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The Women (1939)

Cover of "The Women (Keepcase)"

The first member of the July 5 is Joan Crawford, so let’s kick things off with a look at one of her best remembered films.

I’ve had The Women recorded for a while; it was on my TCM Top Twelve in June.  After finally watching it I’m left puzzled.  It’s good, but it doesn’t withstand the test of time.  The eponymous women are all despicable, with the exception of benevolent Mary Haines (Norma Shearer); and while they’re all funny it’s isn’t doing much to say that women aren’t catty, back-stabbing bitches.  I wanted a few of the characters to be less black and white, particularly the other woman of the film, Crystal (Joan Crawford).  Also, at over two hours, The Women feels like two separate films with the second half being a screwball comedy of sorts.  It’s still a good movie, and another in an amazing slate of films from 1939 that remains unchallenged; I just didn’t love it. Mary Haines (Shearer) discovers that her husband is having an affair with perfume counter girl Crystal Allen (Crawford).  As Mary struggles with how to handle the situation her meddlesome friends, led by her cousin Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell) continue to stir the pot.

The film is the definition of an all-star cast, particularly for 1939!  According to IMDB, the only top-rated stars of the time who weren’t in this were Greta Garbo and Myrna Loy (although Loy was offered the part of Crystal Allen).  The film is entirely all-female, something that I doubt films today could pull off, with a script penned by Anita Loos.  Loos’ script is biting (and that’s an understatement) from the opening frames where the women talk about each other, and comment on their appearance in a day spa.  The opening credits establish a world where appearance is everything and no one is a saint, with each woman’s face juxtaposed with an animal highlighting their personality.  The worst, and sadly funniest, has to be Marjorie Main’s face set against a braying donkey.  You also have Crawford as the cheetah, and Paulette Goddard as the fox.

I think what kept me from loving The Women is how these women establish and keep their so-called “friendships.”  A film like Stage Door, which I reviewed awhile back, proves that a film with an all-female cast can create a community of women; where women aren’t competitors despite being in a competitive field.  There’s no sense of community here in The Women.  All of the women are hypocrites, and more than willing to throw over friendships for prestige and gossip.  Here, the worst in women are exposed and aside from the martyred Mary, all the women are either nincompoops or backstabbers; the world of the women is established as petty and conniving.  The film introduces the plot device that Mary Haines’ husband Stephen is cheating on her with Crystal Allen.  The reveal is told through a conversation with a manicurist to Mary’s cousin Sylvia.  Sylvia blabs it to her friends, and in a phone call with another friend openly mocks Mary’s pain once she hears about it.  It’s easy to see Sylvia’s jealousy of Mary.  Mary has a comfortable house, prestige, and an adoring daughter named Little Mary (Virginia Weidler), and according to one woman she’s “content to be what she is…a woman.”

