THE WOMEN (George Cukor, 1939)
Film Society of Lincoln Center
144/165 West 65th St. between Eighth Ave. & Broadway
Friday, December 13, Francesca Beale Theater, 1:15, 6:30
Saturday, December 14, Walter Reade Theater, 4:30
Series runs December 6-8
212-875-5050 / 212-875-5166
One of the cattiest movies ever made, The Women is a screwball comedy that has the distinction of not having a single man in it; it was written by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin, based on Clare Booth’s 1936 Broadway play, and helmed by George Cukor, who is often considered “the women’s director.” (Even the animals in the film are female.) Set in Manhattan, the film follows the intrigue and gossip surrounding a group of socialite women who yap yap yap all day long while shopping in ritzy stores, eating in fancy restaurants, and getting their nails done in high-end salons. Their attention is suddenly turned to the sweetly innocent Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) when it is believed that her husband, Stephen, is having an affair with conniving perfume salesperson Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford). Mary’s supposed best friends, Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell), Edith Potter (Phyllis Povah), and Peggy Day (Joan Fontaine), at first keep the story from her, but as the facts continue to pile up, Mary considers heading to Reno to get a quickie divorce, even as her mother (Lucile Watson) tells her to just live with the deception, as most women do. In Reno, Mary stays at a ranch with other wives trying to get out of their marriages, including a boisterous, oft-wed countess (Mary Boland), a tough-talking chorus girl (Paulette Goddard), and a few surprises. As the women discuss life and love, wealth and poverty, heartache and motherhood — Mary is desperate to protect her daughter, also named Mary (Virginia Weidler), from the nasty proceedings — relationships twist and turn, loyalty is questioned, and the possibility of true love is clouded in doubt.
The Women is a riotous, fast-paced romp that flies by despite clocking in at more than two hours. The opening title sequence sets the stage, with each of the main characters represented by a different animal: deer (Mary), leopard (Crystal), black cat (Sylvia), monkey (the countess), hyena (Miriam), sheep (Peggy), owl (Mary’s mother), cow (Edith), doe (Mary’s daughter), and horse (Lucy). The narrative mixes slapstick humor and tender moments with scenes of backstabbing bravado. Dennie Moore nearly steals the show as fabulously gossipy manicurist Olga, who unwittingly sets the main plot in motion and is responsible for painting many of the characters’ nails in the critical color Jungle Red. (Among the other highlights are an exercise class at the spa and the maid spying on a heated argument between Mary and Stephen.) The cast also features Hedda Hopper as gossip columnist Dolly Dupuyster, Butterfly McQueen as Crystal’s assistant, Lulu, and Marjorie Main as Lucy, who runs the Reno divorce ranch. Although the film was primarily shot in black-and-white, it has an oddball Adrian fashion show in Technicolor that feels out of place, and some of the ideas regarding a woman’s freedom versus her dependence on men don’t quite hold up, but The Women is still one of the greatest Hollywood pictures ever told from the perspective of the fairer sex. Amazingly, Cukor’s film did not receive a single Oscar nomination, having come out the same year as Wuthering Heights, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Gone with the Wind, Ninotchka, Love Affair, Dark Victory, The Wizard of Oz, and Goodbye, Mr. Chips. On December 13 & 14, The Women will kick off the Film Society of Lincoln Center series “The Discreet Charm of George Cukor,” which runs through January 7 and includes all fifty of the Lower East Side native’s films, from Grumpy and The Virtuous Sin to The Corn Is Green and Rich and Famous; in between are such unforgettable classics as Adam’s Rib, The Philadelphia Story, Holiday, Born Yesterday, Dinner at Eight, My Fair Lady, Little Women, A Star Is Born, and many others.