And it's a comedy. A tragi-comedy.
Starring Norma Shearer as a "wronged woman" named Mary, The Women (1939) uses Mary's journey towards divorce as a through line of solemnity. It then veers off occasionally to take a gander at her friends and their problems, which are shown in a comic vein. But we never stray too far from Mary and "the other woman" Crystal (Joan Crawford).
There is a well-known gimmick which keeps this film on the tip of everyone's tongue today. It is the fact that, despite the script revolving around the men in the characters' lives, there are no male actors present in the movie.
Other movies have featured only one gender, or mostly one gender, and the fact is explained away in the plot. For example, it is a war film where males go off to fight and we follow their story. Or a wild West film where mail order brides make their way on a wagon train.
But unlike those other films where the other gender is miles away, in The Women, males are in the building, but are placed exclusively off-stage (just behind that closed door or just in the next room), as it does in the Clare Booth Luce play on which the film is based. This is rare.
Without this one-gendered shtick, the film could very well have been just another soap opera. (This is my argument against its remake, The Opposite Sex.)
Despite its through line of Mary and her broken heart, we dabble here and there with supporting players who give us comic bits. Rosalind Russell plays a petty woman whose ridiculous hats are only outdone by her outrageous attachment to gossip (laid out with Russell's machine gun delivery of lines). A favorite comic female is The Countess (Mary Boland) who is lively in spite of the fact that her husband pushed her over a precipice. ("I slid halfway down the mountain before I realized that Gustav didn't love me.") She doesn't choose men of character; the Countess is in love with love. Paulette Goddard gives an unapologetically saucy turn as a woman who takes your leftovers.
They are a messy bunch. And Mary's mother Mrs. Morehead (Lucille Watson) uses her cultured tones to say just that. When asked why Mrs. Morehead is spraying a bottle of perfume after the women leave, Mrs. Morehead claims that she is "fumigating." The film gives you silliness and condemns it all at once.
The comedy starts from the title credits. Each starring actress' name and face is shown after an accompanying animal with related musical cues, giving you an idea of each characters' personality.
Norma Shearer's face is accompanied by a glorious run on the harp after the image of a doe at peace. Joan Crawford's man-eater is represented as a carnivorous big cat, a leopard. Then Joan's face is introduced with a vampy, trumpet.
Norma Shearer was on her way out of show business; it would be another three years before the actress and widow of Irving Thalberg would retire from film. But this is a great film on which to end a career.
Joan Crawford still had a few decades of performance to go, including her Academy Award-winning performance in Mildred Peirce (1945). Crawford would die shortly after retiring in the 1970s. Hollywood was no longer the place that she knew. ("You may have it," Crawford says with a wave of her hand in an interview on The David Frost Show.)
That rapid tongue of Rosalind Russell would deliver classic lines the next year in an enduring favorite with Cary Grant, His Girl Friday.
Mary Boland was still to use her comic expertise as Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (1940) with Laurence Olivier.
Crawford, Paulette Goddard and Joan Fontaine were all onscreen dance partners with Fred Astaire.
I recommend The Women if you wish to laugh or cry.
What do you think of this film?
- Review of a remake of The Women called The Opposite Sex w/ June Allyson in the Norma Shearer role.