The Best of Everything
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MGM. 134 minutes.
US theatrical release: 9/1/39.
US theatrical re-release: 9/5/47.
VHS release: 6/25/96.
DVD release: 7/7/02.
Blu-ray release: 5/6/14.
Cast: Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford (as "Crystal Allen"), Rosalind Russell, Mary Boland, Paulette Goddard, Phyllis Povah, Joan Fontaine, Virginia Weidler, Lucile Watson, Florence Nash, Muriel Hutchinson, Esther Dale, Ann Moriss, Ruth Hussey, Dennie Moore, Mary Cecil, Mary Beth Hughes, Virginia Grey, Marjorie Main, Cora Witherspoon, Hedda Hopper.
Credits: Based on the play by Clare Boothe. Screenplay: Anita Loos, Jane Murfin. (F. Scott Fitzgerald and Donald Ogden Stewart were uncredited contributors.) Producer: Hunt Stromberg. Director: George Cukor. Camera: Oliver T. Marsh, Joseph Ruttenberg. Art Director: Cedric Gibbons. Music: Edward Ward, David Snell. Costumes: Adrian. Editor: Robert J. Kerns.
Plot Summary: Based on the Clare Booth Luce play of the same name, this MGM comedy is justly famous for its all-female cast and deft direction by George Cukor. The plot centers on a group of gossipy high-society women who spend their days at the beauty salon and haunting fashion shows. The sweet, happily wedded Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) finds her marriage in trouble when shopgirl Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford) gets her hooks into Mary's man. Naturally, this situation becomes the hot talk amongst Mary's catty friends, especially the scandalmonger Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell), who has little room to talk -- she finds herself on a train to Reno and headed for divorce right after Mary. But with a bit of guts and daring, Mary snatches her man right back from Crystal's clutches. Snappy, witty dialogue, much of it courtesy of veteran screenwriter Anita Loos, helps send this film's humor over the top. So do the characterizations -- Crawford is as venomous as they come, and this was Russell's first chance to show what she could do as a comedienne. And don't discount Shearer -- her portrayal of good-girl Mary is never overpowered by these two far-flashier roles. The only part of The Women that misses is the fashion-show sequence. It was shot in color -- an innovative idea in its day -- but now both the concept and clothes are dreary and archaic. Do keep an eye on the supporting players, though, especially Mary Boland as the Countess DeLage. The role was based on a cafe society dame of that era, the Countess DiFrasso, who had a wild affair with Gary Cooper; that romance is satirized here. ~ Janiss Garza, All Movie Guide
• In production from 4/25/39 to 7/7/39.
• The original play opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in NYC on 12/26/36 and ran for 657 performances.
• Phyllis Povah, Marjorie Main, Mary Cecil, and Marjorie Wood reprised their stage roles in the film.
• The film was remade as "The Opposite Sex" in 1956, with Joan Collins in the Crystal Allen role. (Men did appear in this version.) And was remade again in 2008, directed by Diane English.
• Named one of the 10 best films of 1939 by the New York Times. Also on the Times' 1000 best films list.
Frank S. Nugent in the New York Times
September 22, 1939
The tonic effect of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's film of Clare Boothe's "The Women" is so marvelous we believe every studio in Hollywood should make at least one thoroughly nasty picture a year. The saccharine is too much with us; going and coming to syrupy movies we lose our sense of balance. Happily, Miss Boothe hasn't. She has dipped her pen in venom and written a comedy that would turn a litmus paper pink. Metro, without alkalizing it too much, has fed it to a company of actresses who normally are so sweet that butter (as the man says) would not melt in their mouths. And, instead of gasping and clutching at their throats, the women—bless 'em—have downed it without blinking, have gone on a glorious cat-clawing rampage and have turned in one of the merriest pictures of the season.
Her comedy, which Metro's Anita Loos and Jane Murfin have adapted remarkably well, is in the nature of a sociological investigation of the scalpel-tongued Park Avenue set, entirely female, who amputate their best friends' reputations at luncheon, dissect their private lives at the beauty salon and perform the postmortems over the bridge table, while the victims industriously carve away at their surgeons. It is a ghoulish and disillusioning business and the drama critics, when first they saw the play, turned away in chivalrous horror, wondering—no doubt—whether they, too, had a Mrs. Hyde under their roofs.
Possibly some of that venom has been lost in the screen translation. Edith Potter's "glorious motherhood"—do you remember the scene in the play when she blew the cigarette ashes off her infant's nose—has not been satirized so bitingly. A few of the blunt words have been softened. The omissions are not terribly important and some of the new sequences are so good Miss Boothe might have thought of them herself. Among these, however, we do not include a style show in Technicolor which may be lovely—at least that's what most of the women around us seemed to think—but has no place in the picture. Why not a diving exhibition or a number by the Rockettes? It is the only mark against George Cukor's otherwise shrewd and sentient direction.
The most heartening part of it all, though, aside from the pleasure we derive from hearing witty lines crackle on the screen, is the way Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard and the others have leaped at the chance to be vixens. Miss Shearer, as the Mary Stephens whose divorce and matrimonial comeback keep the cat-fight going, is virtually the only member of the all-feminine cast who behaves as one of Hollywood's leading ladies is supposed to. And even Miss Shearer's Mary sharpens her talons finally and joins the birds of prey. It is, parenthetically, one of the best performances she has given.
