Wednesday, 16 September 2015

The Lauren Bacall Blogathon: "Woman's World" (1954)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Jean Negulesco, Woman's World (1954) follows the efforts of Ernest Gifford (Clifton Webb), the owner of a large automobile manufacturer, to hire a new general manager for his company. To accomplish this, Gifford brings to New York his top three regional salesmen, along with their wives, planning to hire the one whose wife is most suited to be an executive's wife. Arriving by plane are Bill and Katie Baxter (Cornel Wilde and June Allyson), a loving couple from Kansas City. Travelling by train from Texas are Jerry Talbot (Van Heflin) and his seductive, gold-digger counterpart Carol (Arlene Dahl). Rouding up the trio are Sidney and Elizabeth Burns (Fred MacMurray and Lauren Bacall), who are on the verge of separating and quarrel as they drive from Philadelphia.

Believing that the trip is a reward for good sales, the clumsy but sweet Katie expresses her dislike for the big city and proves inept at handling her social responsibilities. The ambitious Carol, on the other hand, reiterates her desire to leave Texas and become part of a more glamorous lifestyle. The classy, intelligent Liz is convinced that a promotion will kill her ulcer-ridden husband, but promises to act like a dutiful wife for the duration. At a dinner party hosted by Gifford's sister, Evelyn Andrews (Margalo Gillmore), the tycoon bluntly tells the three candidates that he has been "studying" them and their wives and asks them if they will put their jobs ahead of their family lives. Bill flatly refuses, stating that if a man's job and his home life interfere with each other, then there is something wrong with both the man and the job. Jerry replies that he does not want the job if he is not qualified for it personally and regardless of his wife, while Sid eagerly assures Gifford that he wants the position. Katie is relieved to learn that Bill has decided he does not want the post and a resigned Liz promises to stick by Sid if Gifford gives him the job. The scheming Carol, however, goes to Gifford and insinuates that if he promotes Jerry, she will become his mistress. Which candidate will Gifford chose now?

Ernest Gifford: To our new general manager and the two brightest stars in his team. May your success continue to keep me wealthy. And to these lovely ladies, already wealthy and charm and grace and happiness. You know, it's a wonderful world. A great, big, wonderful woman's world. It's because men are in it.

The manufacturing boom during the war years, responsible for lifting the United States out of the Great Depression, was driven by massive government buying and capitalization that helped large industries convert and continue to expand right through the 1950s. Fueled further by the post-war explosion in consumer demand, the nation's big corporations grew both in size and complexity, leading to the increased departmentalization and bureaucratization of their vertical organizational hierarchies. As this new corporate structure was considered essential to their efficient functioning, big companies began hiring image-conscious and professionally trained senior executives and managers. Already familiar with the monopolistic and bureaucratic nature of the marketplace, this young breed of corporate workers created a "managerial revolution" and, along with their families, became America's "new, self-sustaining executive class." It was in this environment that the classical corporate executive film was born. 

Central to business career cinema, these films were "a reflection of the new socioeconomic conditions after the war, particularly as these conditions were filtered through popular fiction and drama about big business". Although Hollywood cinema of the 1930s and early 1940s often featured images of elitist business power and wealth, as in several pictures directed by Frank Capra, including Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Meet John Doe (1941), it was in the mid-1950s that films began to glorify the new business hierarchies by turning their heroes into "sophisticated tacticians who question the domineering methods of their aging company leaders." Among popular films like Executive Suite (1954), Patterns (1956) and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), we find the less-popular, but equally as significant, Woman's World.

Negulesco, Bacall and Heflin on the set
The initial story idea for Woman's World sparked from the novelette May the Best Wife Win by Mona Williams, first published in McCall's magazine. No fewer than five writers were responsible for molding the script: Claude Bynion, Mary Loos, Richard Sale and the renowed duo of Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay, celebrated for such Broadway hits as Anything Goes (1934) and Life with Father (1939). Bynion was also slated to direct the film, but Darryl F. Zanuck, head of production at 20th Century Fox, replaced him with Jean Negulesco after the decision was made to shoot Woman's World in their new CinemaScope widescreen process. The Romanian-born director had just delivered two hugely successful CinemaScope pictures for Fox, How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) and Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), the latter a Best Picture nominee at the 27th Academy Awards.

Lauren Bacall and Fred MacMurray
Once Negulesco signed on as director, Zanuck approved "the highest budget ever set by a Twentieth-Century Fox on a modern drama" and scheduled Woman's World to begin production in mid-May 1954. Eleanor Parker, Glenn Ford, Charlton Heston, Gloria Grahame and Jean Peters were initially attached as the film's stars, but all of them were forced to abandon the project due to various reasons. To replace them, Zanuck hired a gallery of top names from Fox, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Paramount: Clifton Webb, June Allyson, Van Heflin, Lauren Bacall, Fred MacMurray, Arlene Dahl and Cornel Wilde. 

