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Film Friday: «The Women» (1939)

In honor of Norma Shearer's 114th birthday, which was on Wednesday, this week on "Film Friday" I bring you what is arguably one of her most iconic pictures.
Original release poster
Directed by George Cukor, The Women (1939) begins when Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell) learns from her manicurist, Olga (Dennie Moore), that Stephen Haines, the husband of her cousin Mary (Norma Shearer), is having an affair with a predatory perfume clerk named Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford). A notorious gossip, Sylvia shares the news with her Park Avenue friends and then sends Mary for a manicure with Olga so that she hears the rumor herself. Mary's mother, Mrs. Morehead (Lucile Watson) urges her to ignore the gossip, but she cannot control herself when she unexpectedly encounters Crystal at a fashion show. Much to Sylvia's delight, the meeting between the two rivals makes the front page of the society columns, which prompts Mary to ask for a divorce.

On the train to Reno, where she will get her divorce, Mary meets several women with the same destination and purpose: the extravagant Countess de Lave (Mary Boland); worldly chorus girl Miriam Aarons (Paulette Goddard); and, to her surprise, her shy young friend Peggy Day (Joan Fontaine), who has just discovered that she is pregnant. Soon after arriving at the ranch run by the gruffly Lucy (Marjorie Main), the women are joined by Sylvia, whose husband has left her for Miriam. A few hours before Mary's divorce becomes legal, Miriam advises her to forget her pride and take her husband back, but Mary is too late, for Stephen has already married Crystal. Two years later, Crystal has grown tired of Stephen and is now seeing Buck Winston, the countess's new husband. Although Mary still longs for her ex-husband, she has abandoned all hope of reconciliation until her daughter, Little Mary (Virginia Weidler), reveals how unhappy Stephen is. Deciding to fight for the man she loves, Mary tricks Sylvia, who has become friendly with Crystal, into publicly disclosing her friend's infidelity. With Crystal eliminated, Stephen asks to see Mary, who goes to him with open arms.

Mrs. Morehead: We women are so much more sensible. When we tire of ourselves, we change the way we do our hair, or hire a new cook, or... or decorate the house. I suppose a man could do over his office, but he never thinks of anything so simple. No, dear, a man has only one escape from his old self: to see a different self in the mirror of some woman's eyes.

Born in an insalubrious part of New York City's Upper West Side, Ann Clare Boothe was the second illegitimate child of William Franklin Boothe, a gifted violinist and former piano executive, and Anna Clara Schneider, a former dancer less than half his age. Her mother's fantasies of a theatrical career pushed Ann to understudy for Mary Pickford on Broadway when she was 10 and later got her a small part in the silent short The Heart of a Waif (1915), produced by the Edison Manufacturing Company. While her fragile blonde beauty could have potentially opened the way for a successful motion picture career, Ann had no particular interest in the performing arts. In 1923, at the age of 20, she married hard-drinking millionaire George Tuttle Brokaw, whom she would divorce just six years later. Unfulfilled by motherhood (daughter Ann Clare Brokaw was born in 1924) and her "upper-class diversions," she asked magazine owner Condé Nast for a job when she met him by chance at a dinner party in 1929. Soon, as Clare Boothe Brokaw, she was writing captions and essays at Vogue and in two years had become magazine editor of Nast's showcase publication, Vanity Fair. In 1931, she published Stuffed Shirts, a collection of linked short stories "that exposed the vanity, stupidity, hipocrisy, and decadence of the so-called elite."

In late 1935, Clare ventured into playwrighting, although her first stage effort, Abide With Me a grim melodrama based on her "Brokaw nightmare" was a complete failure, closing after only 36 performances. Two days after the play opened on Broadway, she wedded Henry Robinson Luce, the publisher of Time, Life and Fortune magazines. She subsequently called herself Clare Boothe Luce, but continued to use her maiden name as a professional writer. Upon marrying Luce, she hoped for a place on the staff of Life, but her husband's male editors were adamant that they would not accept Boothe in any executive position at their company. Enraged by their masculine bias — and the gender in which she felt imprisioned Boothe decided to take some time alone for herself in the summer of 1936. She travelled to a West Virginia resort, where, in just three days, she wrote a play filled with "the most brutal gossip" that she had heard in beauty parlors, exercise studios and fashion showrooms. According to Boothe, she simply gathered together groups of rich East Side women and Fifth Avenue shopgirls and "set them to talking, and let it run." 

Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer
in a publicity still for The Women
After returning to New York, Boothe showed her play, which she called The Women, to producer Max Gordon, who was impressed enough with the material to personally invest in it. He budgeted $70,000 for lavish sets and costumes designed by Jo Mielziner and John Hambleton respectively, engaging Robert B. Sinclair to direct an all-female production — the first in Broadway history. Boothe's three-act satiric comedy opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York on December 26, 1936, before a capacity audience that included such illustrious figures as Miss Barrymore herself, Gloria Swanson, Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. The play's cast of forty featured Ilka Chase as Sylvia Fowler, Margalo Gillmore as Mary Haines, Betty Lawford as Crystal Allen, Audrey Christie as Miriam Aarons, Adrienne Marden as Peggy Day, Margaret Douglas as Countess de Lage and Marjorie Main as Lucy. A young Doris Day appeared in a small role as a salesgirl. Critically acclaimed, The Women broke Broadway attendance records for a non-musical, running for a total of 657 performances until July 1938.

In January 1937, Gordon and his associate Harry M. Goetz purchased the film rights to Boothe's play and hired Gregory LaCava to direct Claudette Colbert in a screen adaptation of The Women. The following year, however, MGM acquired the property from Gordon as a vehicle for Norma Shearer, the studio's top female star at the time. Born in Montreal in 1902, Shearer moved to New York at the tender age of 17 to pursue a career in the motion picture industry. She made her screen debut playing an uncredited bit part in the silent short comedy The Star Boarder (1919), quickly working her way up to a featured role in The Stealers (1920). In early 1923, she moved to Hollywood with a job offer from Metro Pictures, right before it became Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. During the next several years, Shearer became a favorite of female movie fans, who copied her clothing and hairstyle. After marrying MGM's young head of production Irving Thalberg, she became one of highest paid actresses in Hollywood by starring in such successful pictures as The Divorcee (1930) which brought her an Academy Award for Best Actress A Free Soul (1931), The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) and Marie Antoinette (1938).

Rosalind Russell and Norma Shearer
To play Shearer's nemesis in The Women, MGM selected Joan Crawford, who was in serious need of a hit after being declared "box-office poison" by the Independent Theatre Owners Association of America. According to Anita Loos, who wrote the script along with Jane Murfin, it was Shearer's idea to have Crawford play Crystal Allen: "Norma knew that she and Joan highlighted as love rivals, complete with the juicy, catty scenes I wrote for them, would bring them into theaters. I think it helped things along a great deal."

Although Ilka Chase was originally slated to reprise her stage role as the gossip Sylvia Fowler, the studio eventually cast Rosalind Russell, a former model who had made her film debut at Metro in Evelyn Prentiss (1934), with William Powell and Myrna Loy. Initially, only Shearer and Crawford were supposed to be billed above the title, but Russell caused such a fuss and called in "sick" so often that her name was added to the credit card, albeit in smaller type.

Continuing the play's tradition of an all-female cast, the remaining 132 speaking roles in the film were assigned to women. These included prolific stage actress Mary Boland as the extravagant Countess de Lave; former Ziegfeld girl Paulette Goddard as the worldly-wise chorus girl Miriam Aarons; Canadian-born actress Lucile Watson as Mrs. Morehead, Mary's mother; newcomer Joan Fontaine (working on loan-out from RKO) as the shy young bride Peggy Day; popular child actress Virginia Weidler as Little Mary Haines; and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper as reporter Dolly Dupuyster. Young MGM contract players Virginia Grey and Ruth Hussey appeared as Pat, a perfume salesgirl who works with Crystal; and Miss Watts, one of Mary's friends. Phyllis Povah and Marjorie Main both reprised her stage roles as Edith Potter, a friend of Sylvia; and Lucy, the owner of the dude ranch where the women stayed while awaiting their divorces. Attention to the theme was so precise that only female animals and feminine artwork was used throughout the film.