Rosalind Russell, who usually is sympathetic as all-get-out, is flawless—by which we mean as good as Ilka Chase was—as the archprowler in the Park Avenue jungle. Miss Crawford is hard as nails in the Crystal Allen role, which is as it should be; and Miss Goddard as a frank house-wrecker, Mary Boland as a shameless buyer in the love mart, Virginia Weidler as Miss Shearer's daughter, Lucile Watson as Mrs. Morehead, Marjorie Main as the realist from Reno are all so knowing, so keen on their jobs and so successful in bringing them off that we don't know when we've ever seen such a terrible collection of women. They're really appallingly good, and so is their picture.
New York Herald Tribune (1939):
Some of the venom of the play has been extracted, while Miss Boothe's sentimental consideration of her heroine has become even more sentimental. What will matter to most filmgoers is the fact that the show is caustically comic, that is has enlisted a slew of Hollywood's top actresses in its company, and that George Cukor, the atmosphere expert of the screen, has saturated the proceedings in femininity....The Women is a women's show, but one which is certain to flatter and amuse most men....Joan Crawford gives a conventional but striking performance as the shopgirl who tries to hook the heroine's husband.
If you've seen The Women and would like to share your review here, please e-mail me. Feel free to include a photo of yourself to accompany your review, a star-rating (with 5 stars the best), as well as any of your favorite lines from the film.
Mike O'Hanlon (August 2007)
Though her screen time in The Women is relatively brief, steals every scene she's in. She's completely believable and sexy as "the other woman", and delivers a performance that, with the exception of Rosalind Russel's, steals the film from the all star cast. The supporting players are equally entertaining. Paulette Godard makes the most of her tough as nails character, Lucille Watson once again shows how intelligent a woman with experience can really be, and relishes with her backstabbing, two faced part. Truly a classic movie, almost everyone will find something to enjoy with The Women.
By 1939, 's career had been on the wane for three years. Out of her previous seven films, only Love on the Run (1936) had performed successfully. When she renewed her MGM contract in 1938, her salary had dropped from $125,000 to $100,000 a picture. Well, duh! Her movies after 1934 were lackluster, and too predictable to draw long lines at the box office, but it wasn't her fault. MGM soaked her dry for box office, squeezing every last penny out of her. With The Women, not only revived her career, but also proved she could act. She is indeed cold blooded, but to call her villain is overrating her. She's just portraying a woman who is determined to get herself on the right side of the tracks, just like old times. is what made The Women so successful.
For fans however, it was the perfect example of her Hollywood demise. Though her performance is virtually excellent considering she didn't have much to work with, 1939's The Women was a slap in the face to the image Norma had acquired after her Oscar winning performance in The Divorcee (1930). The character of Mary Haines is respectable, but she becomes a distraction after awhile, making one wish Crystal Allan would have been focused on more. When Mary catches her husband having an affair, she insists on getting a divorce to maintain her pride. It sounds like an revival of the precode days, but it's obvious throughout the movie she wants nothing to return to her husband, and pitifully does in the end. When Norma finds out that has been fooling around in The Divorcee, sure she divorces him, but before she leaves, she goes out and has sex with her husband's best friend, . Could a jilted wife find any other way for real revenge?
As a single gal in The Women, Norma holds herself together best as she can. She finds no other lovers to distract her. She has no meaningless affairs. In The Divorcee, 's life of extremely exciting sexual adventure clearly makes an idiot of her husband, and remains bitter towards her. Norma's sex life gets so out of control, at least by 1930's standards, Chester has no choice but move to to start over. In Divorcee, she asks , "What should an ex wife do? Spend her days doing good deeds? Going to bed at night with suitable books?" Norma's days as an ex wife in The Women are so completely different from her single days nine years earlier, it's hard to imagine that the same star could excel in portraying both women. Well, at least it's proof of how versatile she was.
lobbied desperately to Louis B. Mayer and to let her play Crystal Allan, never wanted to make The Women. After achieving her enormous comeback in Marie Antoinette (1938), which grossed more money than any previous MGM movie, Norma followed it up with one of her most entertaining films, Idiot's Delight (1939). When Norma wanted to follow up the latter film with (1940), Louis B Mayer told her she would indeed star in it if she made The Women first, and she unwillingly agreed. Then Mayer, after promising her the part opposite Lawrence Olivier and for a prestigious production on location in England, pulled an unexpected punch and gave the part to for his own personal revenge on Norma for not selling Irving Thalberg's percent of MGM profits. (The percentage deal made her a very wealthy woman until she died.)
Unfortunately, this virtually excellent picture is the most known movie, and probably the key to why it has turned the public against her. She does come off as boring and dull, but she can't help it, and the movie as a whole is perfect. Fortunately now her naughty precodes have gotten an ample amount of attention with the publishing of Mick LaSalle's "Complicated Women", and for anyone who has enjoyed the sexy in The Women (1939), they will no doubt find just as exciting in The Divorcee (1930).
Original 1939 release
Original 1939 US theatrical release
1947 US theatrical re-release
Below: 3 pages of a program from the August 31, 1939, premiere night of The Women at Grauman's, plus a close-up of a ticket to the event.
The Best of Everything