Bacall was happy to be reunited with Negulesco; the two had become good friends during the making of How to Marry a Millionaire and the director would later guide her in the melodrama The Gift of Love (1958), her first project after the death of her husband of twelve years, Humphrey Bogart. Bacall was also happy to be working with Clifton Webb, who had just starred in Three Coins in the Fountain. A prolific stage actor, Webb was an old friend of Bogart's from their Broadway days and had been very close to both Bogie and Bacall ever since their marriage. Following Bogart's death in 1957, Bacall sent Webb a note thanking him for the long friendship he and Bogie enjoyed, saying that she envied him for all those extra years he had with her husband. Other old acquaintances in the film included Allyson and Dahl, who had appeared together in Norman Taurog's The Bride Goes Wild (1948).

By all accounts, the filming of Woman's World was a pleasant experience for everyone involved. Besides the good working relationship between Negulesco, Bacall and Webb, love was in the air for some of the cast, creating an atmosphere of joy that transpired on the set. Dahl was the midst of a romance with Argentinian actor Fernando Lamas, her co-star in Sangaree (1953) and whom she would marry later that year. For his part, MacMurray was involved with actress June Haver, whom he had met while working together in Where Do We Go From Here? (1945) and who would become his second wife shortly after Woman's World finished production.

June Allyson and Cornel Wilde
As a so-called "conservative business film," the main purpose of Woman's World is "to reassure its mostly female audience of the potential for marital bliss within the corporate environment as a whole." However, the incompatibility between home life and work in "the big-city rat race of corporate industry" that is present throughout the film clearly informs wives that their husbands' promotion will not in any case be ideal for their family interests. Nevertheless, each women character remains "individually bound" both to her spouse and to his particular business prospect, revealing "the extent to which the family's income and social life are directly dependent on the male exec's employment."

Sid and Elizabeth's marriage, for instance, has gone sour due to his ambitious overwork and it is only her constant threat of departure that makes him realize that their relationship is more important to him than the big promotion he has always strived for. Similarly, Bill and Katie are simply unsuited to "the game of executive posing" and are pleased to learn that they can return to their home and children back in Kansas City "without further fear of reprisals for their lapse in job ambition."   

Arlene Dahl and Van Heflin
 Jerry and Carol, on the other hand, have no children, as she is more interested in the glitz and glam of New York City than in domestic matters. Her "show of sexual assertiveness" towards Gifford at the end of the film is meant to help her husband secure the position, but it ultimately offends the tycoon, who thinks at first that it was all planned by Bill. Since this kind of behavior runs against Gifford's idea of family values, Carol becomes "a complete liability" both to the company and to Bill. However, because Bill takes the initiative to dispense Carol after he learns of her transgression, he is eventually awarded with the promotion, one of the film's many contradictions.

Woman's World opened at the Roxy Theatre in New York on September 28, 1954 to generally mixed reviews from critics. Variety commented that the film "is Hollywood at its commercial best, a highly-polished product, technically and story wise. [...] The entire cast, under Jean Negulesco's fine direction, contribute a performance as polished as the entire production." Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, on the other hand, called Woman's World "startling and confusing," while also noticing its similarity to the aforementioned Executive Suite. He added: "Jean Negulesco's direction runs to uncomfortable farce, especially in those scenes wherein Miss Allyson spills cocktails, gets locked in a bathroom and such. The prettiest things in the picture are some CinemaScope shots of New York. And a better title would be "Executive Sweeties." Thank goodness, we don't live in such a world!"

Heflin, Wilde, MacMurray and Webb
Largely outdated according to today's standards, Woman's World is almost a period piece, presenting a fairly accurate portrayal of "the single-career executive family" that was "the key economic unit of the affluent society" of the 1950s, while also featuring a glimpse of the kind of female power that would define the 1960s. The film does follows the same conservative and contradictory premise as Executive Suite, which coincidentally starred Allyson in a very similar role, but tries to expand its audience appeal by employing CinemaScope and Technicolor and giving increased attention to the place of women, romance and family. The repetitive use of the film's theme song, "It's a Woman's World" by The Four Aces, and the constant attention to formal wear and luxurious hotel settings also remind viewers that this is a "woman's picture" at heart, "a celebration of the wife's critical importance to her husband's job success through her enhancement of the proper executive image."

Woman's World is hardly the greatest film ever made, but it is still thoroughly enjoyable, mostly because of its stellar cast, lush settings and the gorgeous gowns worn by its beautiful leading ladies (especially Lauren Bacall that vanilla-colored dress she wears at the end of the film is to die for). Fun fact: the portrait at the centre of Gifford's "wall" of romantic conquests is the one of Gene Tierney used in Otto Preminger's noir classic Laura (1944), which was Clifton Webb's first full-lenght sound picture and the first for which he received an Academy Award nomination.

This is my contribution to The Lauren Bacall Blogathon hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. To view all entries, click HERE.

By Myself and Then Some by Lauren Bacall (2006) | Career Movies: American Business and the Success Mystique by Jack Boozer (2002) | Sitting Pretty: The Life and Times of Clifton Webb by Clifton Webb; with David L. Smith (2011) | TCMDb (Articles)  | TCMDb (Notes) | IMDb | The New York Times review | Variety review


  1. I have never seen this one. I agree that it sounds outdated, but it sounds worth watching.

  2. Thanks so much for participating in the blogathon with such a great entry. After reading your post, it makes me want to see this film again.

    I would also like to invite you to participate in my next blogathon. The link is below with more details