The Women (1939)
The funny thing about this movie -- at least for me — is that I always look forward to seeing it (and I've seen it 65 million times) and always forget that there are a staggering number of cringe-worthy moments in it: racist (Butterfly McQueen has to hear some choice anachronisms), sexist, elitist, you name it.
For all its faults, The Women is an infuriatingly well-written story about a bunch of rich, mean-spirited, unhappy white ladies who give horrible relationship advice to one another and treat each other terribly. Honestly. The best/worst character who does this is Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell), the nasty cousin of sweet Mary Haines (Norma Shearer), the beautiful protagonist whose husband (it turns out) is having an affair with scheming shopgirl Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford).
All of New York Society has learned of Mr. Haines's dalliance by way of a gossiping manicurist named Olga (Dennie Moore), who knows the other woman in question: "She's got those eyes that run up and down a man like a searchlight." Unhappily married Sylvia has been sending all her friends to Olga so they can hear the story about how her cousin, whose marriage is considered by all (including Mary) to be idyllic, is living in a "Fool's Paradise." In a moment of spite, Sylvia sends Mary to Olga, where Mary finally learns the truth.
(Sylvia really puts the "Freud" in Schadenfreude.)
The remainder of the picture is about how Mary deals with her husband's infidelity and what the rest of her circle — Nancy, speaker of great lines (Florence Nash); Peggy, simpering, slouching newlywed (Joan Fontaine*); and Edith, bearer of many children (Phyllis Povah) -- do and think about it. Even her mother (Lucile Watson) gets in on the action and tries to explain that men are just funny that way when they reach a certain age. They want to feel young, so they mix it up a bit with other women. Don't take it personally. "I suppose a man could do over his office, but he never thinks of anything so simple," she says. A line I love, but wow.
They're so helpful, Mary winds up on the train to Reno to get a divorce, where she meets more helpful (rich) women: Flora, the Countess DeLave (the best Mary Boland role of all time); and Miriam, the chorus girl (Paulette Goddard). They wind up at the ranch of (not at all rich) Lucy (Marjorie Main), whose husband sounds like an abusive wretch, but she'd never divorce 'im, because she's simple farm folk, I guess.
It all works out in the end and not a man in sight, though as the posters say "It's all about MEN!" Contemporary PR reassurances notwithstanding, the film does pass the Bechdel Test — in letter, if not in spirit.
You could look at this picture a couple of ways: it either glorifies the idle rich and their bored, catty ways, or it sends them up. I am inclined to believe it's the latter. Some of the truest, most realistic expressions of "sisterhood" are between the working class women who serve and pamper these females. And of course, in the character and treatment of Little Mary (the excellent Virginia Weidler), the Haines's young daughter, there is more truth than comedy.
Oh yeah. There's a fashion show.
*I know she just died and everything, but honestly, how did someone with such terrible posture become such a huge movie star?
I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
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