The Women (1939)

Much is made of International Women’s Day, and I find myself inundated with messages relating to that, beginning a week in advance of March 8. Promotions from online retailers, newspaper ads, flyers offering discounts on everything from spa treatments to cosmetics: it’s all there. I however tend to mostly ignore Women’s Day and treat it just as another day.

This time, though, I thought: why not post a review of a film that puts women in an important role? It occurred to me then that it had been years—more years than I could remember—since I had watched The Women. And that this might be a good excuse to rewatch a very unusual film: unusual, not because of the story (which isn’t so very offbeat), but because of the fact that the film has no male characters appearing onscreen. Men are there in The Women, but they are neither seen nor heard.

This is a simple story, with the central character being Mary Haines (Norma Shearer), a sweet and lovely woman who’s married to a man named Stephen. Mary and Stephen have a daughter, also named Mary (Virginia Weidler), and theirs seems to be the ideal family and home: warm, loving, wealthy enough to live comfortably.

Mary, however, does not appear till a few scenes into the film. The Women begins in a large and plush beauty salon where various high society ladies—many of them friends and acquaintances of Mary—are getting their hair done, their faces made up, their bodies massaged or exercised, their nails manicured. A steady (and disconcertingly cacophonous) stream of chatter, of gossip, and of several women talking simultaneously dominates.

In the midst of all of this, Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell), a so-called ‘friend’ of Mary’s, finds herself at the receiving end of a scandalous bit of gossip. A motor-mouth manicurist tells Sylvia the latest gossip: that Mary’s husband, Stephen, is having an affair with a shop girl named Crystal Allen. Sylvia is so excited at this juicy bit of news that she immediately rushes off to phone Edith Potter (Phyllis Povah), a mutual friend, to share this.

Later that day, both Edith and Sylvia arrive at Mary’s home for a meal. Mary has invited a couple of other women over, too. These are the sweet and gentle (and somewhat timid) Peggy Day (Joan Fontaine) and the honest, blunt but immediately likable writer Nancy (Florence Nash). While they wait for their hostess to appear, Mary’s guests catch up with each other’s lives. Inevitably, the topic of Stephen’s infidelity comes up. Sylvia and Edith are eager to spring this discovery on Mary, but Nancy (who’s too sensible) and Peggy (who’s too kind) try to dissuade them.

Eventually, Sylvia—who cannot restrain herself—manages to just hint to Mary that Stephen could be ‘wandering’. Mary laughs it off, and with genuine laughter, too. She knows Stephen too well; he is devoted to her. In fact, the very next day, the two of them are going off to Canada for a holiday. Canada was where they went on their honeymoon, too. Stephen loves her; she knows that.

Shortly after, Stephen phones to tell Mary that some work has come up and he won’t be able to go to Canada, after all. Mary is sad, but assures him that it doesn’t matter. By the time she goes back to her guests, though, Mary is definitely feeling disturbed. The first seeds of doubt have been sown: first by Sylvia, and now by Stephen’s phone call. Seemingly nonchalantly, she gets back to her meal, and manages to find out from Sylvia the source of her ‘information’. Sylvia is more than happy to oblige…

… so, the next day, Mary turns up at the beauty salon and asks for the manicurist. Who, unaware that this happens to be Mrs Stephen Haines, quickly starts chattering about this girl called Crystal Allen, who sells perfume at so-and-so store, and while Mr Stephen Haines was buying perfume, snagged him. She is so busy sharing this gossip that she doesn’t even notice how stricken Mary is looking.

Mary’s identity is revealed to the manicurist when the manager of the salon enters and addresses Mary by her name. When she’s gone, the now-mortified manicurist apologizes. Mary tells her to please not go around spreading any more of this tale, and she agrees. Absolutely not; no, ma’am. But the damage is already done.

