Retro Reels: The Women (1939)

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Several years ago the remake of the movie classic The Women was released. Featuring an all-star cast, including Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes and Candace Bergen, this version of the original The Women was a modern take on friendship and frenemies, and love and betrayal among the wealthy socialites of Manhattan. It took 15 years for the remake of The Women to make it to the silver screen. Apparently, from some of the scathing reviews this version received, perhaps Hollywood should have waited another 15 years. A.O. Scott from the New York Times called it, “One of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.” Ouch.

However, I highly recommend the 1939 original. Based on the 1936 play by Renaissance woman, Clare Boothe Luce, The Women was adapted for the screen by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin, and directed by the famous “women’s director” George Cukor. Like the 2008 remake, this version of The Women also boasted an all-star cast, including Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford and Paulette Goddard.

Norma Shearer plays Mary Haines, a seemingly happy wife and mother of husband Stephen and daughter, Little Mary. At a posh salon where Mary and her friends frequent, Mary’s friend and cousin, Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell) learns some hot gossip. Mary’s husband is having an affair with a mankiller shopgirl named Crystal Allen played by Joan Crawford (who else?).

Well, what’s the good of gossip if it can’t be shared? Sylvia tells this gossip to Mary’s friends. They conspire to set Mary up with the manicurist who told Sylvia the sleazy news. While at this appointment, Mary hears the rumor that her husband and Crystal are having an affair. Though she tries to ignore this gossip, she can’t help but be suspicious. After all, Stephen has been working a lot of late nights.

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After a trip to Bermuda to clear her head, Mary goes to a fashion show. While at the show, Mary learns Crystal is there. She finds Crystal in a dressing room trying on some of the clothing from the fashion show. Mary confronts Crystal about the affair. Instead of denying Mary’s charges, Crystal admits to the affair. She also tells Mary that Stephen is going to divorce her, and Crystal will soon be the next Mrs. Stephen Haines.

Not surprisingly, Mary is absolutely heartbroken. This horrifying news has legs, and before long Sylvia spills the beans to a local gossip columnist turning Mary’s marital drama into a tabloid scandal. Mary may be heartbroken but she’s not willing to be the fool in her husband’s folly. Mary decides to leave Stephen and she goes to Reno to obtain a quickie divorce.

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While on a train to Reno, Mary befriends some women also on the way to Reno for quickie divorces. Among Mary’s new BFFs are Countess DeLave (Mary Boland) and former chorus girl Miriam Aarons (Paulette Goddard). And to Mary’s delight, she also runs into her good friend Peggy Day (Joan Fontaine).

Once Mary and her friends get to Reno they set up shop at a ranch and wait for their divorces to be finalized. The owner of the ranch, Lucy (Marjorie Main) is a bit rough around the edges, but she offers plenty of sage advice to the ladies. They all discuss life, love and marriage, both the good and the bad. The Countess even gets her groove back with a local cowboy named Buck Winston and plans to marry him once she’s a free woman.

Other secrets come out at the ranch. Miriam admits to an affair with Sylvia Fowler’s husband, yep, Mary’s backstabbing frenemy, and Miriam is going to marry Sylvia’s husband after she leaves Reno. Peggy reveals she is pregnant and the other women convince her to patch things up with her husband.

Before long Sylvia turns up in Reno, her husband leaving her for Miriam. Sylvia and Miriam meet up and the fur flies, with Mary breaking up the fight. Miriam tries to convince Mary to stall her divorce and go back to Stephen. Alas, it’s too late. Stephen soon calls Mary and tells her that he and Crystal have become husband and wife.

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It is two years later, and Crystal is Mrs. Stephen Haines. However, once an adulterous slut, always an adulterous slut. Crystal is having an affair with Buck Winston who is now married to Countess DeLave (still with me?). Little Mary finds out about her stepmother’s trampy ways when she overhears Crystal talking on the phone with Buck. And that scheming Sylvia Fowler is now friends with Crystal. Once she finds out Crystal is cheating on Stephen with Buck, she figures this is some more gossip she can use in the near future.

At the same time, Mary is throwing a big bash to celebrate the Countess and Buck’s anniversary. After the bash is over, Mary is asked to go to another party by the Countess, Miriam and Peggy. But Mary is beat and decides she’ll stay home. While talking to her daughter, Little Mary, Mary learns that Stephen isn’t happily married to Crystal and Crystal is having an affair with Buck. Well, who can stay home after hearing this little tidbit? Mary dresses herself to the nines, heads off the party and is determined to get the truth out and Stephen back from Crystal’s clutches.

At the party, Mary gathers all the women into the ladies’ room. Taking no prisoners, Mary reveals to the Countess that Buck is sleeping with Crystal. She tells Crystal that Stephen is fed up with her. Mary manages to make Sylvia and Crystal enemies during this, and a local gossip columnist hears the women fight with each other. However, Crystal doesn’t care for Stephen anymore and informs Mary that she can have him. After all, Buck, who is now a successful radio star, can support her with his riches. Not so fast, the Countess claims. All of Buck’s success is due to the Countess’ money, and without it, he’s nothing. After learning this, Crystal realizes she needs to go to Reno to procure her own quickie divorce, and then it’s back to the perfume counter. Ultimately, our heroine Mary is victorious and she and Stephen reconcile and heal their broken family.

As I mentioned, the original version of The Women came out in 1939, one of the best years in the history of film. Though hugely successful both critically and commercially, it never garnered any Oscar nominations. The Women took a risk by having an all-female cast and making the men tertiary characters. And it wasn’t afraid to take a scathing look at Manhattan’s upper crust. The Women is filmed in black and white but it has a splendid fashion show by top Hollywood designer Adrian filmed in color for Turner Classic Movies. The dialogue, considered quite shocking at the time, is whipsmart and delightfully catty, and probably influenced a great deal of female focused movies and TV shows. Crystal’s infamous line, “There is a name for you ladies, but it isn’t used in high society…outside of a kennel” could easily be used in Absolutely Fabulous, Sex and the City or more current televised lady fare like Girls or Broad City.

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The Women is a cinematic good time, and a classic not to missed. Grab your best girlfriends, put on your silk robes and marabou trimmed slippers, break open a bottle of bubbly and bond over The Women.

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