Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live

Seeing “Jungle Red” Over THE WOMEN

The Women—And It’s All About Men!” shrieks the movie’s trailer. “Out of the boudoir, onto the screen skyrockets Clare Booth Luce’s sensational stage hit of 135 women with nothing on their minds but men! Dowagers and debutantes! Chorines and mannequins! See them with their hair down and their claws out!

Or in my case, just lead me quietly into the backyard and shoot me.

Don’t get me wrong—I don’t mind the occasional female slugfest. (Paging Bette and Miriam!) Or characters dishing and even fighting over guys (hey, it happens). But The Women is so relentlessly one note, it seems less like a “women’s movie” than any film that ever got stuck with that awful, insipid label. True, there’s not a single man in the cast (including Terry the terrier, who went on to play Toto). But everything these women think, say and do revolves around getting, keeping, deceiving or retrieving one—usually at another woman’s expense.

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Of course the movie’s supposed to be broad (excuse the expression) and over the top—much, I suppose, the way cyanide is supposed to taste like almonds. But oh, the relentless hamminess! It’s like being beaten about the face with actual hams. And Rosalind Russell (Sylvia Fowler) reportedly felt that director George Cukor reined her in too much? Good God, did she want to come crashing, physically, through the screen, and land in the laps of moviegoers? It’s not easy to out-act Marjorie Main, but damned if she doesn’t try. I kept longing for her to suddenly morph into Hildy from His Girl Friday, effortlessly swatting comic lines over the fence…

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I did that kind of thing a lot during this film. I guess I like the women in The Women too much to like The Women. Especially Norma Shearer, my Pre-Code patron saint, who’s completely neutered here. Even her fabulously wild hair has been beaten, pinned and sprayed into submission.

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After suffering nobly for most of the film, her upper lip firm but ever so slightly quivering, Shearer (Mary Haines) finally “wins” back her ex-husband Stephen—who cheated on her so blatantly that news of his affair was Topic A at the local salon—and literally welcomes him with open arms. Shearer handled this much better a few years earlier, in The Divorcee: When Chester Morris strayed, she returned the favor by having a fling with his gorgeous friend, Robert Montgomery (which I believe is the literal definition of “sweet revenge”). Then she told her horrified husband where he could stick his double standard: “Look for me in the future where the primroses grow and pack your man’s pride with the rest! From now on, you’re the only man in the world that my door is closed to!”

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Now clearly in 1939, that sort of thing was not gonna fly with Will Hays and company. But The Women swings so far in the other direction that it gave me whiplash. It’s like they crammed every oppressive thing about the production code into a single spool of film.

For instance: Wife + Backbone = Bad! Even Lucile Watsonwho is usually, to steal a line from Shaw, a consort battleship (or battleaxe!)advises her daughter Mary to do as she did and meekly look the other way when her husband runs around on her. Later, Paulette Goddard (Miriam) patiently explains to Mary that it’s her fault—what with her damn pride and allthat Stephen was pretty much forced to marry his mistress.

In fact, the movie might as well be called The Women’s Fault. Because it always is. Later on, after a visit with her father, Little Mary (Virginia Weidler) tells her mother how miserable he is because of Crystal, who, shockingly, isn’t exactly the domestic type. Poor Stephen! Can this benighted soul never get a break? His first wife was all uppity and proud and everything, and now his second wife is doing to him exactly what he did to his first wife! Da noiv! (Mercifully, Weidler soon escaped to The Philadelphia Story, where she mixed with much sharper, wittier characters—women, even!—who had actual depth and dimension and never apologized for it.)

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Meanwhile, poor Joan Fontaine, as Peggy, had to park her spine in cold storage for the entire shoot: She’s set on one speed—Simper—pretty much from start to finish (“Ohhh, Johhhnnyyy!”), which means she dutifully earns a happy ending. I have visions of this whip-smart woman leafing through the script and saying “Really?!? I have to play the doe-eyed naif again?!?” But that was the one character trait she was assigned, not to be confused with The Noble Wife (Shearer), The Gold-Digging Hussy (Joan Crawford), The Nasty Gossip (Russell), The Tough Cookie with the Heart of Gold (Goddard), The Wise Matron (Watson), The Ditzy Dowager (Mary Boland) or The Country Hick (Main, who—just in case we didn’t get the point that she’s, you know, rustic—belts out so many off-key verses of On Top of Old Smoky you want to hurl yourself off the nearest cliff).

And we don’t even have to wait until the movie actually starts to get clobbered over the head with the one-note stereotypes: during the opening credits, each character is represented by an appropriate animal (Shearer’s a deer, Fontaine’s a lamb, Russell’s a cat, and on and on). That most of these fabulous actresses did as much with their roles as they did is a great credit to them and to Cukor, rather than to the shallow material they had to work with.

