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With: Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Mary Boland, Paulette Goddard, Phyllis Povah, Joan Fontaine, Virginia Weidler, Lucile Watson, Marjorie Main, Virginia Grey, Ruth Hussey, Muriel Hutchison, Hedda Hopper, Florence Nash, Cora Witherspoon, Ann Morriss, Dennie Moore, Mary Cecil, Mary Beth Hughes
Written by: Anita Loos, Jane Murfin, based on a play by Clare Boothe
Directed by: George Cukor
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 133
Date: 09/01/1939

The Women (1939)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Back Fence of Cats

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

George Cukor's The Women isn't quite as nasty as it probably could have been, coming several years after the establishment of the Hays Code, but it's still plenty witty. It's certainly one of the weirdest movies ever produced in a Hollywood studio. Cukor's name is the only male one usually discussed in conjunction with the film; in the business he was known as a "women's director," which was code for being gay. (Additionally, F. Scott Fitzgerald reportedly worked on the screenplay, without credit.) Otherwise we get 2 hours and 13 minutes of nothing but XX chromosomes, and though men are often the topic of discussion, not one is ever seen.

As soon as it became acceptable to use in print, the word "bitchy" has been used to describe this movie. Upon its release the great critic Otis Ferguson wrote, "Whether you go or not depends on whether you can stand Miss Shearer with tears flowing steadily in all directions at once, and such an endless damn back fence of cats."

The New York Times chose it as one of the year's ten best films, and it was a big hit, but this did not translate into any Oscar nominations; it might have been the kind of thing the Oscars did not want to touch. In the years since it has become a cult film of sorts, both among women and gay men. There have been two attempts at remakes -- The Opposite Sex (1956) and The Women (2008) -- both wildly unsuccessful. It was one of a kind.

Though it has a huge cast, the story focuses mainly on Mary, mostly referred to as "Mrs. Stephen Haines," and played by Oscar-winner Norma Shearer. A perfume counter vixen, Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford), steals away her husband, and the couple gets a divorce. There's a tearful scene in which Mrs. Stephen Haines explains all this to her daughter (Virginia Weidler), before boarding a train for Reno, and some kind of camp for divorced women.

At one point, the women attend a fashion show and the movie stops dead in its tracks, converts from black-and-white to color while we watch women model the fashions of the day. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper also appears, playing Dolly Dupuyster, a gossip columnist.

Rosalind Russell, Mary Boland, Joan Fontaine, Ruth Hussey, and Marjorie Main also turn up, chattering and sniping at each other at some kind of warp speed that most other movies couldn't begin to touch. There are probably more words per minute here than any other movie. We're not talking speedy, clever comic rhythms as in Howard Hawks's His Girl Friday; we're just talking speed and quantity. The effect is by turns fascinating and repellent, and every so often, funny. To a male viewer, these women are like aliens, sometimes lovely but mainly aggravating.

The older women, and the supporting characters seem to be the ones with the most wisdom, and they tend to be the glue of the movie. I was also fascinated by the presence of two of the cinema's greatest African-American "maid" actors, Butterfly McQueen -- best known for Gone with the Wind -- and the wonderful Theresa Harris, who worked with many of the great directors and was always a warm presence onscreen; she had her best role in a "B" movie, I Walked with a Zombie. Sadly, The Women gives them a line or two apiece and then shunts them off to the side.

Though I can't say it's one of my favorite movies, The Women still fascinating to me as an anomaly and an experiment; it could even serve as a secret portal to a mysterious universe for slightly less than half of the world's population. Warner Home Video gave it a Blu-ray release in 2014, complete with making-of featurettes, a cartoon, and trailers.

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