The Women August 2, 2016
Sure would be nice if there were a little less melodrama within the constraints of wicked 1939 comedy The Women, but because the quips (written by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin) are so cutting and because the majority of the acting is rooted in survival-of-the-fittest cattiness, I’m okay with the occasional — scratch that, too frequent — stooping to schmaltz. For the most part, this females-only screwball affair is a highbrow one, dressed to the nines in big-budget hedonism, and, more importantly, an ensemble of actresses which ranges from noble to knot-headed to devious. Imperfect it is — it’s not nearly as mean-spirited as one craving glamorous acidity would like — but The Women is a whip-smart and ahead-of-its-time sizzler in a Hollywood then (and still) dominated by the opposite sex.
Directed by George Cukor, a filmmaker renowned for being one of cinema's finest “women’s directors,” The Women stars the plenty genteel Norma Shearer as Mary Haines, an affluent housewife more disposed to partaking in leisure activities and attending hoity-toity social gatherings than tend to her home. She spends her days gossiping, hanging out at luxurious spas, and observing lush fashion shows with a clique of high society dames, most notably with Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell), a fast-talking big-mouth who seems to care more about digging dirt than the finer things in life.
Mary lives a comfortable existence, to say the least, and her domestic stability is just as rewarding. She’s been happily married to her husband for years, and her daughter (Virginia Weidler) is a chirpy one that does the right thing and is more than willing to mind her parents. But idealism is only bound to last a short while, and Mary’s cushy (if predictable) life comes crashing down when it’s accidentally revealed that her spouse is cheating on her. The other woman, upsettingly, is a malicious shopgirl (Joan Crawford) who cares more about social status than actual love. Going against the spirit of the film’s biting attitude, Mary is crushed rather than spiteful, figuring it’d be finer to win back her husband than look for love elsewhere, or, even better, get sloppy revenge. So after discovering her mister’s infidelity, she gathers up her pals and considers what course of action to take next, eventually deciding that packing up her bags and catering to her stormy emotions will be the best thing to remind her husband what a catch she was when they first started courting.
But how boring The Women is when it teeters toward women’s picture drama. Though Shearer, always a fetching go-to as a straight man and dependable good girl, is meant to be the moral commodity to prove that the film is more than its snappy lines and cutthroat catfights, she’s instead the weakest link in an otherwise scintillating comedy. When the movie isn’t revolving around the trials and tribulations of its protagonist, it’s a terrifically witty hoot: Russell, screwball’s grande dame (next to Carole Lombard), pushes past being fantastic as the film’s most reliable laugh machine, and Crawford, who can deliver a coy insult like no one’s business (“There's a name for you ladies,” she smirks after her villainous character is finally told off. “But it isn't used in high society … outside of a kennel”), is deliriously fun to hate.
So when The Women’s kidding around and flinging one-liners about generously and embodying frivolity, that’s when it becomes the stinging classic it’s so widely touted to be. Pretend its flourishes of seriousness don’t exist and you have a showcase for some of the Hollywood Golden Age’s most ferocious leading ladies. B+