Wednesday, June 7, 2017
The Women (George Cukor, 1939)
Bechdel test completely: All the women in The Women talk about is men. They don't talk about their jobs because they don't have them: They circulate in a world of cocktail parties, kaffeeklatsches, spas, and venues for shopping. The one exception is Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford), who to my mind becomes the film's real heroine with her resigned "back to the perfume counter" final speech after she receives her comeuppance. Say what you will about Crystal, and the characters in The Women have plenty to say about her, she has a spine and a pretty solid view that the world is still there for her taking by any means necessary. Of course, the nominal heroine is poor Mary (Mrs. Stephen) Haines (Norma Shearer), who gets the final soft-focus scene as, dewy-eyed, she heads off to reconcile with her husband. I want to be a little more generous to Shearer than some have been: She has been given a thankless role -- generous, self-effacing, motherly to a fault -- and not only a formidable adversary but also a surrounding cast of colorful, wisecracking characters, from Rosalind Russell's bumptious, overdressed gossip to Paulette Goddard's wryly tough chorus girl on the make to Mary Boland's relentless serial divorcee. We are supposed to root for Mary, but why? This is where I think the gimmick, the all-female cast, does Shearer, a disservice. If we actually met Stephen Haines, we might have some clue as to why Mary takes so long to kick him out and then is so delighted to rush to his Crystal-stained arms at the film's end. Shearer is forced to play a role without a motive other than blindly enduring love. That she does it as well as she can gives her some default points, but for most of of the film she has to rely on Shearerisms: chin up, eyes moist, shoulders back. The character comes to life only at the end when Mary decides to fight back by marshaling all the dirty tricks she has been taught, and Shearer is fun to watch as she plays them. Still, her triumph over Crystal is only the product of a tired dramatic formula. It's Crawford who mops the floor with the rest of the cast with her performance and earns our respect for Crystal with her delivery of the famous exit line: "There a name for you ladies, but it isn't used in high society ... outside of a kennel. So long, ladies!" Everything else is anticlimax. Cukor gives the film great energy, though the adaptation by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin of the Clare Boothe Luce play (with uncredited help from F. Scott Fitzgerald and Donald Ogden Stewart) is so full of would-be zingers that they begin to get a little tiresome. Sadly, the only respite from the non-stop bitchery is to introduce another weepy scene between Mary and her mother (Lucile Watson) or her daughter (Virginia Weidler). At two hours and 13 minutes, The Women seems at least 13 minutes overlong.