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The Women

1939

 

  

 

 

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US VHS.Region 1 DVD.US Blu-ray.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

 

Film Notes:

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.

 

American Film Institute page

IMDb page

moviediva.com background info

TCM article

Wikipedia page

 


 

Critics' Reviews:

 

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.

 

 


 

Our Reviews:

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.

 

 

Michael Lia.Michael Lia  (June 2019)

Rating: star02_pink.gifstar02_pink.gifstar02_pink.gifstar02_pink.gifstar02_pink.gif of 5

 

"La publicité, la publicité..."

The life of a movie begins somewhere and has many lives before it becomes our favorite movie. It can come from an idea--something you saw, a thought, a true story, a poem, a stage play; or it can be a conversation heard by a sophisticated Hattie Carnegie-wearing lady with big ears and pen and paper in a women’s lounge in 1936. That moment of conversation overheard by author Clare Boothe Luce set into motion something that ultimately involved hundreds of lives and careers and became one of the best motion pictures of 1939, only after being performed on Broadway for 657 performances. The Women is still a favorite fabulous movie 80 years later; the film and Miss Crawford are something you will never forget.

The drama that followed director George Cukor’s dismissal from GWTW and being sent to the set of The Women with a trainload of female stars waiting for him had to be somewhat difficult. After a lot of pressure from Joan, MGM head Louis B. Mayer OK’d Miss Crawford for what he considered a small, unpleasant role, one certainly not big enough for a star! Crawford also convinced Cukor she could handle the role; perhaps she only wanted the role so she could get back atlongtime rival and Women star Norma Shearer (then the First Lady of cinema and of MGM).

The cast only the MGM factory could have assembled was sublime. Besides Joan and Norma was Paulette Goddard, on her way to and from Charlie Chaplin fame; Rosalind Russell, finally getting a comedic role; and Joan Fontaine, pre-Rebecca (1940), still the new girl on the block and the most insipid character in the movie. Thank God for Mary Boland, the best character actress next to Edna Mae Oliver and Billie Burke. Other standout character actresses are Lucille Watson (Harriet Craig, 1950), playing one of her recurring wise-mother roles, and Dennie Moore (Sylvia Scarlett, 1936) as Olga the Manicurist, who sets the movie in motion with her gossip.  

The multitude of actresses were dressed by theubiquitous and talented Adrian, flanked by the equally talented Sydney Guilaroff, who made sure the hair looked good (and when he couldn’t, he used lots of silly hats--the movie has lots of fabric and hair!). All of this topped off by the most important men on the crew: the cameramen. Here, Oliver T. Marsh (Crawford loved him; he shot around eight of her films altogether) and, from Russia, Joseph Ruttenberg (Mrs. Miniver, Gigi).

In my review here, I’ll try to focus primarily on Miss Crawford’s performance. She has only four scenes, but to me, she never seems to leave the screen. She is constantly lurking and scheming in the background and in the audience's collective mind. Thanks to Cukor, she reveals a new Crawford. (A side-note: I once read a review about Crawford’s performance here in which the writer said the film and performances are dated except for Crawford, who comes out best because “Bitches don’t date"! Joan really does come off the best in The Women; she, basically, is what the whole story is about.)

I have worked as a fragrance sprayer in Bonwit Teller and Macy's and Marshall Field, before people got uptight about being sprayed by a man in a tuxedo or a beautiful tall girl in a gorgeous dress. I wasn’t a shopgirl, but I sure got to know them and the class system that existed both behind and in front of the counter, as well as the bitchery and competition that went on. I met many Crystals, so let's just bring her on--she is the composite of all of those women I worked with.

Miss Crawford’s first scene shows us sweet Crystal dusting off some perfume bottles thinking cherry thoughts to herself about her married lover and their rendezvous that evening (Norma’s husband: Mr. Stephen Haines, 20 Wall). She is sharp, blunt, and determined, with only one goal in mind…herself!

Enter Butterfly McQueen (Mildred Pierce,1945) playing Lu Lu the cosmetic counter maid, here in her movie debut. “Were you asking for me, Miss Crystal?" Crystal, with a cig hanging out of her mouth, asks her to cook dinner for her and Stephen that evening. We never see Butterfly cooking those lamb chops in Crystal's apartment, and we never see Butterfly again, but one of my favorite quotes is when Crystal asked her to cook dinner for two bucks and Butterfly says, “Can’t you make it three?" Crystal gruffly replies, “I said two bucks."

When Crystal's lover Stephen Haines calls her at work to cancel their rendezvous so he can be with his wife, you get all of Crystal right there, as you also do when Rosalind Russell and Phyllis Povah come to the perfume counter at “Blacks” to see the little tart who hooked Mr. Haines. Crystal's smirking and snarling has the audience in anticipation of loving to hate this woman who has stolen a husband from Miss Shearer, the loving loyal classy wife. (When I saw The Women at the Castro in San Francisco, the audience would gleefully hiss--AND cheer!--every time she appeared!)

