Of course many of the characters are trivial, ridiculous ladies. The people who made the movie thought so too, that’s why they showed us the characters. They knew and deep in our hearts we know that there were (and are even today!) women whose interests do not extend much beyond clothes and gossip. Why should we hide from the fact? Of course the monkeys dressed up in miniature copies of high-fashion designs are silly – but no sillier than the women for whom this sort of status symbol is important
Taking this film on its own merits, without resorting to specious comparisons with some ideal of indescribable loftiness, it’s pretty darn good. After all, it’s a comedy, and comedy is exaggeration. And props, as they say, to screenwriter Anita Loos. Credit must be given to any woman who survives in a male-dominated field for umpteen years. She worked with D. W. Griffith! And of course Loos didn’t start writing this one from scratch, but adapted it from a play by Clare Booth Luce.
It was really a clever decision, to have not one single male in the whole picture. Yet, how to include the decisive argument between Mary and Stephen – a dialogue which includes every line ever spoken between husbands and wives in similar situations since the beginning of time – while preserving the artistic decision of the all-female cast? I can just imagine the author and/or screenwriters brainstorming this problem… Aha! Play the scene with the two women domestics, one reporting the argument and the other providing appropriate cynical comments – what a solution!
The dialogue between Mary and her mother is right on, and it can’t be denied that even in this age of openness and therapy for all, a person whose loved one strays is still faced with the same choices – confrontation or feigned ignorance – and making the choice still needs to be thought over carefully.
Technical comment: After a bad-news phone call from her husband, Mary reflectively fondles the bottle of Summer Rain perfume – cut to the department store counter with lots of bottles of Summer Rain perfume.
Crystal is such a baddie – treating the black woman as if slavery were still in effect, making her break a date, to cook a dinner which Crystal will pass off as her own handiwork. When Stephen breaks their date she brings in the big guns – it’s her birthday and her neuralgia is acting up and her sister is sick etc. Power plays between women in a struggle to hold a man are a phenomenon we can witness today. Those who clamor for verisimilitude have got it.
The fashion show of course is pure satire, and I bet the clothes looked ridiculous even to 1939 eyes, as overwrought as Fellini’s bishop robes in Roma. The woman who announces the styles promises models engaging in the “activities of everyday life” – like going on a picnic in big antebellum dresses.
Symbolic touch – Crystal snaps up the sexy nightgown that Mary planned to buy – as if to say, “You won’t be needing it, dearie.”
Technical comment – Sylvia the troublemaker reflected in a 4-way mirror, assaulting Mary from all sides with her wicked advice. What she’s saying is the most awful thing of all. Stephen has introduced the interloper to Mary’s child, they were seen having lunch in the park. When kids are dragged into an affair, mothers freak out. This is a psychological truth which there is no sense in denying. Now totally off her head, Mary rushes to the confrontation her friends are urging. Naturally Crystal is as slimy and mean as Cruella deVille.
What about the extreme demonstrativeness of Mary’s relationships with her daughter and mother? They’re forever embracing and petting and putting heads in laps. Veterans of group therapy of course are unfazed to view this, but I’m curious to know how 1939 eyes looked at the very physical style of relating in this affectionate family. Why did the director choose it? Was this sort of thing more common back then? Or is the demonstrativeness a conventional exaggeration meant to portray Familial Love, in the same way that Crystal’s gimlet eyes portray Bitchiness?
In Joan Fontaine’s autobiography No Bed of Roses she describes the making of The Women. The story of how Rosalind Russell played sick to coerce the management into giving her equal billing with Shearer and Crawford, also found in Russell’s book, is recounted here. Fontaine says working with George Cukor was a refreshingly pleasant experience.
Directed by: George Cukor
Actors: Joan Crawford, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, Hedda Hopper, Rosalind Russell, Norma Shearer