with their unveiling of her to Stephen. Since Crystal’s worthiness as an individual is based upon the soundness of her marriage, it could play out in no other way. When she usurps Mary as Mrs. Stephen Haines, Crystal is afforded entry into their orbit, which the film affirms as the being the only place that matters. Her socioeconomic counter part, Miriam, is similarly elevated upon ensnaring Howard Fowler. Of course when compared with Mary, Crystal is a far greater threat to the community than Miriam is when contrasted with Sylvia, and so Miriam is welcomed with open arms.

Yet, no matter how distasteful Crystal may seem, she is undeniably a part of the women’s world so long as she attaches Haines to her name. Manicurists, shop girls, and maids alike all lay in wait for the chance that Crystal has so fruitfully exploited. When her comeuppance comes, ironically via Sylvia, who has unintentionally leaked information regarding Crystal’s affair with Buck (the Countess de Lave’s latest husband), the interloper takes it on the chin. Fully cognizant of the rules of the game, Crystal exits the palace of the initiated (in this case, a nightclub powder room) with one last parting shot:

Well girls, it looks like it’s back to the perfume counter for me. And by the way, there’s a name for you ladies. . .but it isn’t used in high society, outside of a kennel.

One has the feeling that this is not the last anyone will see of Crystal Allen.

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Surrounded // Game face // Parting shot

Throughout his long career, George Cukor carried the mantle of being a “woman’s director,” something he allegedly was uncomfortable with. It is easy to assert this as an obvious epithet after screening The Women, a film with an all female-cast, boasting not one male animal or artistic impression in its 133 minutes. But what are we to make of the idea that a film, or a director, can be coded as feminine? Is it a definition that rests on the mere physical presence of the fairer sex? Is it an ideological trope based on a fondness for or inclusion of certain feminine predilections (gowns, millinery, makeup, marriage, etc)?

Considering Cukor’s meticulous eye for the surroundings of his characters, it would seem that the answer lies elsewhere. Women and femininity are like the rooms and salons that Mary et al flit; gaudy showpieces that parallel the vacant notions these girls house about themselves. There is a ten minute technicolor interlude in The Women, a fashion show that highlights models in various “real life” poses, as the prance around in garishly modern Adrian designs. As the main cast recedes, melting into a black and white mass, the spectacle of all that they are desired to become, all that they should desire for themselves, rises in colorful swells before our eyes.

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Waste-space

Perhaps, to be a woman, is to be nothing more than display. Mere illusion, turning precariously around the economics of male desire. And you have to wonder, how such a thoroughly “feminine” film can be so easily subverted. Then you remember the tagline, and laugh at its sad truism: “It’s all about men!” In their own movie, women are still relegated as “the other.”

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All that a woman should want to be

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Don’t feed the monkeys

Harkening back to the very beginning of movie, in fact all the way back to the credits, the viewer is given ample preparation for this unhappy conclusion. All of the women are initially presented as animals before their more primal counterparts dissolve into gracefully smiling faces. Mary is a doe. Crystal, a leopard. Sylvia, a hissing cat. Metaphors; it’s all these girls can ever hope to be.

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The Women The Women

The Women The Women

This film, its themes, its production, and the time period within which it functions, seem like surfeit triviality against the backdrop of much greater, global tragedy. In many ways, The Women feels like a last gasp of domestic grumbling, a tempest brewing inside a teapot. And yet, if you remade this film and removed the comedy, one cannot help but to feel that it would be a truly tragic, depressing tale.

On a final, and somewhat unrelated note, I would like to discuss Rosalind Russell’s breakout performance in this film. Although she had already been on contract with MGM for five years, the studio had yet to realize the actress’s potential as a comedienne. Determined to mold her in the likeness of Myrna Loy, they resisted her requests to be tested for the unsympathetic role of Sylvia Fowler. She persisted against all doubts, including those of Cukor’s, and not only secured the part, but also star-billing in the film that made her household name.

The rapid-fire delivery and nervous movements of Sylvia Fowler foreshadow what would become Russell’s iconic role: His Girl Friday’s Hildy Johnson. Here, for the first time, we are afforded the pleasure of witnessing the kind of physical comedy Russell excelled at. Sylvia’s fight scene with Miriam is a prime example of Russell’s skill. Mouth moving a mile per minute, her histrionics never interfere with her assault of Paulette Goddard. So committed to her character was Russell, that she actually bit Goddard’s leg. Hard! Apparently Paulette sustained a scar for the rest of her life from this incident, yet it never interfered with their friendship.

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Ow.

Russell (who, Miss Fierce willingly admits is one of her favorite actresses of all time!), tells a wonderful story in her autobiography, Life is a Banquet, about how this picture predestined her marriage with future husband Freddie Brisson. On an ocean liner bound for America, Brisson fond himself hostage to the only film on board: The Women.

And wherever he sat, on any deck, he heard the soundtrack, particularly my voice, “Screaming and carrying on.” After a couple of weeks he surrendered to the inevitable. He went inside to see what he’d been hearing. He remembers thinking, “I will try to live through this picture.” And when I came on the screen in the fight scene, he laughed, and he claims he said, “I’m either gonna kill that girl, or I’m gonna marry her.”

After being formally introduced by Cary Grant, the couple did indeed marry on October 25, 1941.

3 Responses to “The Women (1939)”

  1. My-oh-my. The mother’s speech about how man has only his self to escape from was especially poignant to me.

    It shows, ever so simply and brutally, how the sexes are alienated from each other. By creating this woman’s realm of XYZ, because of gender roles, a man becomes this self-contained vehicle, nothing more than his personality and choices (simplifying somewhat here, but still there is a grain of truth to it). Whereas a woman is bogged down in so much else, so much perception…I don’t know if I am correct at all in my appraisal, but to me that speech just demonstrates the reason why for so long men were seen as so “blameless” or renewable in circumstances where women weren’t.

    I am going to watch this film – and for once, not care that I was spoiled!

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