The tagline says it’s all about men, but this 1939 comedy is really a testament to the females of a certain era, and how they go about securing their comfort and happiness. Men are a means to an end, and the true pleasure comes from a mode of behavior. “There’s a word for you ladies,” says nasty girl Joan Crawford in the film’s most quotable line, “but it’s seldom used in high society, outside of a kennel.” Yes indeed, that’s the one-track absolutism that sums up The Women. If you’re up for two-hours-plus of coded female innuendo and colorfully veiled insults such as that one, your jollies will be tickled. But for all their extravagant bitchery, the cast of prima donnas is given very little opportunity to shine. Actor’s director George Cukor has a ball directing the hell out of his who’s who cast of Hollywood stars, and his frames are filled with catty business that grows frankly exhausting. Goody-two-shoes Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) loses her husband to predatory perfume shopgirl Crystal Allen (Crawford) and—through the help of her girlfriends and girl enemies—must learn to toughen up and learn the art of bitchy repartee and gossip. Half a dozen actresses fill out each scene, blending into one another and gabbing a mile a minute. They toss their rapid fire insults back-and-forth like a never ending tennis match, and the only time we’re given a breath is during an insufferable, dialogue-free fashion show sequence (the only scene shot in Technicolor) that gently nudges the pretensions of high society without adding any new satirical insights. Then it’s back to the cathouse chatter. Like an overstuffed party, there’s no room to breathe amid all this babble and coo, but patient and forgiving viewers with the will to endure can savor the few finer moments. Crawford eating up the pathetically inept Shearer and spitting her back out again during a department clothing store confrontation (“If your husband doesn’t like something I’m wearing, I’ll take it off!”); Rosiland Russell’s scene-long hissy fit that involves everything from furniture smashing, face slapping, clothes ripping, teacup shattering, and the primal cry of, “I hate you! I hate you! I hate everybody!” A mother unable to explain to her daughter the complex motivations behind divorce. Those memorable grace notes account for The Women retaining its status as a classic, but taken as a whole it’s an overlong and dated oversimplification of what women want. Yours truly is a male critic who may not glean the subtle mysteries of womanhood. But if it all boils down to a final shot of a rapturous Shearer opening her arms and practically leaping into the arms of her off-screen man, what the hell do I care?
A little grainy and not always sharp in focus, The Women transfer seems a little soggy. But the mono sound is surprisingly clean and clear.
A short making-of documentary might've been fun, and given a historical perspective to this gallery of actresses. The Crawford-Shearer rivalry would've made good fodder. Instead, we get "Hollywood: Style Center of the World" showing the influence of Adrian's famous costumes on American viewers, and the perilously boring "From the Ends of the Earth," about Hollywood textile imports. Also included are scoring session music cues for the gushy orchestral score that barely register in the movie, and don't impress as a stand-alone. The alternate version of the fashion show adds nothing new (it's in black and white as opposed to color). The MGM trailers, including The Women, are undoubtedly more kitschy and fun than the overblown movies themselves.