September 1, 1939 was the day the Second World War started. It was also the day the M-G-M film, The Women, premiered to great fanfare. Three years previously, The Women was a successful Broadway play by Clare Boothe Luce, with a respectable six-hundred sixty-six performances to its credit (or six-hundred fifty-seven, if you believe Wikipedia). Directed by George Cukor, the film is a close-to-the-bone study of the games women play with each other as well as what it can really take to keep a marriage alive.
The gimmick in The Women is that the audience sees no men anywhere. No pictures, no voices, nothing, not even off-stage or off-camera. The plot focuses on Mary Haines (Norma Shearer), a blissfully happy Park Avenue socialite and mother who learns that her husband, Stephen, is cheating on her with Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford), a clerk at a perfume counter. Standing by are Mary’s friends, as well as her cousin, Sylvia (Rosalind Russell), who offer advice and support, not all of it helpful or supportive. Mary then has to decide what’s more important to her: pride, or fixing her marriage.
The characters in The Women are types, but they’re drawn so well that typing is forgivable. In the film, this was initially illustrated by fading each of the principal cast into animals that fit their characters’ personalities, and rather snarkily so. Mary is a doe. Crystal, the other woman, is a leopard. Peggy, who’s very sweet and deeply in love with her husband, is a lamb. Sylvia, the gossipy Iago of the group, is a black cat. Edith, who has a big family of girls, is a cow (Um, that’s mean.). The Countess de Lave is a white-headed capuchin. Miriam Aarons, the coquette, is a fox. Mrs. Morehead, Mary’s mother, is a burrowing owl. Lucy, the matron at the Reno ranch, is a horse. Last but not least, Little Mary, Mary’s daughter, is a fawn. The only main cast member not matched up to an animal is Nancy (Florence Nash), who is a writer and in her words, “an old maid,” but her part is the smallest of them.
The movie starts out at a day spa with women gossiping, but the play kicks off with the major characters gossiping around a bridge game. It’s the exact same dialogue as when they’re waiting to have lunch with Mary at the beginning of the film, only minus the card table. As often happens with women, the group is discussing Mary behind her back, and they all know that Mary’s husband, Stephen, is cheating on her, as told to them by Olga, a manicurist at Sydney’s (Michael’s in the play). Without thinking, Sylvia shows Mary her new manicure over lunch: “Isn’t that divine? Jungle Red.”
“Sydney’s. Olga. Jungle Red. Yes, I’ll remember,” says Mary after admiring Sylvia’s nails.
A couple of days later, Mary walks into Sydney’s (Michael’s) and asks for Olga, little-suspecting that she’s walking right into a lioness’s den. Olga chatters without a break, and it doesn’t take long for her to start talking about a mysterious vixen named Crystal Allen, who had been Olga’s former co-worker at the perfume counter at Saks (Blacks in the film). To Mary’s horror, Olga blithely talks about how Crystal hooked a man, Mr. Stephen Haines, who came in to buy a present for his wife, and that since then they’ve been inseparable. Mary abruptly stands up and makes a graceful exit.
Devastated, Mary goes home and is hiding in her dressing room when her mother (Lucile Watson) comes to see her. Mary is chagrined to find out that her mother already knows about Stephen cheating on her, and still more chagrined when her mother tells her to wait things out, and for heaven’s sake, not to confide in her friends. Ah, too late.
Mary takes her mother to Bermuda to get away from everything, but when she comes back life doesn’t exactly return to normal. She tries to remain noncommittal about she and Stephen, which works until the group goes to a fashion show. Awkwardly enough, Crystal is there as well, parading around like she owns the place and buying the most expensive pieces on Stephen Haines’s dime. Mary is visibly shaken, and is ready to leave until Sylvia tells her Crystal had lunch in the park with Stephen and the Haines children (which was only Little Mary in the film). Prodded by Sylvia, Mary marches into Crystal’s dressing room and tells her to stay away from her children. Here’s where the show and the play differ broadly, although in a mise-en-scene way. For one thing, there’s no fashion show in the play, and for another, in the play the audience can see into each dressing room at the same time as opposed to the separate spaces seen in the film. Mary confronting Crystal, however, is completely intact, double entendres and all.
Mary and Stephen finally have it out, except that we just hear Mary’s end of things, as if Mary’s talking on the phone. Mary asks for a divorce, and heads for Reno, but not before she tells her heartbroken daughter (played in the film by Virginia Weidler) that she and Daddy have fallen out of love. Whether in the play or in the film, the scene is heart-wrenching.
