|THE WOMEN (1939)|
|"There's a name for you ladies, but it isn't used in high society, outside of a kennel."|
|Time: 133 mins.|
Rating: Not Rated
Filled with MGM’s top female stars of the day, this melodrama about a loving wife who finds herself a victim of infidelity is catty, clever, wacky, melancholic, hopeful and heartless. It showcases how far some women are willing to go to find the man of their dreams or at least the one who will satisfy them and what others must sacrifice to hold onto their man. The fact that Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford loathed each other infuses their portrayals, as the loving wife and the cold-hearted tramp that steals her man, with even more gusto, venom and animosity. Their battle for the love of Steven is at the heart of this tale. Since we never meet him (not one man graces a single frame of this film), we have to take their word that he’s worth all the trouble.
Of course, Crystal (Crawford) was perfectly happy seeing him behind Mary’s (Shearer) back. She gets all the perks of having a rich man in her life without any of the headaches. She’s living the high life just for making him feel desirable again. The fact that Mary never suspects a thing shows that Steven still loves her and wants to stay married, despite the decline of passion in their 12-year union. Unfortunately for her, once she discovers his deception thanks to the mean-spiritedness of her supposed friend Sylvia (Russell) she just can’t sweep her knowledge of the affair under the rug. A dressing room confrontation between her and her rival plunges the final dagger of defeat into Mary’s heart. She may love Steven, but Crystal has her claws in him and she’s not about to let her ticket into high society get away.
Though she hates to hurt her daughter (Weidler) by breaking up their family, Mary feels so betrayed she decides to keep her pride instead of her marriage. Her good friends (Fontaine, Povah) beg her to reconsider going to Reno to get a quickie divorce, but she sees it as the only option. While in Reno waiting for the divorce to become final, she meets a few new friends (Boland, Goddard) and encounters a few old ones (Fontaine, Russell) all waiting to be declared free. A few of them are glad to be rid of their men, but Mary, Sylvia and Peggy (Fontaine) aren’t among them. Only Miriam (Goddard) and the Countess (Boland) continue to be positive about love: Miriam because she has Sylvia’s husband waiting for her (which causes quite a stir) and the Countess because she can’t imagine life without love.
Watching her fellow compatriots fight for their futures makes Mary realize she should never have let a schemer like Crystal destroy her life. Unfortunately, Crystal marries Steven before the ink is dry on their divorce. The relationships between this group of ladies becomes even more strained and complicated when they return from Reno. Marriage bores Crystal, who secretly takes up with a new lover; Mary bides her time, hoping that Steven’s unhappiness will send him back into her arms; the Countess remarries, only to have her new relationship placed in jeopardy and Sylvia’s big mouth becomes the lynchpin that brings down Crystal’s house of cards. The last act is screwball comedy at its’ most vicious and wacky. The one-liners fly at about a mile a minute, delivering laugh after laugh. That is, if you like your comedy on the bitterly sarcastic side.
While the story is overly dramatic at points and more than a little old-fashioned, the performances are still crisp, funny and endearing. Cukor proves his talent as a director (and diva wrangler), perfectly blending the various stories and giving each of the ladies their moment to shine. While Shearer and Crawford were cast to type, they still manage to make their characters unique and human. This film was a minor comeback for Crawford, whose career was on a downward spiral, and she makes the most of her small, but pivotal role. Crystal is every married woman’s worst nightmare: attractive, loose and ruthless. Russell is a force to be reckoned with, giving a wicked comic performance that adds great spark and flair to this film. Without her manic, bitter energy this would be a very tired affair. Her catfight with Goddard is almost worth the price of admission. Boland is sweet and charming as the ever-positive, love-starved Countess. She and Fontaine add light and honesty to the mix.
As for Shearer, she makes Mary someone every woman can relate to. You want her to fight for her marriage, and yet, I believe most of us would be hard-pressed to stay with a man who strayed. This dilemma is at the heart of the picture, which, with all the different relationships, argues every angle. The only conclusion drawn is that marriage is a fragile and complicated thing that needs great care and attention to succeed. Some women may take offense to the characters portrayed within, deeming them too ruthless and vain; however, after working in an office filled with only women, I can honestly say most are as petty, self-absorbed and back-stabbing as the characters shown here. Women are way more mean-spirited than men; they just hide it behind good manners and a pretty smile. A film that occasionally suffers from the lack of a male presence, but delivers more than its’ fair share of classic cinema moments. The ultimate woman’s picture.