I remember the first time I saw The Women (1939). It was the first film I’d ever seen Norma Shearer star. She was spectacular and the kind of woman every other woman wants for a best friend. About halfway through the movie, it occurred to me I’d yet to see a single man. Of course, it was made that way by design, I just didn’t know it (this was years ago and I hadn’t figured out the “backstories” of many classics). That’s just one of the genius decisions behind this remarkable film. The absence of men or boys or even male dogs sets it apart from anything out of Hollywood before or since. In fact, one character has several children – all girls!
Even more fascinating is the fact that the movie is about marriage and affairs. The tagline used in marketing efforts was “and it’s all about men!” Seems like it would be impossible to make a film about love and marriage and betrayal and divorce without so much as a photograph of a man in the background on a random dresser or table, even a nameless face – and yet, it was made and it’s brilliant.
Norma Shearer plays the protagonist, Mrs. Stephen Haines (Mary), the woman whose husband is cheating. Stephen meets the “other woman” at a perfume counter while shopping for a gift for his wife. Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford) was made for this role – and that’s coming from someone who thinks Mildred Pierce is the do-all, end-all. It’s a film chock full of incredible talent. Virginia Weidler, one of my favorite child actors of the time, plays Little Mary, who pays a mighty high price because of a divorce she has no control over and can’t stop.
Rosalind Russell hits it out of the park (as usual). She’s catty and judgmental and possesses not even a single loyal bone. She squawks about, declaring Mary her best friend while building a new friendship with the “other woman”, especially after learning that other woman was to become the second Mrs. Stephen Haines – because even this, it was all about who you know. Russell’s character will soon learn what Mary has been forced to learn: men cheat. Both end up in Vegas for what was then the go-to for women seeking a quickie divorce after catching a cheating husband.
Lucille Watson plays her role beautifully as Mary’s mother. She tries to warn her daughter to rethink the divorce. She tells her that men cheat – all men. Her best bet is to simply bite her tongue and ride it out. After all, she explained, there is life after adultery. It’s then Mary realizes even her own father is not above the occasional dalliance outside his marital vows.
Other stars in the film include Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine and one of my favorites, Marjorie Main.
Here’s something interesting – even though there are no men, the women are very happily introduced as Mrs. Stephen Haines or Mrs. Howard Fowler or Mrs. Phelps Potter. It was a status symbol if someone recognized your husband’s name; to be introduced any other way was unacceptable. It signified some type of unworthiness. If you were married but introduced by your first name, the gossip would follow with theories on why you weren’t introduced with your husband’s name. If you were not married, well then surely, something was very wrong with you. Either way, you were second-class.
The film was first loosely remade, and with men, in 1956. The Opposite Sex was a musical this time and Mary Haines was played by June Allyson. Joan Collins played the role of Crystal. In 2008, it was made yet again, this time sticking closer to the original formula, but with less than ideal success (you’d think Hollywood would figure it out by now). Meg Ryan and Eva Mendes starred in this version but it falls woefully short when mirrored against the original.
One of the funnier lines in the movie (and it is funny, despite the serious topics) was between Mary and Crystal during their first face to face meeting in a department store dressing room.
Mary, as she’s leaving the dressing room after confronting the other woman, refers to a gown Crystal is trying on and says to her, “May I suggest if you’re dressing to please Stephen, not that one. He doesn’t like such obvious effects.”
Crystal replied, “Thank you. But whenever I wear something that doesn’t please Stephen, I take it off.”
The dialogue between everyone else eavesdropping outside the dressing room door is interesting too. Take a look –