The Women Revisited

(Welcome to 1939: Revisited, a column dedicated to taking a look back at some of the films of one of the most highly-praised years in film history and explaining why they still matter today. In this entry: The Women feels reminiscent of modern blockbusters that focus on groups that don’t often get to dominate the screen.)

In our first installment of this series, we took a deeper look at one of, if not the most iconic motion pictures of all time, The Wizard of Oz. Nowadays, Oz is the defining film of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios and their images are so entwined that the old MGM Grand hotel in Las Vegas is basically a Wizard of Oz homage, with it’s emerald walls and towering gold lions. But 80 years ago, Oz was just one of dozens of films released by MGM in ’39 that helped contribute to the studio’s continued domination of the box office. It wasn’t the crown jewel. If any film made in-house by MGM were to take that title, it would be one that debuted just a week after Dorothy went over the rainbow: The Women.

Many modern audiences may not have heard of this film, but its elements and success are highly instructive to things that are still happening in cinema today. It was promoted and propelled by what we’d now call inclusion as a gimmick: a movie showing only females, down to the pets and paintings. Even so, it was a huge, if isolated, step forward for representation. Textually, it’s still all about women’s relationships with men, even if they’re not seen. But in a broader sense, it’s about how women were used, seen and portrayed – and the ways Hollywood, MGM and the world were changing. 

Flicks About Chicks

MGM, perhaps moreso than any other studio, made movies for everyone in America. That was the philosophy of studio head, Louis B. Mayer. Mayer, a bespectacled, Jewish immigrant who never went to college and worked in a scrapyard as kid, who entered the film the film buying a burlesque theater to turn into movie house, wanted his studio to be the epitome of class and American family values. While Warner Brothers appealed to the working man,  Columbia tried to make films that meant something, and Paramount varied between prestige and cheap populism, Mayer’s MGM was media for mass consumption, offering escape and respite from the dangerous real world.

As you might guess, “American family values” meant white, Christian, patriarchal values; and mass cultural appeal meant the kind of neutered, idealist version of reality in line with the production code enforced by the Hayes office. America, as MGM saw it, included women, and people of color, but movies certainly didn’t have to be about these groups to be for them. This viewpoint is what kept MGM in the black, even during the Great Depression, when other studios were floundering. Their movies weren’t expected to be realistic, or progressive, but at the end of the ’30s, with the country still recovering from the depression and global tensions mounting, even MGM couldn’t completely escape the turning tide of a changing world.

The Women is based on the play of the same name of name by Claire Booth Luce, which was a hit on Broadway in 1936. It follows the lives of various women in Manhattan as they gossip, divorce, remarry, backstab, and support one another. The film version, directed by George Cukor, was the Big Little Lies of it’s time – frothy and fun but unmistakably female. This in and of itself was novel. It wasn’t the first film starring women, obviously, but quite often, women onscreen were either sexpots or innocent ingenues, maybe a mother if they were lucky. The idea of giving women, especially more than one women, complexity and interiority was rare for the time. And, to be honest, it’s still rare in Hollywood now. While The Women was a hit, it was still a stunt and it’s success didn’t really do much to change things, as you might guess from, well, the current state of things. There was a woman’s pen behind the play and the screenplay (Anita Loos wrote the adapation) and even that is a rarity in our modern time.

Still, The Women, is brilliant and important in various ways because of its gimmick. The conceit of telling a story about women’s heterosexual love lives without showing men by its nature necessitates showing women in a wide variety of ways, and via a wide variety of women. My favorite “necessity is the mother of invention” moment in the film is during a big break up scene between our lead woman, Mary, and her husband, Stephen. The entire fight and the decision to divorce is retold by two gossiping maids. It gives us the drama of the fight, the comedy of the impressions and eavesdropping, and the commentary of the maids’ view of their employers, all in one.

The Women has a lot in common with recent hits, like Black Panther or Crazy Rich Asianswhere the deep dive focus into one group of people that don’t often get complete focus on screens leads to something fresh. The Women’s cast include mothers and matrons, daughters and servants, and though they aren’t all given big moments, the fact we get to see them at all matters. 

