Written by: Jill Blake, CC2K Film Editor
CC2K Film Editor and Black Maria co-founder Jill Blake reviews one of the best films from Hollywood’s greatest year, 1939: George Cukor’s The Women.
2014 marks the 75th anniversary of what many consider to be the greatest year in Hollywood history–1939. The most recognizable films to come out of this monumental year, Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, have overshadowed its cinematic peers, or at least in mainstream popular culture. This year, while ramping up its publicity for both GWTW and Oz, Warner Brothers has turned its focus on the other marvelous gems from that storied year of ’39, and recently released a stunning Blu-ray of George Cukor’s MGM dazzler The Women. Known for its star-studded, fiery, all-female cast—really, not a single man in sight, even the animals—The Women is deliciously fun.
See, for a woman of high social class, life on Park Avenue can be pretty sweet…until you become the headline in the society page’s gossip column. And sometimes you don’t even know there is a problem with your so-called perfect life until after everyone else knows about it.
Such is the premise of The Women.
Norma Shearer is Mary Haines, wife of the handsome and successful Stephen Haines. The seemingly happy couple have a daughter, Little Mary (played by the incredible Virginia Weidler), and maintain a quiet, respectable, tabloid-free life. Mary’s cousin and “friend” Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell), is the polar opposite. A loud, boisterous, gossiping fiend with hardly a shred of class (at least standing next to the dignified Mary), Sylvia thrives off of drama and chaos. (A shortage of dirt to dig up and spread would mean Sylvia would probably wither and die.) One day at the spa, Sylvia has a rather enlightening conversation with a talkative manicurist who is quite happy to dish out savory gossip alongside a coat of her famous “Jungle Red” nail polish. With a half-hearted, verbal “manicurist/client” confidentiality agreement (do those even exist?) along the lines of “Get this, and don’t tell anyone I told you”, the seed is planted: Mary’s husband is having an affair with a gold digging perfume counter girl named Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford). The kind of girl, as the manicurist puts it, who runs her eyes up and down a man like a searchlight.
Instead of being a good friend and going straight to Mary to inform her of this awful gossip, Sylvia spreads the dirt around in the Park Avenue garden, so to speak. When the whispers grow to loud conversation, Sylvia recommends Mary go to a marvelous manicurist with all the latest colors…specifically, “Jungle Red.”
Unfortunately the rumors prove to be true. Stephen Haines is having an affair Crystal Allen, the social climbing, gold digging homewrecker. Mary tries to maintain her home, keep a level head and swallow her pride, even though she knows her husband is being unfaithful. She truly believes that in the end, her husband will ultimately choose to remain in their marriage. At a fashion show (a brilliant Technicolor segment, no less) where Mary and her friends purchase the latest runway styles, she is informed by Sylvia that Crystal Allen is in the neighboring dressing room –and opening charge accounts in Stephen’s name. At Sylvia’s prodding, Mary confronts Crystal, who is ever confident that her current arrangement as a kept woman will progress to her becoming the next Mrs. Stephen Haines. When Mary sees there’s no breaking up this relationship between Crystal and Stephen, it’s clear she must preserve her pride, go to Reno and obtain a divorce.
The performances in The Women are easily among the best of the actress’ respective careers. Shearer, who had the pick of roles at MGM, reached a peak with her performance as Mary Haines. Rosalind Russell made a splash as Sylvia Fowler, which foreshadows her famous fast-talking roles as Hildy Johnson and Auntie Mame. Joan Crawford’s Crystal Allen may not be as iconic as her Mildred Pierce, but it is classic 1930’s Crawford. And then there is an incredible supporting cast featuring hilarious, and at times heart-wrenching, performances by Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, Mary Boland, Marjorie Main, and the wonderful child actress Virginia Weidler—who, incidentally, could hold her own with any adult actor (see All This, and Heaven Too and especially The Philadelphia Story. Weidler steals every single scene from her co-stars).
The Women is truly a one-of-a-kind film in every way. Besides a glamorous all-female cast and the terrific George Cukor as director, its story is fresh and clever (thanks to playwright Clare Boothe Luce), the dialogue furiously funny, and the fashions either timeless and chic, or … “Um, is Roz Russell wearing eyeballs on her chest?”
Yes. Yes she is.
Warner Brothers released The Women on Blu-ray on May 6, 2014. The film looks and sounds spectacular—a well-deserved upgrade for this beloved classic. Included with this 75th anniversary edition are the following special features:
- Documentaries, From the Ends of the Earth and Hollywood: Style Center of the World
- Alternate Black and White Fashion Show Sequence with Different Footage
- Scoring Session Music Cues
- Theatrical Trailers of The Women and it’s 1956 musical remake, The Opposite Sex