There have been plenty of films with an all-male, or almost all-male, cast, but films with an all-female cast are much rarer; in the thirties they were virtually unheard-of. There were, of course, plenty of what were called "women's pictures", aimed at a predominantly female audience and generally with a strong female character in the leading role, but as the theme of such films was normally heterosexual love and relationships there generally had to be men in the cast, if only as secondary characters. "The Women", however, is a "woman's picture" in which man are much discussed but never make an appearance; every single member of the cast is female.
Today we tend to think of the Production Code era as being a time when the film industry was dominated by a crippling and oppressive Puritanism, but films like this one remind us that, in America at least, the censors were not as puritanical as we sometimes imagine. I cannot imagine this arch, knowing comedy about divorce and adultery finding favour with the British censors of the thirties, but the Hays Office appear to have raised no objections.
The film is set among the women of New York's high society. The main character is Mary Haines, wife of a successful engineer and mother of a young daughter. Mary's marriage initially seems to be a happy one, but in fact her husband Stephen is having an affair with a shop-girl named Crystal Allen. They say that in cases like this the wronged wife is always the last person to know, and so it proves here, but the time-lag between the rest of the world knowing and Mary knowing herself is a fairly short one, largely because she has the sort of "friends" who (in the words of the song) can't wait to bring all of that bad news to her door.
Despite the advice of her worldly-wise old mother, who takes the view that women ought to condone their husbands' adultery for the sake of a quiet life, Mary travels to Reno, Nevada, to obtain a divorce. (In the 1930s it was very difficult to get a divorce in New York State itself which, despite being liberal in many other matters, has always been conservative when it comes to matrimonial law; it was the last state to legalise no-fault divorce, as recently as 2010). Stephen marries Crystal, but the marriage is not a happy one and Mary sees her chance to turn the tables on her rival.
The role of Mary- the noble, idealistic, long-suffering wronged wife, not unattractive but a bit sexless- seemed ready-made for Norma Shearer, who seemed to specialise in such parts. Joan Crawford tries to make the most of the mercenary, conniving Crystal, but she was really a bit too old for the part. Crawford tended to guard her age as though it were an official secret, but she seems to have been born around 1904, making her about 35 in 1939, only two years or so younger than Shearer. The age-gap between Mary and Crystal needs to be much greater; a dedicated gold- digger like Crystal would doubtless have got her man long before she reached her mid-thirties. When the film was remade in 1956 as "The Opposite Sex" Crystal was played by another "Joan C", Collins, sixteen years younger than June Allyson who played the Mary-figure.
"The Women" is often regarded as a great classic from Hollywood's Golden Age, but it is not a film I care for very much. It has some good points; there is occasionally some witty dialogue, Shearer is reasonably good as Mary and the child star Virginia Weidler is enchanting as her young daughter Little Mary. It also, however, has a number of faults. The first is that the decision not to have any male characters was a mistaken gimmick; the makers of "The Opposite Sex" clearly realised this because they altered the plot in order to show Stephen and some of the other men referred to. The mainspring of the plot is, after all, the marriage of Mary and Stephen, and to show only one side of their relationship is to tell only half the story.
The second flaw is that the action does not always flow easily. The film is in black-and-white but includes a ten-minute fashion parade filmed in Technicolor, which does not advance the plot at all but slows the action right down. Apparently director George Cukor disliked the sequence and wanted to remove it but was overruled by the studio who evidently felt that female audiences would want to see what the well- dressed woman was wearing that year. Today it has little interest except for the few who care about what the well-dressed woman was wearing more than seventy years ago. At other times, however, it seems that Cukor, perhaps realising that the script contained too much dialogue to be accommodated within the film's running time, had instructed his cast to speak their lines as quickly as possible. The worst, although by no means the only, offender in this regard is the motormouth Rosalind Russell as Mary's bitchy cousin Sylvia. (Russell was to be better in another comedy, "His Girl Friday", the following year).
The film's third, and worst, fault is its general tone. For what is ostensibly a "woman's picture" it is surprisingly misogynistic, embodying a number of male prejudices about the fairer sex. The characters in "The Women" inhabit the sort of world where nearly all women (Mary being one of the few exceptions) are spiteful, scheming, bitchy, gossipy and backstabbing. It is a world where every woman's enemy is another woman, often her so-called "best friend", who is either trying to seduce away her man or spreading malicious gossip about her. If there is a "war of the sexes" the female authors of this drama seem to have been fighting on the side of the enemy. 5/10
15 out of 22 found this helpful.
Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.