It’s said that Loos found Crystal to be the sympathetic one but I’m not sure if Loos meant in the play or not because Crystal Allen is the least sympathetic on-screen.  I loved Crawford in this, especially having seen her play a tough-as-nails single mother in Mildred Pierce.  With The Women, Crawford is a brassy street girl trying to be classy.  I thought the script would show a balance between the wronged wife, and the other woman; maybe emphasizing how Crystal is just as wronged, and that Stephen is the one to blame.  No, Crystal is manipulative and conniving.  The other girls at the perfume counter know she’s fake, and one alludes to her being a slut.   Crawford’s great at being evil, there’s no doubt about that, and she’s verbally on par with Rosalind Russell.  If you YouTube scenes between Russell and Crawford the script’s witty one-liners are showcased to great effect.  I kept asking, who’s meaner: Sylvia or Crystal?  In fact, the entire second half has Crystal and Sylvia coming together to create a backstabbing power duo; however, Sylvia is forgiven at story’s end by Mary and I guess Crystal is left to starve.  The second half is Crystal’s story, revolving around her cheating on Stephen, and being the wicked stepmother to Little Mary.  Did anyone get shades of Mommie Dearest when Crystal told Little Mary to call her “Auntie Crystal?”  The relationship with Little Mary could have been murderous if this was in another genre.  It’s apparent that Crystal doesn’t like Little Mary so it shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why the little girl doesn’t like her new stepmother.  It’s obvious Crystal is meant to be the new type of woman who doesn’t like children or romance, but come on!  She’s written as a cold-hearted gold digger.  I should ask what makes Crystal any different from the other women of this film?  They’re all just as evil, so is Crystal’s only tip over the edge that she’s stolen another woman’s man?  Or is it because she’s a perfume counter girl whose made good?   Thus why I wish Crystal was a sympathetic character, so that you could explore class differences and other things within the film as opposed to “Women, especially poor ones, are man-stealers and tramps.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum you have Mary Haines: scorned wife.  Norma Shearer is good at playing the put-upon wife, although Mary is a sufficiently weaker character than Shearer’s similar role in The Divorcee.  It doesn’t help that her mother Mrs. Moorehead (Lucile Watson), tells her to stay “in your little white gilded cage” and is overall cold about the affair.  To her, a man’s affair is his way of warding off getting old.  A woman on the other hand “when we tire of ourselves, we change the way we do our hair, or hire a new cook, or decorate the house.”  Pre-Code films said a man’s cheating should be condemned, but here it’s a slap in the face.  Unfortunately, Mary is unable to cope with Crystal, as evidenced by their tense confrontation scene.  Since Shearer has to be pious, the scene-stealer ends up being Crawford with her risqué one-liners, “When anything I wear doesn’t please Stephen I take it off.”  The second half involves Mary being resigned to divorce, and going to Reno to wait out the probationary period.  I’ll get to that segment in a second, but in all this time she never appears to feel like she’s done the right thing.  When Stephen reveals that on the day their divorce is final, he’s married Crystal he should have been cussed out to high heaven!  Instead, Mary cries about it, and receives advice that her pride got in the way of her sticking with Stephen and fighting for him; she’s built to suffer and endure.  I’m all for fighting for a man and I’ve seen infidelity ravage a family.  Pride has nothing to do with it.  Stephen is the scumbag, and because we never see him, he’s never held responsible for his actions.  The moral ultimately becomes: Women, pride is a terrible thing. As it was in the end of The Divorcee, Mary is resolved to fight for Stephen (conveniently, once Crystal’s out-of-the-way) with the implication being we’ll get a happily ever after.

The rest of the cast is good no matter the contrivances of the plot.  Joan Fontaine (who I had no clue was in this) continues to be the sweet, naïve girl as Peggy.  She never knows the proper response to a situation, at one point asking what Sylvia meant about Mary being cheated on, right in front of Mary!  Russell is good, even though I found her character to be contemptible.  Also, I was surprised to finally see a Paulette Goddard movie!  I’ve heard amazing things about Goddard and here  she’s a firecracker.  Her catfight with Russell is hilarious, and easily my favorite scene in the film.  When Russell grabs Goddard’s leg, and bites into it like a Thanksgiving turkey, you know it’s on!  Where Peggy never says the right thing, Goddard’s character Miriam always says something hilariously snarky.  My personal favorite Goddard line: “Keep your chin up…both of them.”

There’s a few head-scratching decisions the movie makes that turn the serious material  silly.  The Technicolor fashion show in the middle of the film was a sore subject for director George Cukor, who wanted it removed.  I understand because it makes the film way too long and falls back on stereotypes that women love to see pretty clothes worn on people; you have a cameo from Hedda Hopper that is a blink and you’ll miss moment that makes little sense.  The hardest thing is reconciling the first half of the film with the second.  The first half establishes the Mary/Crystal dynamic, and how a woman should respond when she discovers she’s been cheated on.  The second feels like a Stage Door throwback with the Reno community of women.  It yields some funny lines, particularly on the train between a little girl and her mother: “Where’s Daddy?”  “Will you kindly refer to him as ‘that heel?'”  We see Mary learn to be on her own, only to be thrust into the third act that feels like a screwball comedy; you have Mary and her Reno friends trying to sabotage and reveal Crystal as a fake that takes on comic levels of ridiculousness.  The film starts out blending the seriousness with the comedy, but by the end it’s all comedic and feels hollow.

