Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Hear The Women Roar, In Numbers Too Big to Ignore

The wonderful classic film series sponsored by the local county library reached a frenetic pace with a screening of MGM’s classic bitch-fest, 1939’s The Women, based on the Clare Boothe Broadway success, which lasted an ominous 666 performances. Featuring an array of the studio’s top female stars of the era, this dated but frequently amusing film is filled to the brim with so much Girl Power the screen nearly becomes a life force. The studio’s typically high production values (Direction by George Cukor, Art Direction by Cedric Gibbons, Costumes by Adrian, etc.) add extra sheen to the film's already-impressive credentials.

He reportedly disliked being referred to as a “Woman’s Director,” but George Cukor definitely had a deft way with the ladies onscreen, and few members of the 130-plus cast (composed entirely of the female gender) let him down during this major undertaking. Working from the Anita Loos and Jane Murfin screenplay, Cukor keeps the wealth of colorful personalities in order, even when the most chaotic of circumstances are unfolding onscreen (no small feat, considering the powerhouse divas he was working with).

Although most of the cast members bring plenty of juice to their creative characterizations, unfortunately top-billed Norma Shearer is anything but the life to the party. With her high-toned, Great Lady pretentiousness and forced, synthetic acting, Shearer’s abrasive performance style has never resonated with me and, although the outdated, largely humorless lead role of Mary Haines, the patient, understanding wife who seemingly exists only to serve her husband (Mary can’t imagine any life without her philandering man) does Shearer no favors, she seldom has a moment in the film that appears natural or spontaneous (I wondered what Bette Davis, or just about any other woman in The Women’s roster of stars, might have done with the role). Her acting is so artificially ‘worked-out’ it becomes a drag to watch her, especially during her long, unending phone conversations, wherein Shearer appears to be pitching for another Oscar more than actually talking to a human being. As Mary’s mother, Lucille Watson’s no-nonsense demeanor and straightforward delivery of her lines further point out Shearer’s maddening mannerisms, and a viewer hopes the “Like mother, like daughter” adage will kick in. It doesn’t, and Shearer remains ultra-actressy and slick until the final fadeout. To be fair, I haven’t seen Shearer in many other vehicles, but after viewing her in this, I can’t think of any compelling reason I’d want too.

Although other elements abound which clearly mark the film “of its time” (all men are dogs, most women are either catty fiends or mousy idiots, that color fashion show, etc.) there’s enough- and at times, maybe too much- lively energy and high-style comedy to fret over shortcomings and Shearer. Director Cukor deserves credit for keeping the fun going for most of the movie’s 133-minutes, but the girls get the majority of the critical plaudits. Joan Crawford, seizing her chance for a comeback after a series of critical and box-office duds, commands the spotlight every time she appears as Mary’s man-eating nemesis, Crystal Allen. Crystal’s sly, tough, coarse manner is ideally suited to Crawford’s emerging image as one of the screen’s most invulnerable broads (she’d seal this persona with 1940’s hits such as A Woman’s Face and her big one, Mildred Pierce), but there’s a substantial difference between the latter Crawford roles and what she does here: as Crystal, Crawford still retains some of the light, good-natured charm found in her earlier work (witness Crawford’s bemused, resigned reaction to her final denouncement, which is one of the best things she ever did on film), thereby preventing the stereotypical role from becoming a total caricature (and monster). Largely forgoing any signs of heavy-handed theatrics, Crawford’s skillfully conceived work as Crystal fits right into the spirit of things, to the extent audiences may find themselves rooting for the bitch to overcome Mary’s counterattack (well, I know at least I was waiting for this to happen).

Rosalind Russell also makes a huge impact in her star-making role as Sylvia Fowler, simultaneously the cinema’s most annoying and most amusing busybody (and Cukor must have told Russell to use the term “busybody” literally, as she invests the crass Sylvia with so much over-the-top, lowbrow comedy and jerky physical energy that at times Russell threatens to bounce off the screen right into the audience’s lap). Fortunately for viewers, she stays put, and only manages to wreak massive havoc on the lives of any celluloid companions who come within a ten-mile radius of this constantly-cackling, tactless (but funny) witch. Furthermore, among stiff competition Russell easily claims the prize for “Fastest Talker,” warming up for her even better (and, possibly, her best) work opposite Cary Grant in the following year’s His Girl Friday.

