Be careful what you say in private. It could become a movie. Some gossip overheard by Clare Boothe Luce in a nightclub powder room inspired her Broadway hit that's wittily adapted for the screen in The Women. Cukor directs an all-female cast (of more than 135 actresses) in this catty tale of battling and bonding that paints its claws Jungle Red and shreds the excesses of pampered Park Avenue princesses. Crawford, Russell, Fontaine, Boland and Goddard are among the array of husband snatchers, snitches and lovelorn ladies.
"If only women ruled the world" is an oft-repeated, plaintive feminine cry, but in George Cukor's uproarious adaptation of Clare Boothe's hit Broadway comedy, they do. As the trailer for 'The Women' blatantly states, "There's not a man in sight," and that's no Hollywood hyperbole. Not a single male appears in this barb-filled send-up of pampered, self-absorbed Park Avenue matrons and the gold-digging social climbers who try to steal their husbands - not in human form, not in animal form, not in paintings or sculptures. It's all estrogen all the time, as a cast of 135 actresses shanghai the screen for 133 minutes, trading verbal zingers, jockeying for supremacy, brandishing their exquisitely manicured claws, and using any means at their disposal to outwit, out-dress, out finagle, and even out-slug their dear, devoted sisters. Backstabbing and catifghts have never been as much fun, and though this movie may not paint the most flattering portrait of the fairer sex - it ridicules their foolishness and vacuity one moment and champions their wiles, strength, and chutzpah the next - it celebrates everything we love and hate about them. The film certainly doesn't please feminists, but 'The Women' doesn't profess to be anything other than a rollicking romp that relishes skewering the idle rich.
Males may not be seen in 'The Women,' but oh boy do they dominate the conversation, not only driving the plot, but also driving all the film's devious, duped, delusional, and dithering dames to distraction. To hear her friends tell it, Mary Haines (Norma Shearer), a warm, loving, filthy rich socialite, lives in a "fool's paradise" in her swanky surroundings with her precocious daughter (Virginia Weidler), blissfully unaware that her seemingly devoted husband Stephen is two-timing her with Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford), a conniving perfume counter clerk at Black's Fifth Avenue who's more attracted to Stephen's bulging wallet than his "adonis figure." Mary's blabbering best friend Sylvia (Rosalind Russell), who voraciously devours every morsel of gossip like a bite of succulent meat (and can barely conceal her abject jealousy over Mary's perfect life), arranges for Mary to learn of her husband's affair and conspires to destroy her marriage. Little does Sylvia know, however, her own husband is dallying with a feisty chorus girl (Paulette Goddard), while money issues threaten the union between doe-eyed newlywed Peggy Day (Joan Fontaine) and her stubbornly proud husband. Who stays married, who gets divorced, who receives their comeuppance, and who emerges unscathed (and unscarred) forms the basis of this fast-paced story that features more baiting, sniping, and bickering per capita than any other movie in Hollywood history.
Its message of prideless love, subjugation, and male dependence may be outdated, but the female stereotypes depicted in 'The Women' still exist today. Many upper class women remain silly and frivolous, incessantly shopping, lunching, gossiping, and spending countless hours in spas and gyms to look attractive for the opposite sex. The biting screenplay by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin doesn't hide its disdain for these creatures (Mary's mother, marvelously portrayed by Lucile Watson, calls them "ghastly," and fumigates Mary's apartment after they leave), nor does it condone the behavior of the husband-stealing predators who seem to lurk around every corner, ready to pounce on their unsuspecting prey. Yet in a head-to-head battle, the working girls come out on top. While the film depicts most bluebloods as brainless, oblivious ditzes with empty lives and an insatiable desire to make their mark by meddling in other people's business, those on the social ladder's bottom rung know the score; they're smart, seasoned players who've been around the block, suffered some hard knocks, and know how to get what they want. Sure, they may use men as stepping stones, but back in the 1930s they had to. Today, however, the bad girls in 'The Women' remain relatable, their rhetoric makes sense, and their realistic perspective still strikes a chord, while the rich remain mired in another realm, ensconced in their ivory towers and often shamefully unaware of how the world really works.
Long before 'The Women,' Cukor was known as a "woman's director," and he proves his mettle here, deftly managing an army of egos and extracting memorable - if over the top - performances from a formidable stable of stars. Recently fired from 'Gone With the Wind,' Cukor reportedly salved his wounds by throwing himself into 'The Women,' and the result is one of Hollywood's most distinctive and unique motion pictures. The only sour note is the unnecessary, studio-mandated, yet curiously fascinating Technicolor fashion show sequence, which disrupts the film's flow and halts its momentum. Otherwise, 'The Women' breezes by, its rapid-fire, deliciously clever dialogue propelling the story ever forward, and its outrageous situations - namely the no-holds-barred brawl at a Reno divorce ranch and Crawford's extended soak in a bubble bath - always piquing our interest.
