© 1939 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

The Women (1939)

This is a film I have wanted to see for a long time, and seeing François Ozon’s 8 Femmes recently made me finally seek out a copy of it.

Although he reportedly did not care much for this label, George Cukor was known as a “women’s director” due to his numerous collaborations with Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford. In this respect, he best film must be The Women, which features no men and over 130 women in speaking parts and even more as extras. Cukor elicited fantastic performances from many of the best actresses of the day, including Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, and many many others, and while the main characters represent upper-class Manhattan society, Cukor also directs his attention to the maids, manicurists, hairdressers, and others who support their pampered existence. For viewers that might think that an all-female cast might make for a somber, Little Women type of story, Cukor dashes such thoughts with the first shot, featuring two dogs fighting in the entrance of a Park Avenue salon, and setting the tone for much of the movie. The opening sequence is a tour-de-force tour of the salon, giving a whirlwind view of the backstabbing world in which the film is set.

The poster for the original theatrical release read “The Women: It is all about men!”, and that is true. Although not a single man is seen or heard throughout the film, they are much talked about. The central characters plot, scheme, and spit out catty remarks in an effort to win back their men (Norma Shearer’s Mary), steal other women’s men (Joan Crawford’s Crystal), arrange for their friends to lose their men (Rosalind Russell’s Sylvia), keep their men (Joan Fontaine’s Peggy), or change the men they have (Paulette Goddard’s Miriam). Most of them wind up at a ranch in Reno, awaiting quick divorces, where Rusalind Russell and Paulette Goddard’s characters get into a scratching, biting catfight. The fact that the women define themselves based on the man they have makes this very much a part of its era, which is probably why the 2008 remake (which I refuse to watch) was probably such a flop.

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“When your head says one thing and your whole life says another, your head always loses.”
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from Key Largo