Although the opening sequence of the film, featuring a bevy of cast members babbling away in rat-a-tat-tat- delivery style at a women’s health spa, is incredibly fast-moving in a manner similar to the pace found in many of the screwball comedies of the era, the sparks really start flying midway through the film, when real-life adversaries Crawford and Shearer finally meet in a dressing room, and start verbally sparing to a fare-thee-well (it’s part of Hollywood legend that Crawford resented the great opportunities Shearer received due to her marriage to MGM’s powerful producer, Irving Thalberg). Even though Mary and Crystal are supposed to hate each other, the friction onscreen between these two formidable ladies is so strong the audience begins to feel that, even if they were portraying kind-hearted nuns who also happen to be siblings, Crawford and Shearer would still try to kill each other onscreen at the first available opportunity.

Subsequent focus on Shearer’s plight start to slow the film down again, but fortunately Mary finally ends up on a train to Reno, whereupon she runs into Mary Boland and Paulette Goddard, portraying the much-married (and discarded) Countess DeLave and the quick-witted, genial showgirl, Miriam Aarons. With her sing-song, bubbly vocal rhythms, unwavering, joyful optimism despite a life filled with countless setbacks, and frequent exclamations of “L’amour, l’amour, toujours l’amour,” Boland’s Countess effortlessly upstages her costars (and Cukor clearly knew what he had: the director wisely keeps Boland front and center throughout her scenes, and the laughs keep coming). Amid all the high-camp mudslinging, Goddard proves to be the least fussy and most warmly human performer on the screen, adding a touch of class to her depiction of the spicy showgirl. Even when partaking in the film’s most famous scene, her showdown tussle with Russell, Goddard manages to maintain a cool sensibility while, in beautiful contrast, the bellowing, screaming Russell makes the Tasmanian Devil look like the picture of composure. In other roles, the lovely Joan Fontaine has some affecting moments as a fluttery young bride, even if she comes across a bit too good and naive to be real, and Marjorie Main brings some of her folksy, rural charm to the proceedings as Lucy, owner of the Reno ranch wherein the principals converge.

Packed with enough star power and catty repartee to fill a dozen such movies of its breed, The Women proves a fascinating blend of MGM gloss and raunchy wit. With its colorful, nonstop prattling and the many outrageous situations created by the title characters’ general dislike for their fellow females, The Women resonates as a vivacious, nasty take on a certain type found among the feminine species and, in the words of singer Meredith Brooks, you know you wouldn’t want it any other way.


At 2:53 PM, Blogger StinkyLulu said...

Excellent -- I do love this movie. Especialy once things start heading to Reno. (I just love Paulette Goddard in this...)

But, yes, Shearer's Mary does almost weigh the whole thing down. Indeed, I'd rank her 3rd among the Marys I've seen (with June Allyson, surprisingly, leading both Shearer and Cynthia Nixon -- for more click).

Thanks for a great post about a beloved movie...

At 9:47 PM, Blogger Vertigo's Psycho said...

Thank you too, dear Stinkylu.

Have to admit I haven't seen Allyson in Opposite (and with that cast, I'm slapping myself now for the oversight), but I adore her in what I find to be her finest hour, 1947's terrific musical, Good News.

At 6:32 AM, Blogger Anna said...

Great blog! I'll definitely check back. I love this film - and you're right about Shearer. The only reason to see any of her films are her costars (and she got the best, so don't write off her films completely) I read that, while Shearer and Crawford were fighting over whose film it was, Cukor secretly knew all along that he was going to give the thing to Rosalind Russell, and she is great. Everytime she says "After all I've done for you" it makes me laugh.

At 10:16 AM, Blogger Red Seven said...

Hey there -- found your blog while searching online for photos from The Women, with which to adorn a new group blog, titled "Jungle Red."

So glad you highlighted Goddard's work here -- like Stinkylulu, she's easily my favorite of "The Women," though I couldn't exactly put my finger on why before reading your post.

"Want me to spit in her eye? Well, you're passing up a swell chance, sister. Where I spit, no grass grows, ever."


Post a Comment

<< Home