Saturday 20 January 2007

The Women (1939) George Cukor

The title card adds, 'As presented for 666 performances in its triumphant run at the Ethel Barrmore Theatre, New York', which would seem to be a superstitious number, but maybe that's only because I've just watched Night of the Demon. The play was by Clare Boothe, and adapted for the screen by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin. Loos, of course, wrote the screenplays for a number of great films, including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes from her own novel.

This film stands unique on a number of fronts. For a start, the title is more apt than we'd usually expect: while there's a cast of what seems like hundreds (really only 130 or so), they're all women. That's not just the leading cast either, as even the kids are are girls and apparently all the many pets are female too. No wonder the director is George Cukor, famously described as 'the women's director'. I guess that works with a capital letter too. Apparently the only female MGM stars who didn't appear in this one were Greta Garbo and Myrna Loy. Also, I've never seen credits like these before. Warner Brothers movies in the thirties tended to have photos or video clips to accompany the actors' names, but here we see not just the actresses but also their characters through animals. Beyond the cats and tigers you'd expect in an all-woman cast, Joan Fontaine plays a sheep, apparently, and Marjorie Main a horse. I wonder what they felt about that.

The lead is played by an excellent Norma Shearer, in what is apparently the last great performance of her career. This is 1939, so it's late for her, with only three further films left to come. Her talent grew over time and eventually outstripped the well publicised fact that she was married to MGM Irving Thalberg, for whom the word 'wunderkind' seems to have been invented, and thus highly likely to get the great parts anyway, with due merit or not. She's Mary Haines, who believes that she's happily married to Stephen Haines, but has an eyeopening due. He's a huge McGuffin, because we never see him but the entire plot stems from the fact that on the sly he's seeing a girl who works behind the perfume counter at Black's on Fifth Avenue, and Mary finds out.

This perfume girl is Crystal Allen,a manipulative little scamp able to conjure up any lie necessary to get her way, as depicted with feeling by Joan Crawford. I'm a guy, and a straight one at that, so naturally I have no clue about any of this but I have a feeling that the film works as an opening into another world. Watching Crystal twisting her boyfriend Stephen round her little finger over the phone is like watching a living textbook, and from then on everything seems like documentary footage. Most telling are Mary's faces and tones of voice and the dangerous prodding and bitchy asides of friend Sylvia, courtesy of actress Rosalind Russell.

Russell is a riot, and she's far from the only notable character here. It often feels like if I blinked, I'd miss someone new. She may be the most obvious but there's also Lucile Watson as Mary's wise mother, Virginia Grey at the perfume counter, Ruth Hussey as Stephen's secretary, Muriel Hutchison as Mary's maid, Mary Boland as a much-married and much-divorced countess, Marjorie Main as a worldly Nevada cook, even thirteen year old Virginia Weidler as Mary and Stephen's daughter, among many others, and they all help to build the background to what appears to be the story that goes on behind all those other MGM films of the second half of the thirties, the ones where the men run the show and the women are just there as ornaments. Very eye-opening indeed!

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