Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 6, 2014)
A cult classic from 1939, The Women focuses on Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) and her personal life. Mary’s cousin Sylvia (Rosalind Russell) learns that Mr. Haines is having an affair with a salesgirl named Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford). Delighted by this flaw in Mary’s seemingly perfect existence, Sylvia immediately spills these beans to their mutual friends but hides the info from Mary herself.
To force the issue, Sylvia sends Mary to her manicurist Olga (Dennie Moore), the one who revealed the affair in the first place. Unaware of Mary’s identity, the chatty Olga tells her about the affair – and Mary shocks Olga when she lets the manicurist know who she is.
After a fashion show, Mary confronts Crystal and lets her know that she’s aware of the affair. Crystal doesn’t back down from this meeting and decides to up her game to keep the married man. This sets up a battle for Mr. Haines that dominates the rest of the movie.
Because I tend to do things backwards, I viewed the 2008 remake before I watched this 1939 original version of The Women. While the two offer clear similarities – enough that I regurgitated some of my plot synopsis for this review – the two offer radically different views of the female mindset.
The 2008 edition leaned strongly toward a “girl power!” point of view – albeit one with many hypocritical elements – but the 1939 Women eschews almost any positive female attitudes. As seen in this movie, women care about nothing more than gossip – the cattier and crueler the better – as well as physical appearance. If they worry about anything more substantial than that, those scenes escape me.
Actually, I guess Mary is supposed to come across as the one exception to this rule, as she avoids some of the traps into which the others fall. However, she comes with her own flaws, as she seems like little more than a milquetoast sap without any real personality. It becomes tough to care about her situation because she’s such an eminently dull character.
This sets up The Women as an ungainly combination of sniping cruelty and weepy melodrama. The former dominates the movie’s first half, while the latter takes over the second. Neither works especially well, though I guess I like the catty comedy best; while these scenes seem bizarre in their extreme nastiness, at least they deliver some amusement, mainly via an over the top performance from Russell.
Truly, Rosalind Russell offers the only minor pleasure to be found here; as awful a character as Sylvia might be, at least she shows personality. Shearer couldn’t possibly be more forgettable and dull as Mary. Granted, the script restricts her potential, but I still think Shearer could’ve added a little more life to this wet dishrag of a role.
At 132 minutes, The Women also extends a thin premise well beyond its breaking point. The movie might’ve been able to sustain 90 minutes or so, but with more than two hours at its disposal, it wears out its welcome long before we reach the finale.
This means plenty of extraneous characters and scenes, including one of the weirdest diversions in movie history. To set up the sequence in which Mary and Crystal meet, we watch a fashion show – a really, really long fashion show. We don’t need any of this, as it does zero to advance the plot. However, it does allow the otherwise black and white flick to boast vivid Technicolor for a few minutes – maybe that was satisfactory in 1939, but it’s not in 2014.
If that curious detour was the only flaw in The Women, I’d view it in a more positive light. Unfortunately, the movie rambles and wobbles and weaves as it takes us through an interminable cinematic experience. Apparently a lot of people love this flick but I can’t figure out why, as I think it offers an unpleasant view of females with little entertainment value.