Dir.: George Cukor
The 1939 George Cukor dramedy THE WOMEN is most notable, perhaps, for the fact that not a single man shows up anywhere in its 133 minutes, despite it spanning over two years and featuring a considerably large cast. Lest this be mistaken as a feminist statement, however, the tagline for THE WOMEN is "It's All About the Men!," making any reading of this film through the Bechdel paradigm hazardous to one's health. With a story and screenplay by notable women of letters Clare Boothe Luce and Anita Loos, THE WOMEN takes place in upper class society's man-free zones, like women's health spas, fashion shows, lingerie fittings, kitchens and boudoirs, not to mention the bedrooms and houses left empty when the men move on to younger women, leaving their wives behind.
At first, I feared that THE WOMEN was going to be one of those comedies that confuses pace and noise for humor, as its opening whirlwind tour of a health spa is rife with yapping dogs, wacky accents and other zippy zaniness, but it quickly settles into a somewhat banal divorce drama about a wealthy woman (Norma Shearer) who learns from the rumor mill (led by Rosalind Russell) that her husband has a mistress (Joan Crawford) and struggles to balance the conflicting advice coming from her mother and her friends with her own feelings. Shearer gives the film a sturdy emotional anchor, in the midst of too many goofball characters. The entire cast is appealing, but in the manner with which Cukor bounces around from one bustling location to another, it was not always easy to keep track of who was who; when Joan Fontaine emerges as a significant supporting player during the second half of THE WOMEN, I honestly could not remember if she had been introduced at any point during the first half. The list of notable names in the cast is practically endless, from Paulette Goddard to Marjorie "Ma Kettle" Main to pro gossiper Hedda Hopper. It's overall an impressive undertaking, with some very ambitious sequences — including a Technicolor fashion show that bursts through the black and white — but I found the simpler modest melodrama more rewarding than all of the busywork around it.
Watching something like THE WOMEN, which is a non-stop parade of stereotypes and social commentary deemed hopelessly retrograde by today's standards, is a challenge. On the one hand, it often feels hopelessly regressive and reductive, as it depicts its well-to-do women as slaves to extravagant fashion and relentless myopic gossiping, and its "happy ending" culminates with a triumphant swell as Shearer, on the way to reunite with her unfaithful ex-husband, announces that pride is "a luxury a woman in love can't afford!" On the other hand, underneath its clever one-liners and cat fights, THE WOMEN does layout fairly starkly (and possibly subversively for its time) the confining contradictions of gender roles as they stood during the 1930s; from that, one can either scoff at such a pitiable state of affairs, or take the opportunity to consider both the gains and losses in that arena since then.
Flickcharted: #1801 (58.68%)