While the play has a brief interlude in the hospital with Edith after she’s had another baby, the film takes us on the train to Reno, where we meet more of the ensemble: Countess de Lave (Mary Boland) and Miriam Aarons (Paulette Goddard). Peggy (Joan Fontaine) is on the train as well, after running out on her husband, Johnny following a spat. Mary meets Miriam and the Countess, who’s also known as Flora, in the club car, where the three of them have champagne and pretzels, each putting a brave face on what they’re about to do, although some are braver than others. Flora has been married four times, and she seems used to it: “My way, your marriage may not last, but it’s fun while it hangs together.” Miriam is obviously the flirty type, but she’s much more mysterious about why she’s getting a divorce.
The time in Reno is when some of the characters figure out their priorities. Flora takes up with a younger guy named Buck Winston, Peggy finds out her situation isn’t as dire as she thinks, and Mary cobbles together her pride while she’s heartbroken to learn Stephen and Crystal have gotten married. Sylvia even shows up unexpectedly, all set to divorce her husband, Howard. There’s also a famous cat fight between Sylvia and Miriam in the film, when Sylvia smashes some Mosser glasses and ends up biting Miriam in the leg. It’s in the play as well, except that Sylvia bites Miriam’s arm instead, which isn’t much better.
It might seem like divorce and remarriage would make everyone happy, but it doesn’t. Crystal takes to spending an inordinate amount of time in her bathroom, Sylvia with her psychiatrist, and Mary fending off some fellow named Freddy. The only one who honestly sees beneath it all is Little Mary, who understands more than some of the grownups are comfortable with, Crystal in particular. Let’s put it this way: Cheaters gonna cheat, even if they seem to have gotten what they want.
The play was known for being catty and caustic, and when M-G-M bought the rights to The Women, one of the screenwriters, Anita Loos, quipped that she was “cleaning it up for Norma Shearer.” Loos and her co-writer, Jane Murfin, must have needed shovels, because their job was a big one, at least in some respects. The language and repartee in the stage production is definitely racier than in the movie. Not that the play was terrible, but a lot of the dialogue wasn’t exactly Production Code-friendly. Words like “virgin,” “Caesarean section,” and “bazooms” were bandied about, which were no bueno to the Hays Office. Where the movie had to be subtle, the play had no such restraints. Therefore, it was fine for Sylvia to regale Mary with her secret on how to keep the girls perky after nursing (ice water in the morning, camphor at night), or for Nancy to talk about how she was what “nature abhors–a virgin.” In the movie, she’s simply “an old maid–a frozen asset.”
Of The Women‘s original stage cast, only two reprised their roles in the film. Phyllis Povah came over to play Edith and Marjorie Main again played Lucy. The reason for this is that most of the stage cast were exclusively stage actors, and thespians who are used to big gestures and delivery can’t always transition to film. The one other cast member that could have possibly done the film was Ilka Chase, who played Sylvia, but it’s unclear why Rosalind Russell was cast instead. It would be interesting to see how Ilka approached the character. Seeing as how nicely restrained Ilka was in Now, Voyager, my guess is her Sylvia would have been more subtle than Russell’s Sylvia, who was told to play the role very broadly. There’s actually not that much of a record of how the play was done. I couldn’t find any stills or production notes, and not even Clare Boothe Luce recorded anything about the original production. It’s too bad, because it would have been nice to know what it looked like.
In addition to the 1939 film, The Women was remade in 1956 as a musical, The Opposite Sex, which added men to the cast and did poorly at the box office. It was also remade in 2008 starring Meg Ryan, but it’s done so badly that it’s really cringeworthy. According to the critics culled by Rotten Tomatoes, the filmmakers royally blew it. If it ain’t broke, guys…
In all, while it was fun seeing what was changed for the original film, I actually prefer the film over the play, because it allows more time to get to know the characters and their backstories. It also allows the cast to slip in more zingers. The ending of the film is much more dramatic, too–it’s fulfilling as all get-out. The entire cast and crew of this film did a fantastic job, making it a truly unique classic of Hollywood’s Golden Era.
Coming up on Friday:
Yup, we’re gonna get blinded with science, people. Hope you enjoyed reading, and see you in a couple of days!
This film is available on Amazon.
Luce, Clare Boothe. The Women. New York: Random House, 1937.
Morris, Sylvia Jukes. Price of Fame: The Honorable Clare Boothe Luce. New York: Random House, 2014.