I have come away from George Cukor's 1939 melodrama The Women with complete uncertainty as to how I feel about it theoretically. At once, it is both an essentialist mess that blames the women in the film for most of their problems, as well as a revolutionary bit of film in its all-woman cast, using male characters in a completely distancing, very much nonexistent, manner. Regardless, of my feelings towards it as a piece of feminist cinema, I can praise it for its intense wit, brilliant acting and overall well-executed cinematic style. George Cukor stands as one of the premier figures in the history of filmmaking and to witness him create a film based entirely around women and cleverly choosing not to incorporate a single male figure, even children, is quite profound and it is certainly worth noting that it is based of of a Clare Boothe play, also worth considering since Boothe was an essential figure in women's push towards a presence in the theater in the early twentieth century. The film is narratively dense and I will openly admit that I am not entirely sure about everything that occurs within the film, aside from a heavy amount of off-screen infidelity and gossip. The brilliance of Cukor's adaptation is the fact that he does not slow anything down for viewers, but instead; requires that they keep up with the rapid fire dialogue and insanity which ensues throughout the film, both within and outside of the domestic space. Of course, the film is careful not to suggest that this particular vision of women's lives during the time is anything close to factually grounded, which is aided by the films magnificently lavish and inconceivably absurd sets, some that seem so theatrical that it would be possible to assume that one was watching a musical, especially, in the opening spa scenes. It is as much an embracing of the melodramatic women's film so prevalent in Hollywood during the 1930's and 1940's just as it is also a rejection of the tradition, doings its best to exist within a meta world, even incorporating a technicolor scene that is assumedly part of the black and white narrative world, but could just as easily be a Buñuel dream sequence. The Women is a fantastic bit of old school filmmaking that hits its stride early and never lets up, in fact, if it were not for its absolutely convoluted commentary on women's roles in society, it would be a certifiable masterpiece.
The Women, as the title suggests, focuses on a group of women who are navigating their middle-class spaces attempting to outdo one another with their various frivolities and conspicuous purchases, particularly Sylvia (Rosalind Russell) who is so preoccupied with her needing glasses and being extremely tall that she challenges such image issues within Lady Gaga-esque wardrobe choices, the eyeball blouse being a specific example. Similarly, the other women within their group are intent on undermining one another when possible for what could either be a good time or earnest disdain. However, one woman within the group, Mary (Norma Shearer) seems somewhat detached from it all looking upon the spectacle of the women's amusing diatribe with loving dismissal. Yet, when it is revealed to her, through gossip of course, that her husband has been seeing another woman, Mary begins to reconsider her relationship to other women and to what degree she can trust them, especially with their willingness to reprimand Mary for something she has little to no control over. Eventually the identity of Mary's husband's mistress is revealed to be a perfume girl named Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford) whose reputation for engaging in such relationships precedes her, making the act even worse in Mary's mind. After an off-screen argument between Mary and her silent husband, the two decide to get a divorce, leading to Crystal moving into her house, while Mary seeks an escape to Reno, a choice that includes many of her other "friends" joining, as well as the introduction of a group of women divorcees who speak out adamantly against men and their misgivings. It is during this excursion that Mary is informed about her husbands growing disdain for Crystal, as well as her daughters tenuous relationship with the indifferent and cantankerous woman. Mary returns to the town to confront Crystal during a party, in which, she manages to make Crystal's interest move towards another man, only to become rejected. In the end, Crystal loses her moments of power and strength and is shown almost breaking the fourth wall to extend loving arms to what one can assume to be her husband.
I mention my personal frustrations with this film, particularly, its ending that seems to suggest Mary returns to her husband out of love, completely overlooking his infidelity and lack of shared affection. In fact, one could assume much of her decision is predicated upon assuring a safe future for her daughter who became a point of spite for Crystal. It is the ending that complicates things considerably, not to mention the suggestion that much of the frustration and social alienation that the women go through is of their own accord and decision making, particularly their attempts to step upon one another for the latest fashions and affections. It is certainly possible to read these as figurative acts of infidelity, but it would be a stretch compared to the very real acts occurring of screen. I note these problems to turn around and praise this film for some brilliant elements. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, is the absolute refusal to include a male figure in the entire visual narrative, we are not shown a man, even in the closing moments of Mary's husband returning to her arms. It is a decidedly feminine film with a exceptionally focused consideration of women's issues. However, the film, and, assumedly the play, poke fun an women as being tied to the identities of their husbands, given that Mary and Sylvia are introduced as being Mrs. what ever their spouses names are, which is a direct reflection on the lack of societal navigation faced by women, who upon marriage were seen as a lesser extension of their husband. The film also takes great care to consider the troubles faced by women who did get divorces during this era, in so much, as they were not allowed control or access to their own wills upon separation and had to rely on, often uncooperative ex-husbands. The films most tragic downside is its racial and class issues, particularly towards domestic servants, but that critique is its own set of problems worth expanding upon at a later point.
Key Scene: The technicolor fashion show is the obvious, but no less, best scene.
This film is very much multi-dimensional which cinematically works in its favor, while also being troublesome theoretically. Yet, it is absolutely worth owning and revisiting many times.