Mary Haines (Norma Shearer), wife and mother, is basically a saint. She cuddles with her daughter (also named Mary) as they coo over pictures from her honeymoon, explaining how love is different when you are an adult (totally grossing out the kid). Yeah, adult love is different all right. Mary’s Park Avenue friends are already clucking like chickens at the rumor that the ideal husband, Stephen Haines, is “stepping out” on his lovely wife, and she is the last to know.
The Women is all about love and marriage, 1940s-style. Mary and her friends are all modern women, marrying for love, and they are not afraid of dumping two-timing husbands. All the ladies know the Haines mistress in question is the vampy crystal (Joan Crawford, with her excellent teeth, eyebrows, and gold turbans). But even when Crystal is confronted publicly, she is confident and unapologetic. Verbal barbs and accusations fly via witty banter and veiled threats. This is a catfight, and may the woman with the longest talons get the man.
Based on the hugely popular 1936 play by Clare Boothe Luce, I’m sure that The Women was crisp and edgy for its time, as it very openly discusses marital cheating and divorce. As starry-eyed and naive as Mary is, it is not fair to say that her character (or the others) are dated, as I’m sure these types of folks are still clucking like hens in beauty salons today. It just gets a little tiresome that for a movie starring all-women, it seems the only thing worth talking about is men (whether they be gaining them, stealing them, dumping them, or getting one back). The only time that The Women passes the Bechdel test is when the ladies are doing their nails, exercising, or bitching about each other. Really?
The Women is watchable mainly because the performances. Rosalind Russell shows off her scene-stealing comic chops (which served her later in her career) as Mary’s friend and the group’s irrepressible gossip. Crawford is appropriately slinky and seductive (in a bit of a Cruella de Vil way), as the stereotypical “other woman” who can lure any man from his wife. And though she is in a relatively small role, I was transfixed by Paulette Goddard, as saucy Miriam, whom Mary meets at the divorce ranch in Reno (which is of course populated by women bitching about men). Goddard, whom I don’t think I’ve seen in anything before, is smokin’ hot. Ultimately, it is hard to argue against a movie that showcases so many female talents. It’s just too bad that the script is still focused around men.
There are a couple interesting and odd “of the era” short films included, that function as a sort of newsreel propaganda from the MGM studio. One starts out profiling the global shipping industry of things like lumber and fabrics, and ends up being a showcase for Hollywood set and costume production. Another dramatizes a small-town girl that goes to her local shop and is able to buy a fashionable Hollywood-style dress, just like Joan Crawford wears! Tacked on to each are previews to upcoming (in 1939) MGM films, from well-known classics to forgotten films. There is also alternate black-and-white fashion show footage to contrast the bizarre Technicolor fashion show in the middle of the film. Finally, there are bits about the scoring as well as some trailers.