Sex, betrayal, gossip! Women are funny about things like that.
Today it seems like every celebrity gets a book deal but they either produce a banal set of recipes or a “scandalous” memoir. But that wasn’t always the case. For much of the early 20th century it was expected that celebrities would publish, but not recipes or memoirs. Instead, you had someone like Clare Booth Luce, who married into wealth at a young age, but then proceeded to publish short fiction and eventually her most well-known work, the play The Women (and she would go on to success as a politician). Her famous play is almost as good as a memoir, taking as its subject the lives of wealthy New York women but given a biting, satirical edge. The 1939 film adaptation isn’t quite as famous as the play (and certainly not as infamous as the 2008 remake), but it’s a solid Hollywood dramedy with George Cukor’s always-dependable direction.
The Women is a tale of love and life in the upper-crust women of Manhattan. Most of the action surrounds Mrs. Mary Haines (Norma Shearer, Riptide), who discovers that her husband is having an affair (with a young Joan Crawford, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?). This puts her on a train to Reno, where divorces are easy, and brings her into the orbit of a number of other women who don’t have much luck in love.
Luce’s original play, which went on to over 600 performances in its initial run, was famous for its all-female cast, its clever dialogue, and it’s acerbic take on relationships between women. The play simultaneously satirizes the upper-crust women of fashionable New York while revealing that their lives are full of mistrust for one another rather than any kind of sisterly solidarity. Though the Production Code no doubt had to be skirted in a few instances, the film version of The Women does a fine job translating all the play’s success to the silver screen.
The Women starts with a great cast. Norma Shearer is perfect as the naïve wife being cheated on by her cad of a husband. She’s balances the sweeter aspects of her character without being totally unsympathetic for being duped. Joan Crawford is perfect as the vampy perfume-counter girl who seduces Shearer’s husband. Rosalind Russell acts the catty “frenemy” to Shearer, outwardly working for her but inwardly working against her. She does a fine job transitioning from one to the other. Once on the train, Shearer encounters Joan Fontaine, who is similarly innocent. Overall it’s a great cast full of some of the great actresses of the day.
The dialogue, too, maintains its caustic flair. The exchanges involving Joan Crawford are especially delightful. George Cukor, only recently let go from Gone with the Wind, brings his usually deft touch to the staging, giving us a solid sense of space while giving the actresses plenty of room to get catty. As the film progresses, the altercations go from being strictly verbal to more physical, and Cukor has the chops to make this near-slapstick material work.
This release marks The Women‘s Blu-ray debut, and what a debut it is! The source for this 1.37:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is near-pristine. Either someone had this stored perfectly in a vault, or it’s been the subject of a major overhaul because damage is basically non-existent, contrast is solid, and black levels stay deep and consistent. Grain looks appropriate and natural, neither noisy nor scrubbed away. The film features a fashion show about mid-way through that’s filmed in Technicolor, and that sequence is an excellent example of the form. All the various hues are perfectly saturated and that part of the print is also in excellent condition. The film also gets a DTS-HD 1.0 mono soundtrack that does its best to reproduce the sound of the era. Dialogue is always clean and clear, but dynamic range isn’t all that good. Extras start with a pair of vintage featurettes from MGM intended to sell their upcoming features. Each runs about 10 minutes and provides some interesting context for 1939 movie going. There’s also an alternate version of the fashion sequence shot in black and white, and 38 minutes of audio from the film’s scoring session, along with the film’s trailer. An MGM cartoon short “One Mother’s Family” is included, as is the trailer for the re-make of the film from 1956, The Opposite Sex.
The one added element to the play is a fashion sequence mid-way through the film. It’s obviously intended to show off the then-new Technicolor process. It does that very well, but the then-current fashions (like most fashions) haven’t dated well, and the sequence throws off the pace of the film overall.
The Women is a fine example of golden age Hollywood comedy. It pushes the boundaries a bit by dealing with screwball antics and the darker side of romance, but the real attraction is seeing some of 1939’s best actresses getting catty with each another. Add in the fact that this Blu-ray looks gorgeous, and fans of older films will be pleased to give this one at least a rental.