That evening, Mary is relieved to receive a visitor: her mother, Mrs Morehead (Lucile Watson) comes calling. A tearful and very distressed Mary spills the beans to Mother, and Mother—to Mary’s surprise—advises her to keep quiet about it. Do not even mention it to Stephen; don’t let Stephen know that she knows. After all, even Mary knows that Stephen loves her. This is just a little fling; it is nothing serious. Men are like that. Even Mary’s father had been guilty of a straying eye, but did Mother do anything about it? No, she didn’t. He got over it on his own.

Mary is sceptical. This, after all, is no trifling matter. It’s infidelity. Lying.

Eventually, they settle on a compromise. Mother suggests that she and Mary go away for a few weeks to Bermuda. That will allow Mary some time to think, to recover from the shock of being cheated upon. It will also give Stephen some time to realize how much Mary means to him. By the time they return from Bermuda, Mother assures Mary, everything will be fine.

So Mary and Mother go off to Bermuda, and in their absence, Sylvia and Edith—both of whom have too much spare time and too much interest in other people’s business—go off to the store where Crystal Allen works. We are introduced to Ms Allen (Joan Crawford) before Sylvia and Edith are. She’s a ruthless woman, snapping maliciously at a fellow-worker, and paying another worker money to make sure she comes over to Crystal’s flat in good time to cook a great big meal which Cyrstal will pass off as her own handiwork when Stephen comes calling that evening. Crystal gloats over the fact that she’s managed to convince Stephen that she’s a home-loving, wholesome girl.

This façade is maintained when Stephen phones: Crystal is sweetness and demureness personified.

The demureness is discarded as soon as she goes out to the counter, where Sylvia and Edith are waiting to be served. Sylvia is ruthless as always, and Crystal gives as good as she gets when it comes to sarcasm.

The next time we see Mary, she and Mother are back from Bermuda, and are busy showing little Mary their videos of their trip. They’ve enjoyed themselves, and Mary seems—at first glance—to have recovered her composure.

Only briefly, however. A few days later, all these women—Mary, Sylvia, Edith, Peggy, and their ilk—are attending a fashion show, when who should turn up there but Crystal Allen? Sylvia is quick to point her out to Mary, and Mary, after some hesitation (this is not in her nature), decides to take the bull by the horns. The dressing room Mary is using to try out dresses is right opposite the one Crystal Allen is using. So Mary goes across and confronts Crystal. Crystal is cool and vicious, and makes no attempt to hide the fact that she’s having an affair with Mary’s husband.

Mary seems to have gotten the better of Crystal in this encounter—Mary, after all, is the wronged one, and she preserves her dignity remarkably well while putting Crystal (somewhat) in her place—but what will come of this? Will Mary be able to get Stephen back? Or will Crystal triumph?

Having watched this film, I realized that it is, after all, not the sort of film with which I’d want to celebrate Women’s Day. Because, while The Women does focus on women—to the extent that all the secretaries, the workers, even down to Mary’s pet dog, are all females—the story is not by any means a story about the empowerment of women.

What I didn’t like about this film:

For starters, what I didn’t like about the film (where, actually, I have more to write than I have under the ‘What I liked’ section).

The story and the characters. The characters of The Women are stereotyped and cookie-cutter. The ‘other woman’, Crystal Allen, is a gold-digger without one thing to recommend her: she is greedy, nasty, unfaithful, a lying and conniving creature with no virtues, only vices. Mary, the wronged wife, is the other extreme: sweet and good and gentle, the perfect wife and the perfect mother. Sylvia is along the same lines as Crystal, Peggy is like Mary. The others, too, fall into pretty much the same categories—cat, doe, cow, etc—which we’re shown right at the start of the film (so derogatory, to reduce all the women to animals). Grrr.

And the story. A story about women which refuses to admit that women could have lives apart from men. The only woman in this story who has any role beyond a very small walk-on part is Nancy, and she’s quickly slotted into the ‘eccentric writer’ type: independent, inclined to speak her mind, sensible—and mannish. The message that comes across when comparing Nancy with any of the other major characters in the film is that the only way you can manage without men (or want to) is if you’re like Nancy. A maverick, not fitting in with others, and quickly dismissed.

