Women, women everywhere, and not a man in sight: Top-shelf centre-fold? Nunnery? Single-sex boarding school? Feminist Utopia? Beauty Parlour?
The Women is all of these – except one. If you’re looking for proto-feminism, you won’t find it in this 1939 classic, anymore than in those other ’39 hits – Gone With The Wind, Wuthering Heights, and Wizard of Oz. But you will have a very good time, and you’ll understand why feminism had to happen.
The Women is the story of nice girl Mary Haines, sporty and straight- forward, played by Norma Shearer, who loses her husband to shop-girl vamp Crystal Allen, a red-lipped, black-eyed Joan Crawford. Swimming round the disaster like sharks round a shipwreck, are Mary’s friends; a group of women with nothing to do except eat lunch and get their nails painted Jungle Red in Sydney’s Beauty Parlour.
In 1939, the movie was promoted as a bitch-bath; throw the girls in together, turn up the heat and watch them fight it out. And they did – on and off the screen. Thanking her top-billing co-star, Norma Shearer, Crawford said, ‘I love to play bitches, and Norma helped me in this part.’
If you believe the message of this movie, women cannot be trusted – with each other, with themselves, and certainly not with men. The only stable relationships within the group are between mother and daughter across two generations – presumably because they are not in competition. And of course, the competition is for those invisible marvels – the men.
One hundred and thirty five women on set – every horse, hound monkey and guinea pig, female, but the only topic of conversation is Men – or as French feminist Monique Wittig put it, thirty years later, – Woman is a Man-shaped hole.
The film seemed to have natural authenticity because its writers were female. This was not a man’s take on the true life of a woman, but women talking frankly about themselves. There are no dumb blondes or doormats – all of these women know the score and can tot it up in their heads without a calculator. If anyone is the object of sympathy, the real victim, it is not Mary Haines, but her poor husband Stephen, tossed about by his primal urges and snatched by a Fifth Avenue tiger.
Women, it seems, and not men, are the predators of the urban jungle. Women lure and snare men, castrate them into domesticity, then sue them for alimony when they stray.
Down in Reno, getting a divorce, Mary Haines is berated by another Reno refugee, played by Paulette Goddard, for abandoning her man in his time of need. When a man is cheating on you, you don’t divorce him, you stand by him. This is the advice Mary has heard already from her mother, who confesses that her own husband, Mary’s father, was a paragon in every way, except one, yet mother learned to turn a blind eye. She has one other piece of womanly wisdom to impart ‘Don’t confide in your girlfriends. If you do, they’ll see to it in the name of friendship that you lose your husband and your home.’
Which is exactly what happens to Mary, thanks to the efforts of Mrs Howard Fowler, the meanest woman in Manhattan, marvellously played by Rosalind Russell, as a kind of human land-mine. ‘Tread carefully round that one’, counsels Mrs Fowler, referring to Joan Crawford’s Crystal Allen, but it is Mrs Fowler herself who detonates every situation that might just be defused. She is bored and dangerous, disguising her malice as friendship, and although she gets her come-uppance, she remains the most uncomfortable character portrayal in the movie – a woman who enjoys causing trouble – even heartbreak, because she has nothing better to do.
MGM made much of the fact that no body doubles were used in any of the cat fights between the ‘girls’, so much so that down in Reno, when Rosalind Russell lunges at Paulette Goddard for stealing her husband, the bite on Goddard’s leg was said to have left a permanent scar. Goddard hobbles away with the unforgettable retort – ‘Sure I make Howard Fowler pay for what he wants – you made him pay for what he didn’t want.’
This is a film about money – men have it, women don’t, unless they can get a man to give it to them. Who can blame ambitious shop girl Crystal Allan for wanting the things she sells to her wealthy clients? The choice between a life-time of ‘ Yes Madam, my pleasure,’ and ‘Champagne? Right you are!’ is not difficult to make.
In a delicious scene at the fashion house, Mary Haines is hesitating over a sexy piece of lingerie, when Crystal Allen flounces past her and orders a dozen. The scene that follows in the plush fitting rooms shows sweet-tempered Mary no match for her gold-digging rival. Warned that Stephen will not admire the gold lame outfit his mistress is about to charge to his account, Crystal guns Mary out of the door on the line ‘Thanks for the tip, but when anything I wear doesn’t please Stephen, I take it off.’
Crystal is the villain of the piece, but she is the only woman in the movie who is not living a self-deluding fantasy. Apart from the black maids and the Noo Dersey beauty therapists with accents thicker than their mud baths, Crystal is the one woman who must work for a living, and who sees the world as it is. She is neither cynical nor sentimental. She lives in a society where money is everything, and where no woman can earn enough, either through talent or hard work. The film doesn’t question this status quo – it leaves it unchallenged at every level. The only power women can use is the power of their bodies; who can blame Crystal for starting another affair soon after she has persuaded Stephen to marry her?
Judging from the huge cinema response to the movie, shop girls everywhere were secretly on Crystal’s side. They’d do the same themselves if they got the chance. Crystal’s parting shot as she walks out of the movie, sums up the sense of sisterhood the women feel for one another in their hour of need – ‘There’s a name for you ladies, but it isn’t used in high society- outside of a kennel.’
See them with their hair down and their claws out – ran the movie strapline, making much of the film’s authenticity, but while everything on screen is female – even the pictures on the wall have no men in them, the eye behind the camera was male. George Cukor directed the movie, and although he was known for being a first rate director of actresses, perhaps because he was gay, his is a camp, full-on drag queen version of ‘les girls’, from the frocks and the hats to the stereotypes of ‘pal’ ‘bitch’ ‘vamp’. These versions of women are both funny and frightening because seventy-five years of a changing economic world for many women have completely altered the way we look at the film. It doesn’t feel true or authentic – it feels like drag. The only women you are likely to meet nowadays who look like this or act like this are men.
The captive state of women has changed, and it will be fascinating to see what Hollywood does with the re-make, due to go into production next year. Like The Stepford Wives re-make, it will be impossible to put an all-star Hollywood cast in a situation where the women are entirely dependent on what they can get from men – by fair means or foul. At least I hope it will be impossible.
We can celebrate our progress in all ways but one. The irony of the film is that the actresses playing the women were better paid than most of the men in Hollywood, and capable of opening a huge film, without a male lead. In the Golden Age of the Hollywood Studio system, women, not men, were top of the tree, and if the jungle of the sexes underneath them fought by different rules, you wouldn’t know it on set. These women had all the power. In Hollywood now, only Julia Roberts is paid as much as her male stars, and no women is box office enough to carry a major movie on her own in the way that Tom Cruise or Harrison Ford can.
It’s a sobering thought – enough to make any woman reach for the bottle, something the players in The Women do with refreshing and un-PC candour. The remedy for despair is simple -‘ Get me a bromide and put some gin in it.’