Director: George Cukor
Writer: Anita Loos and Jane Murfin; based on The Women (1936) by Clare Boothe Luce
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg and Oliver T. Marsh
Producer: Hunt Stromberg
by Jon Cvack
The Women was described as one of the first forays into Sex and the City territory, following a cast comprised entirely of women, with not a single male featured in the entire production, including the animals, as even any background artwork featuring animals included only female illustrations (all, that is, except for a single cartoon; though how someone discovered this one exception is beyond me).
The story follows five high society Manhattan women, focused primarily on Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) who’s near perfect life is disrupted when she discovers that her husband is cheating on her with a perfume saleswoman Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford). The movie opens up at a chaotic massage parlor, moving from white woman to white woman, which gets confusing in black and white, as with everyone dressed in robes I quickly lost track of who is who, other than to realize that the spa is a gossip colony, spreading information and hearsay with lightning speed, where Mary’s cousin Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell) eventually discovering the affair while receiving a manicure. Mary then hits up the spa to corroborate the story, and in a heartbreaking scene, finds the same manicurist who unleashed the gossip to be the veyr person she’s talking to. She commiserates with her others friends, including: Paulette Goddard as Miriam Aarons, Phyllis Povah as Edith Potter, and Joan Fontaine as Peggy Day.
The situation worsens when after a bizarre though beautiful color sequence during a fashion show (again the rest of the movie black and white), Crystal and Mary to bump into each other, with Crystal vowing to maintain their relationship as it’s not worth Mary abandoning her perfect life. The situation’s worsened when she goes to her mother (Lucile Watson) who essentially offers the same advice, and in a cynical rant, declares that on account of men being weak while coveting power and money, infidelity is a normal occurrence which Mary needs to accept, which Mary attempts to do until the her confrontation with Crystal leads the story to the society column.
Mary decides to divorce her husband, heading to Reno where it was legal at the time for a woman to carry out the separation without permission from her husband. There she meets three new friends: the tosspot and ranch owner Lucy (Marjorie Main), Countess de Lave (Mary Boland), and tough girl Miriam Aarons (Paulette Goddard), with Peggy showing up later pregnant, dealing with her own complicated love triangle. With her life descending out of control, with nothing to do beyond drinking and going to dinner with the girls, Mary’s husband calls, saying he’s granting the divorce and marrying Crystal.
Years later, the film opens on Crystal in a bathtub, talking to Buck, who’s now married to the Countess de Lave, which Mary’s daughter Little Mary hears about, then telling her mother. Mary convinces the Countess to have Buck admit what was going on to Stephen, relegating Crystal back to the perfume counter, and Mary to go fight to get back Stephen.
With my sister going back home and my mom falling back asleep, it was just my girlfriend and I who watched the film. And while she failed to see the connection to Sex and the City for the first half, it was finishing the second where she saw the connection; in that, like Sex and the City, for as much as it was meant to empower women and offer a female-centric narrative, it ultimately concluded with the woman (Carrie, I believe) going back to a man named Big who had once abandoned her at the wedding altar (I’ve never seen more than a few episodes). The Women offers a similar conclusion, where rather than finding joy in the poetic justice of Stephen being cheated on by the woman who he was willing to cheat with, Mary vows to get him back.
George Cukor was one of the few successful gay directors working at the time (per the era, everyone knew this fact, but he was never open about it). Looking at his filmography you’d see an abundance of female oriented films - My Fair Lady (1964), A Star is Born (1954), Little Women (1933) that all have strong women characters. The ending is a disappointment, but the fact that one of the top directors made a film starring only females, featuring over 130 cast members, you can’t fault the guy for trying to offer a more inclusive Hollywood. I’d bet we never see a studio film of this type ever again, down to the artwork featuring only female animals. It makes you realize that it’s never Hollywood as a whole that's bigoted or sexists, but rather those who fight to maintain the status quo and exploit their positions of power for the wrong reasons. There were some good men out there, even in 1939. Watching this you realize how much further there is to go, as if I saw this when it came out, I figured we’d be far ahead of where we currently are.
BELOW: Meeting the other woman
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