Den of Inequity: The Women (1939)
“When a film has only male characters, nobody bats an eye. But when it’s an all female cast it’s this crazy novelty. This was as true in the 30s as it is now unfortunately.”
Den of Iniquity: An olde-timey term referring to a house of ill repute. When theatres were in their early days, they were given this term by the media due to the risqué content of films. The “weak minded” such as children, foreigners and women were considered to be especially susceptible to the ungodly morals of the silver screen. I’ve tweaked the term a bit for my series about women’s representation in old Hollywood.
Ocean’s 8 recently came out in theatres and it got me to thinking about an old film I was fascinated by watching TCM late one night as a teen. That film is The Women (1939).
One of the things The Women was notable for at the time it came out (as well as currently) is the fact that there are absolutely no male actors on the screen for its entire 133 minute running time. When a film has only male characters, nobody bats an eye. But when it’s an all female cast it’s this crazy novelty. This was as true in the 30s as it is now unfortunately.
What is amusing in an ironic sort of way now is that despite the film’s casting, it still does not pass the Bechdel test. Yes, you read that right: these women absolutely cannot find anything else to talk about than scheming, backstabbing, and fawning over and for them menfolks. Love and marriage are the epitome of their life goals. Of course, knowing that the 30s and 40s were like this is hardly surprising, but knowing and seeing are two different things. This is what made the film so fascinating to me as a teen growing up in the early 21st century; the priorities of these women seemed so foreign to me.
The plot is as follows: Sylvia (Rosalind Russell), a chatty upper society woman, hears from a chatty manicurist at a ridiculously fancy spa (seriously, check out this spa, it goes on forever) that an acquaintance of hers named Crystal (Joan Crawford) has successfully snagged a married man from her perfume counter. That married man is Steven Haines, the husband of Sylvia’s friend Mary Haines (Norma Shearer). Sylvia cannot keep her delight in check and rushes to immediately tell a mutual friend the news before their soiree at Mary’s house that night.
Cut to Mary living an idyllic life, racing horses with her daughter, also named Mary (Virginia Weilder) on their huge property. As they wander into their mansion and past their maids, Mary the younger asks Mary the elder about just how wonderful her marriage is. Which is of course interrupted by a phone call from husband Steven cancelling their plans to relive their honeymoon on a trip to Canada. He needs to “work late.”
Disappointed but not suspicious, Mary accepts this answer and carries on with her gathering of female friends that night. Sylvia is among them and drops several hints that Steven is cheating on Mary. She even suggests to Mary that she get the “jungle red” nail colour from the manicurist she saw that day. Mary does and of course learns from the manicurist that Steven is indeed unfaithful. The rest of the film follows Mary as she grapples with this information to make a decision with how to carry on with her life. She encounters several eccentric and strong-willed women along the way, gets terrible advice from all of them, and learns who her true friends really are.
The dialogue and its quick delivery is where the film shines. The backstabbing and scheming of characters like Sylvia and Crystal makes for an interesting satire of the upper class and those who would aspire to it using less than moral means. Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford’s performances are a lot of fun as they deliver the most sly and venomous witticisms. Russell in particular is a joy to watch as her pompous and catty portrayal of Sylvia is easily the best character in the film. The scene where she won’t stop talking while she is going through the motions of a goofy gymnastic routine is particularly funny. Her talent for a mile-a-minute delivery is sadly lacking these days and she would employ it to great effect in the wonderful His Girl Friday (1940).
However, the film gets patently ridiculous and loses its satirical edge when it goes back to Mary and her journey, which forms the moral of the story. That moral essentially is: Ladies, don’t be mean and active like Crystal, be kind and passive like Mary. She learns that a woman’s pride means nothing if it causes her to lose her man and it is her responsibility to forgive her cheating husband. The actions Mary takes to divorce herself from her husband are met with head shakes by the “good” characters and only cause her pain. Her reaction when she sees him at the end of the film is possibly suitable for the second coming, if that.
Funnily enough, I can’t help but recommend the film for both of its seemingly incongruous satirical and sentimental sides. Both gave me a couple of good laughs for very different reasons. Especially the out-of-nowhere five minute fashion sequence that’s in colour for some reason and stops the narrative dead in its tracks. I guess Hollywood producers at the time thought women were more interested in clothes than narrative cohesion. Ocean’s 8 at least has the decency to fit the fashion into the narrative. Oh, and write female characters who care about something other than dudes. That’s cool too.