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The Women

THE WOMEN



USA, 1939


Director: George Cukor

Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; black and white and colour; running time: 132 minutes.


Producer: Hunt Stromberg; screenplay: Anita Loos, Jane Murfin, from the original play by Clare Booth Luce; photography: Oliver T. Marsh; editor: Robert J. Kern; art director: Cedric Gibbons; music: Edward Ward, David Snell; sound: Douglas Shearer.


Cast: Norma Shearer (Mrs. Mary S. Haines); Joan Crawford (Crystal Allen); Rosalind Russell (Mrs. Sylvia Howard Fowler); Mary Boland (Countess Flora Delave); Paulette Goddard (Miriam Aarons); Joan Fontaine (Mrs. Peggy John Day); Lucille Watson (Mrs. Moorehead); Phyllis Poovah (Mrs. Edith Philip Potter); Florence Nash (Nancy Blake); Virginia Weidler (Little Mary); Ruth Hussey (Miss Watts); Muriel Hutchinson (Jane); Dennie Moore (Olga); Mary Cecil (Maggie); Marjorie Main (Lucy); Esther Dale (Ingrid); Hedda Hopper (Dolly Dupuyster); Mildred Shay (Hélène).


Publications


Books:

Carey, Gary, Cukor and Company: The Films of George Cukor and His Collaborators, New York, 1971.

Bernadoni, James, George Cukor: A Critical Study and Filmography, Jefferson, North Carolina, 1985.

Todd, Janet, Women and Film, New York, 1988.

Lambert, Gavin, Norma Shearer: A Life, New York, 1990.

McGilligan, Patrick, George Cukor: A Double Life: A Biography of the Gentleman Director, New York, 1992.

Levy, Emanuel, George Cukor: Master of Elegance: Hollywood's Legendary Director and His Stars, New York, 1994.

Guiles, Fred Lawrence, Joan Crawford: The Last Word, Thorndike, 1995.


Articles:

Monthly Film Bulletin (London), December 1939.

Finkle, David, and others, Filmograph (London), no. 4, 1973.

Bourget, Eithne, "Couleurs de Femmes de George Cukor," in Positif (Paris), no. 275, January 1984.

Rosterman, R. E., in Hollywood Studio Magazine (Studio City), vol. 22, no. 5, 1989.

Bibby, Bruce, in Premiere (Boulder), vol. 3, no. 11, July 1990.

Arnold, Frank, in EPD Film (Frankfurt), vol. 8, no. 9, September 1991.

Gretton, V., "Talk '39: Re-Reading George Cukor's The Women," in CineAction (Toronto), no. 29, Fall 1992.

Reid's Film Index, no. 27, 1996.

Pierson, Melissa, in Entertainment Weekly, no. 312, 2 February 1996.

Télérama (Paris), no. 2440, 16 October 1996.


* * *

George Cukor's The Women, a comedy with an unabashedly misogynist premise, occupies a curious position in the work of a Hollywood artist celebrated for directing sympathetic, women-centred narratives. The Women, promoted and critically received as a sophisticated bitch-fest, capitalized as much on the well-publicized professional rivalry between MGM's leading stars—Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and Rosalind Russell—as upon Cukor's perceived ability to "handle" them.

Mary (Shearer), an upper-middle-class beauty, discovers her husband's affair with a streetsmart shopgirl (Crawford). Mary's marital troubles are publicly monitored by the women in her life who alternately gossip, scheme, and offer advice, all the while embroiled in their own less-than-successful relationships.

Initially The Women seems little more than an annoying, woman-against-woman film. From its notorious opening "menagerie" sequence to the final shot of a repentant Shearer rushing to surrender herself to domestic bliss, the film vigorously sustains the notion that a "natural" enmity exists between women. Nevertheless, despite the film's decidedly pre-feminist consciousness, The Women provides moments of pleasure and strong identifications with such powerful, glamorous, and uncompromising star presences as Crawford, Shearer, and Russell, each equal combatants in a dazzling war of words.

Paradoxically, the all-female cast of The Women results in the predominance of a masculine "presence" that serves to organize the narrative; absent men are the sole and unquestioned objects of feminine desire in the film's chaotically comic universe. Yet a subtle tension exists between this silent, monolithic male "voice" and the multitude of feminine voices that appear to have internalized all of its demands. Women offer advice that seems to wholly endorse a system of patriarchal values; yet, while the voice of feminine experience prescribes submissive behaviour, silence, and compromise, the women themselves rarely exhibit any of these "qualities." In fact, submissive behaviour is revealed as little more than a fabulously calculated performance, silence only signals a retreat before a relentless barrage of feminine wit, and compromise becomes an aggressive tactic deployed to ensure survival.