'The Women' revitalized Crawford's career, which was on the skids following a string of unsuccessful pictures. (Along with Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire, Marlene Dietrich, and several others, she was notoriously named "box office poison" by the Independent Film Journal the previous year.) Crawford took a risk by shucking her good-girl image and playing a bitch ("I'd play Wallace Beery's grandmother if it was a good part," she famously said at the time), and the gamble paid off. Her spirited, hard-edged performance won raves, and despite limited screen time, she nearly walks off with the picture. Shearer, one of Hollywood's most underrated actresses, is saddled with a far blander character, but she makes Mary real, lending her a flesh-and-blood depth that's not on the printed page, while Russell is sublime as the vindictive, fast-talking Sylvia, arguably the film's most colorful - and broad - character. Goddard brings plenty of streetsmart attitude and heart-of-gold warmth to her role, and Mary Boland is an absolute scream as the multiple-married, blithering Countess De Lave, who's always singing the praises of "l'amour," despite its fleeting nature. Several other supporting performances merit mention, many of which add vital texture to the picture and engender plenty of laughs. Out of the 135 women who comprise the film's cast, there's not a dud in the bunch, with even the smallest parts making notable impressions.
Though it strives to make potent points about love, marriage, sexual equality, and friendship, entertainment is what this engrossing, impeccably produced, and consistently hilarious film is all about. Don't get hung up on the underlying social aspects of this satirical comedy; just enjoy the tightly plotted story, arch one-liners, marvelous performances, and terrific chemistry that fairly drip from every frame of 'The Women.' As Crystal so aptly states in the movie's final scene, "There's a name for you ladies, but it isn't used in high society...outside of a kennel." In a nutshell, that's what 'The Women' is all about, and it's wonderful to see this motley bunch of bitches back in circulation 75 years after they first tore up the screen. And like fine wine, these ferocious, formidable, and fearsome females only get better with age.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 1939 version of 'The Women' (or, should I say, the only version of 'The Women' worth watching) arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Warner Home Video takes great care of its vintage film collection, and this exceptional 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer supremely honors this 75-year-old classic and is a huge step up from the previous DVD. The picture here is richer and more full-bodied, with deeper black levels and crisper whites. (The DVD possesses a faded, washed out appearance, with lines that tend to be a tad fuzzy.) The opening titles are crystal clear and gloriously vibrant, and once the narrative begins, the movie's natural grain structure is on glorious display, supplying essential texture and lending the image a marvelous film-like feel. A nicely varied gray scale helps promote a palpable sense of depth and punches up detail levels in background elements. Wallpaper patterns, various set decorations, and the designs adorning the actresses' gowns are all extremely well rendered, and close-ups highlight fine facial features well despite their slightly soft look, which was typical of the period.
Bright, bold, beautifully saturated hues distinguish the Technicolor fashion show sequence, which also benefits from pitch-perfect contrast and exceptional clarity, and also outclasses the more wan-looking DVD. The scene is utterly superfluous, campy, and tedious beyond belief, but the gorgeous color keeps the eye engaged. The DVD is littered with faint specks, but only a few errant marks crop up here, and no edge sharpening, noise reduction, or other digital doctoring could be detected.
The Blu-ray transfer for 'The Women' isn't perfect, but it's darn close, and any fan of this excellent film will be thrilled with this terrific effort from Warner, and shouldn't hesitate to upgrade.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track supplies well-modulated sound that perfectly balances the rapid-fire sniping and string-laden music score. I have seen 'The Women' many, many times, but during this most recent viewing I actually picked up a few lines of diaogue I had never heard - make that understood - before. Though some of the quips get lost due to speedy delivery ('The Women' rivals 'His Girl Friday' in the speech alacrity department), most of the conversations, bickering, and gossiping is clear and comprehendible. A wide dynamic scale keeps distortion at bay, even during the raucous catfight scene, and while the musical shadings fill the room with ease, they never overwhelm the on-screen action.
Much of the track has been scrubbed free of any age-related imperfections, such as pops, crackles, and hiss, but some surface noise does remain, though it's only noticeable during the quietest moments. All in all, for a 75-year-old movie, 'The Women' sounds pretty darn good and certainly outclasses the lossy track contained on the previous DVD.
