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1001 Overlooked Movies - The Women (1939)

The tumultuous lives of a group of female Manhattan socialites.


Directed by: George Cukor
Starring: Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Mary Boland, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, Hedda Hopper, Virginia Grey


One guess what this movie is about? ‘The Women’ (1939) is a revolutionary film released in, arguably, the best year for movies in Hollywood’s history, featuring an all-female cast, from main players to extras and even animals. The work of legendary director George Cukor, from a play by Claire Luce Booth and a script by Anita Loos, the film includes a brilliant collection of witticisms, hilarious skits and scenes. The movie stars a glittering array of MGM’s finest leading ladies including Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine and Paulette Goddard. Their lives are cataloged as top tier Manhattan society women navigating husbands, friends, fashion and beauty salons. At one of these trips to the salon, while receiving the new nail color craze “Jungle Red”, Sylvia Fowler (Russell) learns from a manicurist that her cousin and society leader, Mary Haines’s (Shearer) husband, Stephen, is having an affair. Shocked but intrigued, she finds that Haines’s mistress is none other than a perfume counter girl by the name of Crystal Allen (Crawford).
A notorious gossip, and secretly thrilled that her cousin’s life is not perfect, Sylvia shares the information with their close friends, who all have different answers to solving the problem. But Sylvia has other plans; intent on creating mischief, she sets up an appointment for Mary with the manicurist, who blabs the entire story of the affair unknowingly to her. After a fashion show attended by the group of friends – including a stunning Technicolor insert – Mary is persuaded by Sylvia to confront Crystal, also at the show, and, it appears, is buying extravagant clothes using Stephen’s account. She loses the battle to the confident Crystal who advises Mary to keep the status quo and not confront her husband. The damage is done and Mary demands a divorce from Stephen – revealed through a discussion between her two female servants. Many of her friends and her mother, Mrs. Morehead (Lucile Watson), believe it is a huge mistake, leaving her husband solely in the clutches of Crystal.
Her mind made up, Mary leaves her daughter, Little Mary (Virginia Weidler), and steps on board a train to Reno accompanied by one of her friends, Peggy Day (Fontaine), who has also impulsively decided to divorce her husband. On the train they meet the colorful Countess De Lave (Mary Boland) and straight-talking chorus girl Miriam Aarons (Paulette Goddard), also on track for divorces. They room happily together in a ranch owned by Lucy (Marjorie Main) in Reno, with the Countess even finding a new man to fit her ex-husband's shoes in handsome cowboy Buck Winston. Towards the end of their stay, a new boarder arrives; to Mary’s shock it is Sylvia, whose husband has reportedly met another women and wants a separation. The gossip columns reveal the mystery lady is Miriam, whose divorce was in order for her to wed Mr Fowler. In a tense few moments a fight ensues between Sylvia and Miriam, broken up somewhat successfully by the Countess and Mary. Later in the day, Peggy – now revealing she is pregnant – is reunited with her husband. Mary, buoyed by her friend’s happiness, is prompted by Miriam to rekindle her own marriage but this is ruined by a phone call from Stephen, informing her that he and Crystal have just been married.      
Two years later, the friends – excluding Sylvia, who had struck up a friendship with Crystal – meet before a party. Peggy is now a proud mother, Miriam contently married to Mr Fowler and the Countess wedded to now radio star Buck Winston. They urge Mary to come along to the party but she refuses, not wanting to bump into Crystal and Stephen. She talks to Little Mary who accidentally reveals that Crystal may be having an affair of her own and that her former husband is no longer happy in the relationship. Revitalized, Mary, clothed in a stunning gold dress, goes to the party intending to ruin Crystal, calling to her mother, “I've had two years to grow claws, Mother - Jungle Red!"
In the powder room at the party, Mary discovers from Sylvia that Crystal is indeed having an affair with Buck Winston, husband of the Countess. She blurts this out to infamous gossip columnist Dolly Dupuyster (played by equally infamous Hollywood reporter Hedda Hopper), who causes a commotion at the party by telling Stephen. Crystal laughs, saying she does not need Stephen anymore and can marry Buck and have him support her. The distraught Countess reveals she gave Buck a job and that he would be poor without her. Crystal, beaten, resigns herself to a life back at the perfume counter. The movie concludes beautifully with Crystal calling to the group of women, “There’s a name for you ladies but it’s not used in high society, outside of a kennel!” This is followed by Mary loving returning to her husband.
‘The Women’ is an ingeniously constructed film, definitely for female audiences, with believable plot turns and connections.  Yes, there is a large chunk of talking in this movie but also a fair share of "cat fights", scheming and action; also including the brilliant tussle between Rosalind Russell and Paulette Goddard where one lady is pulled off her horse and scratched while the other has her shorts pulled down and her leg bitten. The main cast are excellent, including Joan Crawford in an out-of-type “bad girl” role, but the film belongs to the lower-billed members, including the beautiful Paulette Goddard, Mary Boland and Marjorie Main, who provide most of the fun and excitement. The actors pull together to show the complicated nature of female relationships; that women can both be friends and enemies and sympathize while patronizing each other. Although not for everyone, with its beautiful color sequence, all-women cast and witty script, ‘The Women’ should be on every persons "to watch" list.

The official '1001 Movies' list includes the following movies from 1939 - Stagecoach, The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums, Babes in Arms, Mr Smith Goes To Washington, The Wizard of Oz, Destry Rides Again, Only Angels Have Wings, Gone With The Wind, Daybreak, Gunga Din, Ninotchka, The Rules of the Game, Wuthering Heights


Emma Alsop
For more from Emma, check out her site 'Let's Misbehave: A Tribute to Pre-Code Hollywood'.
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