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Even if I squint (and maybe drink) really hard and try to view The Women as satire, it doesn’t work, because good satire’s not written with a sledgehammer. And for Clare Booth Luce—who was no fan of her own gender and was once overheard at a state dinner proclaiming that all women wanted were “babies and security”—this was definitely no spoof. This was who she was—one of those women who go about the country preaching to other women about the virtues of  homemaking, while their own families couldn’t pick them out of a line-up. And Anita Loos, who helped adapt the stage version for the screen, could certainly be cutting and clever, but wasn’t exactly renowned for complexity either. Ironically, the only one who tried to turn these cardboard cutouts into flesh and blood was a man. In May 1938, MGM assigned F. Scott Fitzgerald to work on the film, but he was fired in October because, according to his biographer Matthew J. Bruccoli, his dialogue was “insufficiently bitchy.”

The final screenplay suffered no such deficiency.

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This post is part of the Contrary to Popular Opinion Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently and me, where we set the consensus on its head by defending a maligned film, performer or director or toppling a beloved one! To see all the entries, click here!

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30 Comments

  1. I’ve heard a few things about this one. Just the simple fact that it was a rare movie with an all-female cast (something that is almost never seen) was a fascinating decision. On the other hand from what you’ve said, it was a wasted opportunity. I knew it was a comedy that dealt with relationships but wow, talk about movie that comes so close to passing the Bechdel Test (two out of three) and then flunks at the last minute. I know that at the time it actually was possible for movies to have strong female leads (Howard Hawks made a whole career out of it) even when there was a romance, which makes films like this all the more infuriating.

    Even more depressing is that, as far as I know, it took 66 years before someone could do an all-female movie right. If you want a good movie with an all-female cast who does some things besides talking about men, you could try Neil Marshal’s 2005 horror film ‘The Descent’. It centers around an all-female team of cave divers who are anything but the stereotypes enforced in The Women, although it might not be easy to sit through if you have claustrophobia.

  2. kstdenis

    “I guess I like the women in The Women too much to like The Women.” Great line!! I watch it occasionally just to look at the women : ) and try to ignore most of the dialogue. You’re right, get a backbone ladies, and tell Phil Andering (isn’t that hubby’s name?) to take a hike.

    • Phil Andering — LOL! Yes, you’d think she would have known she’d be in for trouble!! Thank you for your kind words about my review!!

  3. I love the fact that it is all women, and the Technicolor fashion show is fantastic… but, I agree with you that they all spend their whole time worrying about men, and also that each character is rather two-dimensional, despite all these great actresses and Cukor do to make them more than that. Great review.

    • Thank you, Judy! Yes, they had such a great cast and director… too bad it got wasted on a shallow script!!

  4. Although I truly (TRULY) love The Women — I’ve seen it more than any other movie and will never get enough of it — I genuinely enjoyed your write-up, and you actually had me laughing out loud a couple of time. Really good stuff!

    • Thank you, Karen! Lots of women I know love this film, but it’s just not my cup of tea… but you couldn’t really tell that from the review, right? 🙂

  5. Preach it, Sister Celluloid. I find “The Women” a tedious exercise to watch. Like the first commenter said, it was a wasted opportunity for an all-female cast. There are some very good lines in this film, but I find myself cheering for homewrecker Joan Crawford and rolling my eyes nearly every time Norma Shearer appears on screen.

    Great review! Thoroughly enjoyed it.

    • Thank you, Ruth! I loved your Postman takedown as well!! And yes, it’s funny how, as much of a moralizer Clare Booth Luce was, the “bad” characters were the only interesting ones!!

  6. I’m glad I’m not alone in my dislike for this distasteful film. Thanks for the review!

  7. I might not always like or approve of what they are saying, but I have such fun watching them say it. I imagine I always will.

  8. I’m with you 100% on this film, and loved all the great lines in your review. I don’t think I’ve seen many films more offensive to women. I was so disappointed in Shearer after her earlier work. Ruth is right–only Crawford was worth rooting for. I especially liked this line: “good satire’s not written with a sledgehammer.” I’m enjoying the blogathon so much so far, by the way! Such a great idea. Leah

    • Thank you, Leah! Looking forward to your take on Some Like It Hot, which I’m sure I’ll agree with!! :

  9. So true! This movie drove me nuts and for the exact same reasons. The movie’s all-woman cast is just a gimmick, the men are the focus of everything. It bites them in the end too, I am not ashamed to say that I laughed out loud at the final scene when Shearer lurches at the camera. Reminded me of Vampira in Plan 9. 😉

    Great job taking down this bizarrely overrated bit of sexist tripe.

    • Thank you, Fritzi! And yes, how awkward was that last scene? 🙂 Vampira — LOL!! Yes, every bit as natural!!

  10. vcdrt

    Excellent, very funny contrarian write-up! Agree with you in almost every point, and always feel when people bring this movie up that we can’t be talking about the same film, because they find it so charming and hilarious—and to me the misogyny stains everything. There are a few moments I actually find funny (Boland trilling “L’amour, l’amour!”), but mostly it’s just hateful.