All the others—from Mary to Sylvia, from Crystal to Peggy to characters (played by Paulette Goddard and Mary Boland, among others)—have lives that revolve around men. Cheating men, lying men—but always men. These women may marry and divorce and marry again repeatedly, or they may forgive their men and go back into a relationship, but their lives eventually are focused on men. The time they spend in their homes, at beauty salons, at fashion shows, at parties—are all mostly spent in either prettying themselves up for their men or in being good housewives. Yuck.

Considering this was scripted by women (Anita Loos and Jane Murfin, based on a play by Claire Booth Luce), I’d expected stronger women, more interesting characters. But no, The Women is basically just a run-of-the-mill film that perpetuates the same tired old stereotypes about women. And the mandatory cat fight really got my goat.

What I liked:

A much shorter list.

Some of the dresses at the fashion show (which, interestingly, is the only part of the film that is in colour).

The acting. Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Joan Fontaine and Rosalind Russell, in particular, are very well cast and do a good job of portraying their respective characters.

And, some of the dialogues. The dialogues of The Women are perhaps its biggest success: there’s a lot of very witty repartee, some of it so good that it had me laughing even when I wasn’t really agreeing with the content of what was being said. Here are a couple of dialogues that, especially, made me grin:

Peggy: “Oh, I wish I could make a little money writing the way you do.”
Nancy: “If you wrote the way I do, that’s just what you’d make.”

(As somebody who’s a writer herself, I can completely identify with this).

Nancy: “You’re so resourceful, darling! I oughta go to you for plots.”
Sylvia: “You oughta go to someone.”

So. While The Women is highly acclaimed as a comedy, the ‘women’s director’, as George Cukor was often called, is probably really playing to the gallery here, instead of doing something new. Yes, the all-women cast is a cute gimmick, and the dialogues are at times hilarious, but that’s it.


6 thoughts on “The Women (1939)

  1. Ironical isn’t it? A movie titled “The Women” featuring only women on the screen that completely fails the Bechdel test? :-) I’m glad I’m not the only one discomfited by this “landmark” film. Blaming the dissolution of a marriage on the woman objecting to her husband’s infidelity *really* gets my goat. :-( Pity – such a talented cast wasted on such a trite, sexist plot.


    • “A movie titled “The Women” featuring only women on the screen that completely fails the Bechdel test? :-)

      Yes. Only women, and so many of them, too. I’ve seen films that featured mostly men but had a more feminist outlook.

      You know, I was so relieved to read your and Anu’s comments, Shalini – because after I watched The Women, I went to IMDB to check it out, and found that almost everybody there was going gaga over how funny it was. I wondered if I had such a horrible sense of humour that I couldn’t see the funniness in this.

      Such a waste of talent, yes.


  2. I remember watching this a long time ago, and being thoroughly disgusted with it. Of course, I’d forgotten all about it until halfway through your review; that’s how much I hated it. :)

    I was glad when I got to your ‘What I don’t like’ section because I was wondering what you liked about the film. As Shalini says, it’s indeed ironical that a movie featuring only women should completely fail the Bechdel test.


    • I also had forgotten what this film was all about, Anu – it’s actually been decades since I last watched it, and all I remembered was that it had no men at all. Such a disappointment to watch it and find it was so irritating and regressive. :-(


  3. It appears to be a big disappointment and I am amazed that both IMDB (8/10) and Rotten Tomatoes (Tomatometer 91%) rate it highly. How is this a comedy? I checked the comments and they are pretty recent including from women who liked it. Go figure!

    BTW, there’s a Meg Ryan version made in 2008 which received a terrible grade from Rotten Tomatoes (Tomatometer 13% rating).

    Wondering if that one is actually better than the original (trying reverse psychology)? You don’t want to be burned twice by the same flame, do you?



    • I guess people only look at the dialogues (many of which are funny in a sarcastic sort of way), and bill the film a comedy on the basis of that. Plus, of course, I guess there are sufficient women out there who think this sort of plot is funny.

      I do not have the courage to risk watching the Meg Ryan remake. ;-) If you do, let me know how it was!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.