Crawford as Crystal is the epitome of an actress who knows what she is doing and has worked on her craft; no one should ever say she was not an actress. After nearly 15 years in films, she at this point has learned enough to know who Crystal is and how to portray her and how to dazzle us with her intricate performance. I'm sure fans at the time were shocked, but this time she wasn’t playing around with her tuxedo-clad male co-stars---she was here herself: raw, willing, and able! As we first see her fondling a bottle of perfume and mouthing insipid customer-friendly thoughts, she suddenly springs into action and shows us the real Crystal Allen: She is sharp, fast, and bold, as well as blunt and to the point. Her first rapid dialogue fires away with gutter sophistication, and her impressive voice is something to be saluted! (She could have taught dialects and accents in real life, but here she is the master of intonation and elocution.) She is right on and not afraid---which is really the point of the movie: Crystal is not afraid.

The telephone scene is one of the best. Here, Crystal is supported by the young, fresh Virginia Grey (The Rose Tattoo, 1955), who smirks and mocks as Crystal says lines to Mr. Haines like, “It's such good discipline for my selfishness.” As the two nasty hens come creeping in to spy on Crystal at work, Crawford and Russell go wit for wit. They match each other perfectly; the dialogue and the tone of their voices are layered with subtle and not so subtle wisecracks and digs. Their Mrs. Prowler/Fowler exchange is skillful and funny.

By Joan's next scene, Crystal is shopping on credit at “Blacks,” snapping up every item for her new life with Stephen. Russell's Sylvia gets a whiff of it and sets up a confrontation scene with Norma's Mrs. Haines, one possibly bigger than Miriam Hopkins and Bette Davis in 1943's Old Acquaintance. Just two MGM Queens letting art imitate life after years of rivalry. In this scene from The Women, the Queens discuss Mr. Haines and the illicit affair face to face, breath to breath, character to character. Crystal is not going to say she is sorry or try to fix things or even cry. Miss Norma tries her best dealing with white-trash Crystal with her “Oh, you are a hard one!" Crystal responds nonchalantly, “I can be soft in the right places.” Big stuff for 1939!

Miss Crawford’s bathtub scene finishes off the audience's hatred of her; she is violent in that tub, throwing things at her maid and yelling, then dealing with the little Haines brat while waiting for her new lover Buck Winston to call. (Gosh, kind of twisted, these society people!) She then deals with the visiting, suspicious Sylvia (yes, there are a lot of people in that bathroom! As Crystal says, “You’d think it was Grand Central Station!") This exchange Crystal haswith her maid and the little Haines brat and Russell is another film wonder Joan gives us. You hate her, but you have to love her balls. And if you want her to be a little more mean, that’s OK.

In Crystal's final scene, her affair with Buck Winston is busted. The gang of ladies are all here when Crystal enters to confront Sylvia. Finding Sylvia locked in the closet, Crystal realizes she has lost and will lose both Mr. Haines and the playboy Buck Winston. In Crystal's finale, she realizes she is going back to the perfume counter, but she goes out with the classic line: “There’s a name for you ladies, but it isn’t used outside of a kennel. So long!” And out she goes, with her fur hanging over one shoulder, and Norma running cross-eyed to her husband with her jungle-red nails aloft...

The only people I have known to dislike the film or play were Eleanor Roosevelt and my neighbor Darlene; they both thought it made women look bad and stupid and shallow. The First Lady had her reasons and would feel the same way today about women and probably yoga pants. My elder sister, who is a bitch, saw it and said, “Joan Crawford is such a bitch in that movie, I never liked her.” So I had to explain to her that Miss Crawford was an excellent actress and it was a part she was playing. As Mr. Cukor said, “Miss Crawford did not hold back.” And aren’t you glad.

 


 

Mike O'Hanlon  (August 2007)

 

Though her screen time in The Women is relatively brief, Joan Crawford 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 Mary Boland relishes with her backstabbing, two faced part. Truly a classic movie, almost everyone will find something to enjoy with The Women.

By 1939, Joan Crawford'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, Joan Crawford 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. Joan Crawford is what made The Women so successful.

For Norma Shearer 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 Norma Shearer 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 Chester Morris 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, Robert Montgomery. 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, Norma Shearer's life of extremely exciting sexual adventure clearly makes an idiot of her husband, and Chester Morris 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 Europe to start over. In Divorcee, she asks Conrad Nagel, "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.

Joan Crawford lobbied desperately to Louis B. Mayer and George Cukor to let her play Crystal Allan, Norma Shearer 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 Pride and Prejudice (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 Greer Garson 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 Norma Shearer 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 Joan Crawford in The Women (1939), they will no doubt find Norma Shearer just as exciting in The Divorcee (1930).

 

 


 

Movie Posters:

 Original 1939 release

           

                           US original half-sheet.

 

     Spain.     Belgian poster.

 

 

Subsequent re-release

      US re-release half-sheet. 22 x 28 inches.      US 1947 re-release. One-sheet.     US re-release half-sheet.

 

 

German 1980s re-release.        UK 2004 re-release. 30 x 40 inches.

 

 


 

Lobby Cards:

  

Original 1939 US theatrical release

   

   

   US re-release lobby.

 

   

1947 US theatrical re-release

   US re-release lobby.

   

 

Below:  Italian lobby (40 by 55 cm).

Italian lobby.

 


Misc. Images:

US campaign book. 22 pages.       US window card.

Above:  US campaign-book cover and US window card.

Below:  US magazine ad and US herald.

US magazine ad.       US herald.

 

 Spanish herald.

Above:  Spanish herald.

 

 

Below:  Three 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.

 

       

 

 

 


 

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