Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Women (1939)

Four Stars. Will watch again forever!

Norma Shearer plays a wealthy New York woman who learns that her husband is cheating on her from a gossipy manicurist. Her gossip-loving friend Syliva is played by Rosalind Russell who also stars in "His Girl Friday".

There are so many things to love about this movie. Starting with the opening credits where each character is introduced as an animal first, and then converted to a woman:
Norma Shearer as the Doe ~ Mrs. Stephen Haines (Mary)
Joan Crawford as the Leopard ~ Crystal Allen
Rosalind Russell as the Cat ~ Mrs. Howard Fowler (Sylvia)
Mary Boland as the Monkey ~ The Countess DeLave (Flora)
Paulette Goddard as the Fox ~ Miriam Aarons
Joan Fontaine as the Lamb ~ Mrs. John Day (Peggy)
Lucile Watson as the Owl ~ Mrs. Morehead
Phyllis Povah as the Cow ~ Mrs. Phelps Potter (Edith)
Virginia Weidler as the Fawn ~ Little Mary
Marjorie Main as the Horse ~ Lucy

Virginia Weidler is Dinah in the Philadelphia Story making her the strange precocious young girl in two of my favorite movies.

The movie is also deliciously self-conscious. "I know plenty I wouldn't breathe about my friends' husbands," says one woman, "oh, so do I!" responds another - they both stop talking for a moment and the thought is so clear it doesn't need to be said - what might my friends know about me? A minute later the subject of the juicy gossip, Mary, leaves the room singing "please don't talk about me when I'm gone..." fat chance, Mary.

The funny thing about the movie is it celebrates the epitome of cattiness without letting it triumph in the end...although sexism and classism come out on top. The rich and virtuous triumph over the poor and slutty and the men are proven to be the victims and the women the instigators of all the evils of divorce and adultery. The [Evils of] Women could be the unofficial title of this film.

One of the central morals of the story is that the woman whose husband is cheating on her should stick loyally by his side and say nothing. A man is a man and adultery is just what comes with the territory. She should wait for him to come to his senses (it's okay to wait in Bermuda, for example) - but she most certainly shouldn't let her girlfriends talk her into divorcing him.

"Don't confide in your friends. They'll see to it in the name of friendship that you lose your husband and your home."

So instead the woman in question decides to fight the "other woman" (OW) - not the cheating man. This is in direct contradiction to what Oprah tells us to do! Eventually she caves to the advice of the crowd and finds herself divorced and - naturally - miserable. What's a woman without her man?

There are echoes of The Awful Truth, here - you can leave your spouse, but you will eventually regret it!

Not surprisingly, in the movie we learn conclusively that the man in question is hapless and a little helpless and was lured into the arms of a cunning and conniving woman a "terrible man trap". It's hard not to get enraged while at the same time being amused watching Joan Crawford curl an imaginary man on the telephone around her little finger.

Of course, in real life, ninety-nine times out of a hundred "the other woman" is the hapless-helpless one and the man is cunning and conniving. Or the OW is hapless and desperate and the man is helpless and lying. Or all three parties are hapless, desperate and miserable. Watch Jerry Springer if you need a case in point.

However you slice it, I wouldn't say this movie contains a lesson to be absorbed too deeply. What it can teach you is how to converse with queens. Try these lines for instant success at gay tupperware parties:
About red nails: "Jungle red - looks as if you've been tearing at somebody's throat."
About bread: "Go ahead, dear no starch it's gluten."
About hand towels: "Cheap chinese embroidery - I bet Peggy gave these to her."
About the man trap: "She's got those eyes that run up and down a man like a searchlight."
About adulterous husbands: "Say nothing, and don't forget that's my handkerchief."
About children: "I'm all the baby he wants, toots!"

You'll want to keep your remote handy for this one - and if you don't have Tivo, rent it - there is no possible way a human being could catch all the catty one-liners without rewind or instant replay. And if you love catty one-liners as much as we women do, you will love this movie.


Jessica said...

Wow. I could only find it on video when I was looking for it, so there was a lot of rewinding going on! Did you know someone's making a new version of this movie? It's filming now, partly in the Boston area with Meg Ryan, Jada Pinkett Smith, Carrie Fisher, and too many other names to remember. A few weeks ago they filmed a scene around a pond near my school. Last Tuesday they shut down Yvonne's street because they were filming an interior somewhere on her street. They were also filming a scene in a health club in Sudbury, so hopefully the new Sylvia will still get to flail around and walk up the wall. So in a few years we can find out how "modern" women behave in the face of adultery. Anyways, thanks for the recommendation... I'll have to watch it again someday to hear more of what I missed!

Ms. Q said...

Oh no! No no no. There can be no remake of this movie. No Meg Ryan! No Jada Pinkett Smith! NO NO NO Carrie Fisher! No!
What can I say? Their ruthlessness must not be mitigated by powerful actresses who want "likable" characters. Their cattiness must not be softened by some version of man-hating-self-help-sisterhood a la "Ex-Wives Club".
I cannot conceive of a version of this movie that does not star two or more of the following:
Glen Close
Julianne Moore
Melanie Griffith
Julia Roberts (as Mrs. Stephen)
and -
damn it. A quick check of IMDB reveals that they got Eva Mendes to play Crystal Allen.
I suppose I will have to see it now since she is the next best thing to Michelle Rodriguez.
However, I will never ever ever believe that the intrinsically neurotic Meg Ryan will make a good Mrs. Stephen.

Ms. Q said...

Again I say "no!" this time I say no just to the poster
"the laughter the tears the dreams the career the beauty the warmth"
what about the catfights in dressing rooms wearing furs and lingerie? Huh? What about THOSE?

mikaan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

I'm going to be in this play this spring playing Peggy Day. I think the script is genious, however, I do not agree that leaving a cheat is ever a good idea, because he is not "helpless" he can make his own decisions I think. Of course I'm a little biased because my dad left my mom for another woman a month ago and his new girlfriend reminds me way too much of Crystal.

Unknown said...

Oops I meant that staying with a cheat is never a good idea, I kind of said the opposite there, whoops!

Ms. Q said...

Update: I DID see the remake, and I was right - it was six different kinds of awful. Even Eva Mendes sucked. Sorry, she's just too clearly a nice, friendly rottweiler with a juicy bone. Nothing about her says man-eater.
Meg Ryan lacks the poise that carries Norma Shearer through embarrassment after embarrassment with her dignity intact. And I love Meg Ryan.
I felt bad for the author who was clearly obsessed with this project, but then I learned that the writer directed and that most likely compounded the problems with the script and the casting...