All the extras from the 2002 DVD release have been ported over to this Blu-ray edition. While the selection of vintage material is stellar, it's a shame there's no retrospective featurette or audio commentary to add vital context and perspective to this classic comedy. Backstage (and backstabbing) anecdotes must abound, and it would have been fascinating to hear about all the behind-the-scenes shenanigans.
Vintage Short Subject: "Another Romance of Celluloid: From the Ends of the Earth" (SD, 10 minutes) - This 1939 episode of the entertaining MGM promotional series uses the subject of foreign importing as a flimsy excuse to advertise the studio's current and upcoming releases. Footage from 'The Women' is used to illustrate how imported perfume finds its way into MGM movies (even though there's no perfume in the clip), while imported art objects help justify the inclusion of a scene from 'Ninotchka.' A parade of snippets from future attractions, including 'Babes in Arms,' 'Another Thin Man,' and 'Balalaika,' concludes this black-and-white short.
Vintage Short Subject: "Another Romance of Celluloid: Hollywood - Style Center of the World" (SD, 11 minutes) - Jump ahead a year, and a new crop of MGM films is vigorously promoted in this equally entertaining 1940 installment of the popular series. The hook here is how the glamorous costume designs seen in many MGM movies influence Main Street fashion trends. (May McAvoy, who starred opposite Al Jolson in 'The Jazz Singer,' can be glimpsed in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it role as a saleslady.) Clips of Joan Crawford in 'Susan and God,' Vivien Leigh in 'Waterloo Bridge,' and Greer Garson in 'Pride and Prejudice' illustrate the point, and lead into the customary selection of teasers for coming studio attractions, including 'The Mortal Storm,' 'Boom Town,' and 'New Moon.' Interestingly, 'The Yearling' is hyped as a film for the coming year, but was soon shelved, and wouldn't be produced until six years later.
Vintage Animated Short: "One Mother's Family" (SD, 9 minutes) - This 1939 Rudolf Ising Technicolor cartoon chronicles the efforts of a mother hen to keep her young chicks safe - and evade such dangers as speeding cars and a hungry hawk - during a family outing. Not bad, but I would have preferred a Tom and Jerry animated short instead.
Alternate Black-and-White Fashion Show Sequence with Different Footage (SD, 6 minutes) - Before MGM studio executives decided a splashy Technicolor fashion show sequence would add even more luster to an already glossy picture, director George Cukor shot a similar scene in black-and-white. The main difference between the two (aside from a few different outfits and camera angles) is that in the monochrome version the models occasionally interact with the principals, which makes the fashion show feel like a more cohesive part of the film, instead of a lavish, disruptive interruption.
Scoring Session Music Cues (38 minutes) - A whopping 22 music cues, presented in superior fidelity without a hint of surface noise or other age-related defects, cover all the orchestral scoring in the film. It's quite a bounty and quite a boon for fans of vintage soundtracks.
Theatrical Trailers (SD, 7 minutes) - The original previews for both 'The Women' and its 1956 Technicolor musical remake, 'The Opposite Sex' (which misguidedly added men into the film), are included. The trailer for 'The Women' virtually encapsulates the entire plot (so don't watch it before you see the film for the first time), while the preview for the remake, which stars June Allyson, Ann Sheridan, Joan Collins (who didn't yet seem to properly channel the bitchy siren she would later play to perfection on TV's 'Dynasty'), Dolores Gray, Ann Miller, Joan Blondell, Agnes Moorehead, and Charlotte Greenwood, focuses on the musical numbers.
Forget the horrendous 2008 remake; George Cukor's 1939 version of 'The Women' remains an unqualified classic, as well as an absolute hoot! Incisively funny, bursting with timeless truths, and fueled by a massive tank of estrogen, this gossipy examination of feminine wiles, romantic couplings, and intense rivalries remains as fresh and deliciously nasty as it surely seemed upon its initial release 75 years ago. Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, and 132 other women contribute top-flight performances to this unforgettable romp that expertly mixes uproarious humor, heartfelt drama, and biting social commentary. Warner's Blu-ray presentation significantly improves upon the 2002 DVD, thanks to beautifully rendered video and audio transfers that infuse new life into this vintage motion picture and make an upgrade essential for fans. Supplements are strong, too, but it's the script and portrayals that turn this carefully orchestrated free-for-all into one of the all-time great comedies. No film collection worth its salt should be without it. Highly recommended.