Monday, April 9, 2007

"The Women" (1939) George Cukor

"There is a name for you, ladies, but it isn't used in high society... outside of a kennel."

In the midst of a slew of Almodóvar films that I've been watching lately (5 since Saturday, and still another dvd to go), I managed to catch the vintage cat-fight that is George Cukor's The Women on TCM today. It's a two and a half hour oestrogen fest, with over 130 female speaking roles and not a single man in sight (unless you count Joan Crawford, of course...).

I'd wanted to see The Women ever since I rented The Philadelphia Story earlier this year. Included in the meagre special features were trailers for the director George Cukor's other films, and the trailer for The Women was so funny that I knew I had to watch it. Happily, the film lived up to it's campy, bitchy, funny trailer. The plot is slightly incomprehensible. Far from me to attempt to describe it, here's what the IMDB had to say:

Wealthy Mary Haines is unaware her husband is having an affair with shopgirl Crystal Allen. Sylvia Fowler and Edith Potter discover this from a manicurist and arrange for Mary to hear the gossip. On the train taking her to a
Reno divorce Mary meets the Countess and Miriam (in an affair with Fowler's husband). While they are at Lucy's dude ranch, Fowler arrives for her own divorce and the Countess meets fifth husband-to-be Buck. Back in New York, Mary's ex is now unhappily married to Crystal who is already in an affair with Buck. When Sylvia lets this story slip at a country club dinner, Crystal brags of her plans for a still wealthier marriage, only to find the Countess is the source of all Buck's money. Crystal must return to the perfume counter and Mary runs back to her husband.

It doesn't really matter that we follow along, though. There's enough barbed tongues, moments of slapstick and fabulous dresses at play to make The Women a tremendously enjoyable society comedy. One could argue the point that it's demeaning, as it portrays women as being vicious gossips who talk of nothing but men. It's fair enough, even though there are no males in the film, they're the subject of almost every conversation and the old Countess DeLave can't open her mouth without cooing "L'amour, l'amour", but the point of The Women isn't to give a complete portrait of the female species. Indeed, the author of the Broadway play the film is based on, Clare Boothe Luce, meant for it to be a satirical attack on society women. Under the masterful direction of George Cukor, however, The Women becomes more sympathetic to it's characters, in all their silly, vapid and cruel ways.

For me, Rosalind Russell is the stand-out star as the scheming Sylvia Fowler. In His Girl Friday she was perfectly cast as the snarkily sweet reporter Hildy Johnson, but here she gets to showcase what an animated nutcase she can be; eyes flashing, hands flailing, pursuing her lips in distain, she prowls around in full-on Bitch Mode,

"Oh, you remember the awful things they said about what's-her-name before she jumped out the window? There. You see? I can't even remember her name, so who cares?"

"You simply must see my hairdresser, I DETEST whoever does yours."

and takes it upon herself to (suureptitiously) alert other women of affairs their husbands may be having.

Her cruel streak doesn't go unnoticed by the others, as is humourously demonstrated in her scenes with an unnamed exercise instructor like the following extract:

Exercise instructress:
Arms flat. Crawl slowly up the wall.
Sylvia Fowler:The way you say that makes me feel like vermin.
Exercise instructress: That shouldn't be much effort. I mean, crawling up the wall...

or this one

Exercise instructress: Mrs. Fowler you've hardly moved a muscle.
Sylvia Fowler:Whose carcass is this, yours or mine?
Exercise instructress:It's yours, but I'm paid to exercise it.
Sylvia Fowler:You sound like a horse trainer.
Exercise instructress: No, Mrs. Fowler, but you're getting warm.

Her devotion to the role is evident; in the scene where she is fighting with Paulette Godard, Russell apparently actually bit the actress on the leg for real. IMDB informs me that although this left a lasting scar on Godard's leg, the two remained good friends. Go figure.

So, it's not exactly politically correct (released in 1939, one character advises another to "sprawl out in bed like a swastika") and there's a bizarre fashion show in the middle that switches into technicolour for no apparent reason, but The Women is still fresh, funny and catty enough to warrant an Easter Monday watching. Hopefully rumours of a remake are unfounded, part of it's charm is the sleek, black & white stylish aspect and in today's modern times, a line like Joan Crawford's parting shot at the top of this review would just not work.

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