Women, The (1939)

“I knew this sort of thing happened to other people — but I never dreamed it could happen to us!”

Synopsis:
When a wife (Norma Shearer) learns her husband has been stolen by a ruthless golddigger (Joan Crawford), she files for divorce and soon finds herself in similar company with many of her friends — some old, some new. Will she find a way to get her husband back — and does she even want to?

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is clearly a fan of this “delicious adaptation (by Anita Loos) of Clare Boothe’s classic stage comedy, directed by George Cukor, and starring a peerless all-female cast”. He notes that “the characters are like wild animals — claws and fangs bared — let out of their cages”, and writes that the “picture is an ideal starting point for discussions on how women are portrayed in film”: while “some find the film’s portrayal of women objectionable”, these “women are resilient, always pulling through when men let them down”. He adds that “it’s a joy watching scenes between women who are friends — because, of course, friendships between women have traditionally been ignored by male filmmakers”; and “even though they often betray each other through gossip (a habit they don’t wish to break), there is camaraderie among them. They obviously care for one another, know the petty problems the others have living in a society where the men control the money.” Peary concludes his review by noting that “most unique is that all these women have a genuine sense of humor” — “Cukor obviously loves these characters”, so “we can forgive him for intentionally over-doing it.”

I’m in agreement with Peary’s assessment. Despite the story being set in a very specific time and place (an era when divorces necessarily involved a trip to Reno), and perhaps coming across as dated for that reason, it remains timeless in many ways, thanks to the nuanced portrayals of the various women. As Peary writes, “Shearer’s friends range from young to old (she also has a special relationship with her mother and daughter) and include golddiggers (Goddard), passive wives (Fontaine), those who financially support their men, those who use their husbands’ money to fritter their days away, those who push men around, and those who have been dumped by their wayward husbands”. The lack of any actual men in the cast or on screen (a clever convention of the original play) allows us to concentrate exclusively on the women of this story, which is surprisingly refreshing. Of course, it’s lacking in diversity in countless ways (we see no women of color or lesbians) — but it’s authentic to its milieu and realistically doesn’t stretch farther than Shearer’s actual life would. Speaking of Shearer, she’s in top form here, easily holding her own against Crawford’s iconically shrewish Crystal. The direction and cinematography are top-notch as well.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Norma Shearer as Mary
  • Joan Crawford as Crystal
  • Fine direction and cinematography

  • A witty, often biting script

Must See?
Yes, as a cult classic. Nominated by Peary as one of the Best Pictures of the Year in his Alternate Oscars.

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