In addition to its all-female cast, every animal that was used in the film (the many dogs and horses) was female as well. In addition, none of the works of art seen in the backgrounds were representative of the male form, except for the cartoon bull that appears in the picnic scene during the fashion sequence.
There are over 130 roles in this movie, all played by women. Phyllis Povah, Marjorie Main, Mary Cecil and Marjorie Wood originated their roles in the play, which opened on 7 September 1937 and had 666 performances at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York. No doubles were used in the fight sequence where Rosalind Russell bites Paulette Goddard. Despite the permanent scar resulting from the bite, the actresses remained friends.
When Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford were called to shoot publicity stills, neither actress would enter the studio first. Instead, they remained in their limousines and circled the parking lot until director George Cukor summoned them and they instantly behaved like best friends.
After Sylvia bites Miriam on the leg, Miriam's line, "Yeah, gotta be careful of hydrophobia!" is her veiled way of calling Sylvia a bitch. (Hydrophobia is a synonym for rabies, referring to a late stage of the disease, in which the victim has difficulty swallowing, even liquids, and simultaneously becomes very thirsty, while panicking at the idea of trying to drink water.) And near the end a second allusion to the word "bitch" is used when Crystal says, "There's a name for you ladies, but it isn't used in high society... outside a kennel."
Sydney's, the beauty salon where the initial action takes place, was named after Sydney Guilaroff, the chief hairstylist at MGM from 1934 to the late 1970s. He was brought to MGM from New York at the request of Joan Crawford.
The beauty salon and spa featured in the film's opening sequence was based on cosmetics mogul Elizabeth Arden's parlor in New York City. At the premiere of the film, Arden scoffed that the film's salon was an exact copy of hers.
In the dressing room after the fashion show, Crystal Allen says to Mary Haines, "... because he's the kind that lets that old-fashioned sentiment put the Indian sign on him, and that's all." "The Indian sign" was a popular phrase of the time. It meant to control or dominate. It comes from a technique used by Native Americans to train horses.
Though many people view Joan Crawford as the "bad girl" of the movie, Clare Boothe Luce, who wrote (as Clare Boothe) the play that the film was based on, sympathized most with Crystal Allen, Crawford's character.
The lines Mary reads alone in bed are from "The Prophet" by Kahlil Gibran: "Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love's threshing floor, Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears," but MGM omitted the reference to "nakedness" to avoid offending the censors.
At the wrap party, Rosalind Russell was dancing with George Cukor, when Ernst Lubitsch passed her and said, "If you want more close-ups in the picture, never mind dancing with your director, you'd better dance with Norma Shearer!" Without missing a beat, Russell took Shearer's hand with a wink and danced her across the floor.
George Cukor liked to work at a brisk pace, and he kept all of the actresses on their toes. "On a Cukor picture, there's no rest," said Rosalind Russell in her 1977 memoir Life Is a Banquet. "He keeps you so busy, you're spinning. You're rehearsing, you're running lines, you never get to go to your dressing room, or to the bathroom...and it's great, it's stimulating."
During filming, Production Code emergency sprung up, and it was up to screenwriter Anita Loos to fix it. "At that time the most innocent jokes about sex were banned," said Loos in her 1974 book Kiss Hollywood Good-By. The censors had returned the script with many of its best jokes nixed for being too racy. Loos was instructed to "sit beside George [Cukor] on the set and ad lib some 'clean' jokes as the cameras rolled. Seeing that there are plenty of laughs in the ordinary bitchiness of women," Loos added, "it was no hard job."
During production, MGM's publicity department couldn't peddle its usual stories about romance on the set to the press with an all-female cast, so they played up the angle of duelling divas and feuds on the set instead. Even though George Cukor publicly defended his cast against rumours of turmoil, audiences still relished the concocted drama and were eager to see if any claws would be visible in the finished film. "When one deals with stars," Cukor said according to Emanuel Levy's 1994 book George Cukor: Master of Elegance, "he is dealing with intelligent people. If they weren't intelligent, they wouldn't have arrived at the star pinnacle. Stars understand the business. They have learned that a show of temper gets them nothing, save perhaps a salary suspension or at least a headache."
Even though the overall atmosphere was one of great professionalism, there were still some reports of legitimate tension on the set between Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford. One frequently repeated story told of one day when the two actresses were running lines to prepare for their big dressing room confrontation scene. As author Gavin Lambert tells it in his 1990 book Norma Shearer, "Cukor filmed the master shot, then lined up a close-up of Norma. While he rehearsed her, Joan, who still brought her knitting to the set, clacked away at an afghan with her large, heavy needles. Then Cukor asked her to stand behind the camera during the take and speak her lines off-screen to Norma. She did so, trailing her afghan, and as Cukor held the shot for Norma's silent reaction, the needles clacked away again. Norma lost her concentration, looked up sharply, and asked Joan to stop needling during the retake. Joan pretended not to hear, repeated the treatment, and this time Norma broke off in mid-reaction. Her voice as steely as the needles, she asked Cukor to send Miss Crawford home and read the lines himself." Cukor, angry, asked Crawford to apologize. Crawford refused and walked off the set, though she did later send a telegram of apology to Shearer once she had cooled off.
The film's costume designer Adrian had his work cut out for him dressing some of Hollywood's most glamorous leading ladies. In addition to the regular costumes for the film, he was also asked to create multiple high fashion gowns and outfits for a Technicolor fashion show scene that was to be inserted into the black and white film. Technicolor was still something of a novelty in 1939, and Stromberg wanted the fashion show to be an eye-popping unexpected surprise for moviegoers. When all was said and done, Adrian had designed over 200 gowns for the cast of the film.
By all accounts it was a happy, professional set, and the stars worked well together. "The ensemble was a wonderful combination of personalities," said Joan Fontaine years later. "George cast each woman very skillfully."
Joan Fontaine recorded her impressions of each of the actresses in her 1978 autobiography "No Bed of Roses". About Norma Shearer she said, "Hers was a dignified, delightfully warm demeanour." Joan Crawford, she said, "had the democratic touch, knowing every grip and electrician by name." Rosalind Russell, she said, "was a tomboy, hearty, frolicsome, highly popular with the cast and crew...But best of all was our director, George Cukor. He handled all the women in the star-studded cast with tact and gallantry, so that what might have been a highly charged assignment for any other director turned out to be a happy association all around. We adored George, as do all actresses who work with him."
George Cukor told Rosalind Russell to play the part of Sylvia very broad. "Because in this picture Sylvia's breaking up a family, and there's a child involved, and if you're a heavy," Cukor told her, "audiences will hate you. Don't play it like a heavy, just be ridiculous." Of this advice Russell said, "He was a hundred-percent right. I was frightened to death, but from then on, I did what he said, and everything that came to me from The Women--namely, my reputation as a comedienne-I owe to George...He was marvellous to work for, he could think of a hundred bits of business for every moment."
Joan Fontaine found George Cukor's guidance extremely helpful. "I asked him what gestures, what tonal qualities he wanted for the young wife I was playing," she recalled. "George simply said, 'Forget all that. Think and feel and the rest will take care of itself.' Those few words are the greatest gift any director, any drama coach ever gave me."