The Times, They Were A-changin’

The Women’s extensive cast was perfect showcase for a cavalcade of MGM stars both on the rise and soon to be on the decline. This included Joan Crawford, Paulette Godard, Joan Fontaine and a career-defining comic turn from relative newcomer Rosalind Russell. Russell is hysterical as a pathological gossip and steals every scene she’s in.

However, the brightest star of the film was Norma Shearer. No other star, male or female, was so intimately tied to the rise and dominance of MGM as Shearer. She began her career contracted to Louis B. Mayer before he joined up with Goldwyn and Metro to form MGM, but the defining partnership for both of their careers was with wunderkind producer Irving Thalberg. Thalberg was the artistic genius, who, combined with Mayer’s business savvy, helped launch MGM into the stratosphere in the late ’20s. He also married Shearer and oversaw her transition from silent star to sexy pre-code stunner, to MGM’s grand dame of serious acting. Shearer was the queen of the MGM lot, much to the dismay of other stars that came and went. But in 1939, that reign was ending.

By the time cameras rolled on The Women, Thalberg had died tragically young in 1936, and Shearer was aging out of the juicy headline parts. This may be early in film history, but the idea of Shearer being “too old” for good roles at in her mid-thirties was already an old story. This is a shame, really, because Shearer is fantastic as Mary, the central woman of the story. She has just the right kind of vulnerability and steel that you feel her pain when she finds out her husband is having an affair, and feel her hesitancy at leaving a man she still loves. The fact we never see her husband, again, leads to some amazing scenes, like when Mary is simply talking to Stephen on the phone when he tells her he’s getting remarried. She’s speaking reasonable, calm words, but Shearer’s face is a masterpiece of pathos and pain. It’s easy to see why Shearer was such a major star, but she only made one more film after The Women, and then she retired from acting.

In a strange, sad way, Shearer’s career twilight makes The Women a spiritual twin to another great female-fronted MGM film of the year, Ninotchka, the final hit of Greta Garbo’s career. Much like Sharer, Garbo only made one more film after 1939, and was similarly an icon of the silent era who successfully transitioned to sound. But her star was fading in 1939, so MGM decided to cast her in a comedy as a cold, soviet emissary who falls in love with a french dilettante. As The Women represented an adult, complex role for Shearer, the comic Ninotchka was new ground for the distant, icy Garbo. Both films are excellent showcases for these women, but they didn’t feel they had a place in the changing landscape of Hollywood, and both chose to retire rather than age out of fashion. 

Even though many women still have expiration dates on screen, we still have to be better off, as a society than we were in 1939, right? The Women was made before feminism was a common movement, and there are some very of the era depictions of women that are neither progressive or positive. The film starts with credits that equate each woman in the cast with an animal, reducing its subjects from the get-go to caricature. The story is about a marriage broken up by an affair, and the other woman, Crystal, is portrayed as a gold-digging, manipulative seductress whose liberated use of her sexuality is ruinous to nice women like Mary, and even eventually to herself. Crystal is played with camp relish by Joan Crawford, in one of her most iconic turns, but she’s clearly not a sympathetic character. Then again, The Women was all about a fairly modern topic: divorce. The very idea that a women could chose to end a bad marriage, even if she had to live in Nevada for six weeks to do it, was new. Divorce in general isn’t portrayed as a tragedy by the film, so that has to be something. And the women going through it find strength in other women. Once again, complex female friendships are still few and far between on our screens, and it’s worth a look at how they were shown.

The Women is a fantasy in many ways. It shows a kind of wealth and easy existence that was incomprehensible to most Americans in 1939. It exists in a world where a beautiful fashion show can turn the world into technicolor for five minutes, where things like war didn’t exist. But then again, men don’t exist on screen in The Women either. It’s a fantasy that can’t be sustained, but it’s a nice place to visit. It does what movies were meant to do in the time, and still can do now: remind of what the world could or should be, and the importance of the people in that world who don’t always get the spotlight.

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