    It does have one other thing in common with Philadelphia Story besides Virginia Weidler, though—the whole discussion about Dad’s philandering and standing by your man and all that. Blame the woman was really big in 1939 but hung on for quite a while…. If you ever saw the old “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” column in Ladies’ Home Journal, it was ALWAYS the woman’s fault, no matter what the guy was doing. One way in which the past definitely wasn’t an improvement on the present.

  11. Thank you so much for your kind words! And yes, I have women friends who love this film, and we have so much else we agree on… but Lordy, not this!!

    Good point about The Philadelphia Story. Thank God Kate makes it clear she won’t follow Mom’s footsteps putting up with THAT cr@p!!

  12. I enjoyed this movie but I can totally see your point. And it did always bug me how they spend the whole movie talking about how terrible their husbands are just to turn around and say “You know what darling? It was all my fault.” Like the whole storyline with Joan Fontain! Ugh!
    However, I think we can all agree this film is WAY better than the remake! Thanks for this great blogathon!!

  13. On target, joyously well written, and well skewered. I’d note director Cukor’s role in heightening individual performances (at the expense of message); he disliked being called a “women’s director” — for its suggestion of his limits as well as homophobia. We might, however, ponder the film as drag in its excess or, as critic Mary Ann Doane might argue, masquerade: the performing of femininity in a manner that reveals its artificiality. In the end, I agree entirely with your critique…and yet I laugh out loud with pleasure at a number of scenes and performances. Crawford’s final line, about returning to the perfume counter (she doesn’t truly care about any of the men) is particularly nice, and I do love Russell’s antics (like an addition to the Marx Brothers) — especially how she uses her body.

    • Thank you so much! I’m really thrilled to see so many people who also are not crazy for this film. Every time I see it on a “Best” list or hear it lumped in with all the great films of 1939, I want to scream…

      • To me it is less objectionable artistically than it is thematically. It is how men see women and how some women see themselves. I laugh when I watch it and find it an important moment in cinema history. But it’s hella sexist 🙂

  14. Wonderfully entertaining post!
    Confession time: I’VE NEVER SEEN THE WOMEN. At first, I was intrigued by the premise, the novelty, how Cukor would handle all those women… but the more I’ve read about it, the more convinced I’ve become that it’s ‘pseudo-feminism’, lauded for the cast but not the ideology – a wasted opportunity. I’m glad you mentioned The Divorcee as I think that’s an excellent ‘gender’ film and Shearer is wonderful in it.
    Reading through the comments above, either you’re very convincing (and should consider a career in law) or your opinion isn’t really that contrary 😉

    • Thank you for your kind words!! I had a feeling when I chose this film that there was a lot of under-the-radar resentment toward it, which was crowded out by the lavish praise and its constant presence at film festivals and on television. So I wanted to give people a place to vent!! And also, of course, to vent my own self… 🙂 So many wonderful women, such a waste!! It’s like spreading caviar on stale toast…

  15. Wow–fabulous post! I totally agree, but still love this movie for its insight into how Hollywood “trained” women and shaped societal attitudes towards marriage.

  16. I do like this movie, for the showcase and collection of fine actresses, but for the reasons you write here, I could never see the remake working, the times were so different regarding the women’s issues. Great post and great blogathon, thanks for hosting, I loved all the discussions in the posts and comments which shows you should never be shy about saying what you (don’t) like! 🙂

    • Thank you so much, Kristina, and I’m so happy you took part! I loved your post! I had a feeling when I came up with this idea that the people who went out on those limbs would end up finding they had lots of company… I’m sort of like that in “real life” too, but only with varying degrees of success… 🙂

  17. Le

    I agree that a lot in this movie had to do with stereotypes and even sexist opinions on women. The end really bothered me: so Norma’s character suffered, learned and painted her claws jungle red just to welcome back the man who cheated on her? Ridiculous.
    And Joan Fontaine? We barely see any character development there! Argh!
    I have to say that I really enjoy the Countess DeLave saying “L’amour!” and when Paulette and Rosalind fight!!!
    Thanks for hosting this lovely and risky event!
    Kisses!
    Le

  18. I always thought watching this movie was a lot like watching a cartoon… I like it for those qualities, especially (bites my lip) Rosalind Russell. She’s so silly – the exercise scenes kill me. I think my post-feminist brain didn’t understand this wasn’t complete satire until way later, and by then I already loved the movie for what it wasn’t supposed to be. Or was it?

    Fun write-up, Janet – now I’m off to read some more posts. Maybe I’ll have the nerve to take a stab at your next blogathon. Great job!

  19. I will admit to liking this film simply on its novelty basis and awesome costuming, but yes, the plot is rubbish and deeply sexist. Your breakdown of the character type of each woman is spot on! It’s a shame because the cast really is fantastic. A missed opportunity in many ways.
    Will you be running this blogathon again? I wasn’t free to participate in this round, but I’d love to do so in future.

    • YES!! We will definitely do this again and would LOVE to have you!! And thank you for your kind words!

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