Joan Fontaine, Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell,
Mary Boland and Paulette Goddard
To helm The Women, MGM at first engaged Clarence Brown, who had previously directed Crawford in five films and Shearer in two, including the aforementioned A Free Soul. Brown was briefly replaced by Ernst Lubitsch, before George Cukor took over the assignment. Beginning his Hollywood career as a dialogue coach for Paramount Pictures in 1929, Cukor made his directorial debut with Tarnished Lady (1931), a melodrama starring Tallulah Bankhead. In 1932, he left Paramount to work with producer David O. Selznick at RKO and then at MGM, quickly earning a reputation as a "woman's director," a title he apparently resented. Cukor was only able to work on The Women because he had been replaced by Victor Fleming on Gone with the Wind (1939), of which Goddard was one of the frontrunners to play the indomitable Scarlett O'Hara (Shearer and Crawford had also been contenders). The following year, Cukor directed Hussey and Weidler in the hugely successful The Philadelphia Story (1940).

The Women was filmed between April and June 1939 at the MGM studio lot in Culver City. From the beginning, there was an evident atmosphere of animosity between Shearer and Crawford, who had always been jealous of her co-star. Crawford's oft-quoted comment about Shearer went, "How can I compete with Norma when she's sleeping with the boss," meaning, of course, Thalberg, whom she accused of nepotism. She did not deny Shearer's talent, but she fumed at the way she was considered "Queen of the Lot." Although Thalberg had passed away by the time of The Women, Shearer still had a lot of influence at MGM and Crawford slightly resented her for that. Nevertheless, the two actresses got along for most of the film, pretending to be feuding only for the press. According to Loos, however, underneath the pretense there was genuine dislike: "Norma and Joan could never have been personal friends. They came from different worlds — Norma thought Joan crude and pushy and Joan considered Norma overbearing and uppity — but they both knew the 'feud' was good copy and so they helped it along. And why not?"

Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Norma Shearer
and Joan Fontaine in The Women
In her column, Hopper recounted a famous incident between Crawford and Shearer on the set of The Women. During a particular scene, Crawford was off-camera feeding lines to Shearer for close-ups. To indicate the antipathy she felt for Shearer, Crawford fed her the lines, but sat in a chair knitting very noisily, never making eye contact with her co-star. She would momentarily stop knitting so that Shearer's lines could be recorded, but the minutes it was her turn to talk, her needles would be clicking noisily again. Finally, Shearer lost her patience and shouted at Crawford to go back to her dressing room if she could not be professional. At that point, Crawford got up and stormed off the set, calling Shearer a "bitch." Later, Cukor insisted that Crawford apologize to Shearer which she did grudgingly — but relations between the two stars never thawed. 

Years later, Cukor revealed that he had reservations about the picture: "At the time it probably wasn't as silly as it seems now, because it came from a different world. 'Kept women' and marital break ups were big moral questions then. Now, of course, everybody would be screwing everybody, and everybody would know about it. Crystal wouldn't be a kept woman, she'd be carrying on with another girl." Cukor inexplicably thought that the "central story [...] didn't fit with the rest," an odd comment considering that everything else revolves around the main theme of Mary and Crystal fighting for Stephen. Cukor also hated the studio's insistence that a long color fashion show sequence co-directed by Gilbert A. Adrian, MGM's top costume designer be inserted into the middle of the black-and-white film. Adrian also designed a staggering 237 outfits for the cast of The Women. For the fight that erupts at the Reno divorce ranch, five complete, identical wardrobe changes were needed due to the multiple takes that were required for each scene.

Although most audiences agreed with Cukor in finding the color segment intrusive, The Women was a critical and commercial success upon its release on September 1, 1939. The reviewer for The New Republic praised the film for having "more wicked wit than Hollywood has been allowed since The Front Page [1931]." For his part, Frank Nugent of The New York Times said that every studio should make at least one "thoroughly nasty picture" like it every year. While The Women failed to garner a single Academy Award nomination, Nugent included it on his annual list of the ten best movies, as did the staff of Film Daily and the newspaper film critics of America. Apparently, The Women was second only to Gone with the Wind in 1939 box-office receipts, grossing $1,610,000 in the United States and Canada and $660,000 elsewhere. 



Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography by Lawrence J. Quirk and William Schoell (2002) | Price for Fame: The Honorable Clare Boothe Luce by Sylvia Jukes Morris (2014) | Rage for Fame: The Ascent of Clare Boothe Luce by Sylvia Jukes Morris (2014) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes)


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