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The Women (1939) FS R1 Retail DVD
Women having cat fights over men never looked better than they did in George Cukor's adaptation of Clare Boothe-Luce's hit Broadway play. An all-star cast of actresses (which included the established, the Broadway vets, and the rising in one huge ensemble), THE WOMEN never once seems as if it's aged a bit because its story could very well be placed in a modern setting.
The only shame I think is that its release coincided with the year 1939. There were too many other movies that were already vying for recognition and because of this massive competition it got lost in the shuffle. Had its releasemore… been withheld until the following year, there's no doubt it would have gotten at least an acting nomination, or multiple nominations in different categories including best picture.
The story at the center is any woman's nightmare: that her husband is having an affair and that everyone but her knows about it. Norma Shearer is this woman. She plays Mary Haines, happily married to Stephen Haines and mother of Little Mary. She has no idea that Stephen is having a torrid affair with perfume clerk Crystal Allen, but Sylvia does (as does everyone else) and plans to have Mary find out about it. Sylvia uses the communication skills of a manicurist to have Mary find out about her husband's secret, and things boil up to a crescendo at a fashion show when both Mary and Crystal meet and spar. Mary decides after an argument to leave her husband in a quickie divorce signing at Reno where she meets not only the eccentric Countess deLave but Miriam Aarons, who is the other woman in the Fowler marriage. Sylvia later also arrives in tears and then finds out that Miriam is set to be the next Mrs. Fowler and a fight ensues. At the last moment, Mary gets a call from Stephen: he will marry Crystal Allen after all. Crystal, now the new Mrs. Stephen Haines, takes to his money and her new lifestyle with a vengeance and makes Stephen pretty miserable. On top of that, she is carrying on with a new guy, Buck, who was up to now the Countess deLave's husband. Sylvia of course learns of this, and the news reaches Mary's ears, who tries to win back her husband and re-kindle her marriage using the same viciousness used against her.
At first glance this is a pretty straightforward comedy of manners among the women who inhabit this world -- who are more real than anyone would like to imagine. However, there are a lot of little elements that the script adaptation of Booth-Luce's play tell about women and how they see not only other women in society, rich or poor, but how they see themselves in a world where the next young thing could displace them and their perfect homes. In essence, this is the first movie to tackle the issue of divorce so successfully and movies like THE FIRST WIVES' CLUB and the TV soaps MELROSE PLACE and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES owe a lot to THE WOMEN. The use of the term 'sister' is an interesting one, it being at the heart of the feminist movement -- female bonding is one of the film's strongest points and serves as a counterpart to the viciousness that we see early on. Interesting that Miriam Aarons, herself an "other woman" is the first to come up with the term. She is the exact opposite of Crystal Allen. She also comes from the streets but is a well-meaning woman and Paulette Goddard plays her like she herself has been there.
Cukor definitely knows his actresses and extracts their best performances of their careers. Of the main actresses, the only one to have been past her prime is Norma Shearer but she gives here her last great performance. Restrained, at times even underplayed, vulnerable in a world of female sharks, watch for the scene when she collapses into tears at the news that her husband will marry another woman. This other woman, played by Joan Crawford at a time when she needed the boost in her career (albeit a temporary one), is vicious, made of steel, and Crawford sinks her teeth and claws into Crystal, all growls and purrs, and literally walks off with the movie. Too bad she wasn't considered for a Best Supporting Oscar. This is her best performance on screen, multi-layered, fascinating. An interesting sequence between her and Virginia Weidler (who outdoes her admirably in a sensitive role) playing Mary's daughter is one with future "Mommie Dearest" echoes. And needless to say the rich comedic timing that Rosalind Russell brings to pretty horrific character, Sylvia Fowler. What an actress! She pulls out all the stops in her scenes, going from plain bitchy, to conniving, to furious, to deceived, and all the time in that rapid-fire speech of hers. Marjorie Main, Mary Boland, Lucille Watson, and Joan Fontaine are all great -- well written characters all directed by the equally great George Cukor who has created a timeless classic with this movie.
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