I liked The Women, but it’s not my favorite film of 1939 by a long shot.  It’s too stereotypical and cliché.  The women are either Madonnas or whores, content to hate on each other rather than band together.  If you’re seeking a film about women and friendships then check out Stage Door from two years before.  I found that to be a far kinder depiction of female communities than this film;  maybe because this film deals with the rich where Stage Door didn’t?  Regardless, I’m happy to cross this off my list.

Ronnie Rating:


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The Women (Keepcase)

Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

22 thoughts on “The Women (1939) Leave a comment

  1. I loved the Women for some of the reasons you seemed to dislike it. I think it is worth noting that the triangles of Mary/Crystal/Husband and Sylvia/Miriam/Husband offer a study in contrast as it were. Thoughts on that?

    • Ooh those are some intriguing points I wish I had thought of. Well where Mary seems to lose Stephen because of her so-called “pride.” Sylvia loses her husband out of annoyance in my opinion. She felt she could control him, and is left to feel how Mary feels although she copes by aligning herself with Crystal. Miriam I think is the other woman who should have been highlighted. She’s no saint, but she’s not a she-devil either. Thanks for giving me something to think about. Sorry our thoughts on the movie didn’t align, hope that doesn’t stop you from coming back!

  2. Absolutely love this movie, but I totally see where your coming from with your reservations. BTW, I cannot tell you what a thrill it is to hear you refer to STAGE DOOR as a community of women! That was my whole English senior thesis!!!! In my article about “Communities of Women,” I mention THE WOMEN, but it is in a different category – this community is more of the “ladies who lunch” variety than the professional women of STAGE DOOR (1937) and DESK SET (1957) who have their work as a unifying factor. THE WOMEN certainly doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test because all they ever talk about is men. Their catiness can be frustrating, but there are a couple really realistic friendships here. The writer woman is also a pretty solid character, though we don’t see much of her. I could write a whole essay about this film, but I won’t do that here! Great review, as usually, Kristen!

    • Well I can actually say you gave me the idea because I remember reading your article on it a few months back! I just found it weird that a film like Stage Door, where you’d expect women to step on each other’s throats considering their business, isn’t at all catty or heartless like this film. Maybe it’s a class thing?

      • Oh, that makes me so happy! Well, it might be a class thing, but the women in STAGE DOOR are a bit catty, especially in the beginning. It’s a different kind of cattiness, but it’s definitely there. I think the fact that they are professional women who have been marginalized, as a group outside of society, forces them into comaradery. They are also unified by the suicide of one of their own. The community of women in THE WOMEN is primarily voluntary because they are wealthy enough to live where and with whom they please, for the most part. Neither are as good examples of a harmonious female group as DESK SET (1957), which is almost entirely void of cattiness from within the female group.

      • Oh god the remake. I felt the original was more subtle about the fact the entire cast was female while the remake was more in your face about it.

      • I’ve only heard of the remake through reputation. I’m tempted to watch it just to see how horrible…then again I only have so long to live in this world, and I don’t think I should fill it with bad movies lol.

  3. Funnily enough, I agree with many of your points, but The Women is one of my all-time favorite movies. I think that some of the problems you mention (the mismatch of tones among the different segments, the dated material, the fashion show, etc.) make it strangely compelling. One thing I would stress is this (at which you and some of the other comments already hinted): with the exception of Crystal and Miriam, all the characters are upper class women. I read the movie as a biting satire of women who literally have nothing to do but gossip, get their nails done, and watch fashion shows. On top of that, the writing and performances (especially Russell’s) are completely hilarious.

    • Well I figured class definitely plays a part. I like what you said about the upper class women having nothing to do, and thus must delight in others torment. Thanks for reading!!

  4. Basically, in the remake you’ll see the main characters walk outside, and every single extra is a woman. Also at one point, two characters are talking as the main character is outside supposedly fighting with her husband. Basically the “fight” is just Meg Ryan screaming at nobody offscreen, and you hear a door slam and a car drive off. The movie is so in your face about how there are no male actors that you almost want to scream at the movie, “WHY ISN’T THERE A SINGLE GUY ON SCREEN!?!??!”

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