Despite the unseen male that divides the women from one another, each woman discovers strength and wields power in an ever-shifting series of strictly female alliances; such power is further exercised and regulated as a relentless discourse that operates and intersects at all levels of class, age, and experience. Further, the film's "blissful" resolution is complicated when romantic love and bourgeois domesticity are comically exposed as cynical constructions that afford women their only hope for economic security or social status. Mary rushes to stand by her man, but only after she has shed all of her notions about the "naturalness" of marriage. Peggy's (Fontaine) ecstatic telephone reconciliation with her controlling husband comes only after she reviews the grim options open to her as a single, pregnant woman.

Crystal, the film's nominal "bad" woman, has much in common with Miriam (Goddard), the tough chorus girl who counsels Mary on sexual tactics and survival. Both Crystal (the leopard) and Miriam (the fox) exist outside the domesticated menagerie associated with the other women. The showdown between the "good" and the "bad" women is evenly matched, with Mary's patrician superiority losing the first round to Crystal's streetwise cool. Mary eventually triumphs, yet Crystal's defeat is temporary at best, and she delivers the final, cutting word.

While voices in The Women may be pitched to suggest the incoherent chattering of animals, words are, in fact, wielded with deadly efficiency and precision. Anita Loos, who completed the final version of the screenplay with Jane Murfin, claimed: "It's always been men who find The Women offensive" (see Gary Carey's Anita Loos: A Biography). Loos' comment underscores the way in which women's ability to master and deploy language can provoke fear and resentment in men, a theme in other Cukor films such as Born Yesterday (1950) and My Fair Lady (1964).

The Women "naturalizes" the inequities of the power struggle that exists between men and women, yet it also recognizes the economic powerplay that exists between women. The Women reflects a sympathy for the shopgirls, servants, and beauticians who are as actively engaged in the exchange of information as are their privileged, female employers. Further, the working-class women that populate the film's upper-middle-class setting include black women who are not only subject to the whims of the rich but who are also engaged in economic struggles with other white working-class women.

Women's experiences become dramas that the characters literally perform for one another; women re-enact seduction scenes, quarrels, and private conversations in loving detail to rapt audiences. Women recount their life stories, exchange confidences, and inspect each other to the point of obsessiveness. While the absent male is often invoked, each woman remains entirely focused on other women. In fact, The Women's dark and horrific inverse can be found in Cukor's later film, Gaslight (1944), which dramatizes the deterioration of a woman kept in isolation. If the explicit project of The Women is to present the "truth" about women's relationships with one another, the film indirectly dramatizes the potential power of feminine alliances (even if, in the end, the enmity between these articulate, tough, and glamorous women diffuses any threat they might pose to male power).

Far from being passive receptacles or glamorous, fetishized objects that simply reflect male desire or anxiety, these women are continually at work shoring up, reinscribing, or controlling their positions as objects of desire. Mary's mother explains to her daughter that women have the ability to reinvent themselves while men can only see a new self "reflected in some woman's eyes." Indeed, women exercise power using the options available to them, reinventing themselves through fantasy or fashion. Even if the issues of feminine desire and sexuality remain themselves buried, they nonetheless invariably re-emerge in a torrential flood of language.

Sidney's Beauty Salon becomes a site not only for women to talk, but to watch other women. The "Jungle Red" nail polish that circulates within this enclosed female community acquires meaning and significance, not merely as a violent and fetishized image, but as a glamorous extension that empowers women to move further away from the domestic enclosure inhabited by Mary and Peggy, and closer to the dangerous, untamed sexuality of Crystal, whose gaze, when trained upon the masculine subject, is reported to have the illuminating power of a "searchlight."

Indeed, women scrutinize each other, eye to eye, under the magnifying glasses at the beauty salon, and Sylvia (Russell) actually wears a suit emblazoned with applique eyes. In the end, Crystal turns her "searchlight" eyes upon Mary, in a gesture of defiance that threatens, if only momentarily, the passivity which defines the domestic concerns of the narrative. While Cukor's film remains disappointing for its overt endorsement of patriarchal values, pleasure is nonetheless generated by powerful women who are as obsessed with looking as they are with speaking.

—Viveca Gretton

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