Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Women (1939)

"Remember, it is being together at the end that matters."
~ "Mrs. Moorehead" in Clare Boothe Luce's The Women

The Women,
one of the many spectacular films of 1939, explores love, marriage and divorce from the strictly female point of view. Not a single male character is shown in the film, nor in the play by Clare Boothe Luce, upon which the movie was based, although the conversation constantly swirls around the husbands and boyfriends of the protagonists. While the women involved are wealthy socialites, many of their follies, sins and heartbreaks are those which pervade the lives of the female sex in every time and place. The ease of securing a divorce, however, is an issue confronting modern people; Mrs. Luce dissects with slow, brilliant cruelty the pain and devastation that goes with breaking up a family. No matter how cordial and legally effortless the parting of ways can be, it is almost impossible to escape upheaval, scandal, and tears.

The Women revolves around the lovely Mary Haines (Norma Shearer), who discovers that her previously devoted husband Stephen is having an affair with a shop girl. The gossip of her friends contributes in no small way to the destruction of the situation. The pivotal moment is when Mary refuses to listen to the wise words of her mother, Mrs. Moorehead (Lucile Watson) who begs her to ignore the infidelity and stop confiding in her friends. "They will see that you lose both your husband and your home." She also implores Mary to consider her young daughter, who must come first no matter what.

Indeed, the little girl is torn to pieces when Mary tells her that the divorce is imminent. One of the saddest scenes shows the child sobbing in private, "Oh, Mother, oh, Daddy!" knowing that the home she has known is gone forever. It is also disturbing how the daughter must later have to deal with her father's cheap new wife. Watching The Women always makes me annoyed at both Mary and Stephen for allowing their child to be exposed to such circumstances. But Mary wants to get back at her husband for hurting her more than she wants anything else. She seeks divorce on almost an impulse as pain dominates her reason. She comes to bitterly regret it.

In spite of the heaviness of the topic, The Women is fraught with humor; the dialog is one of the wittiest ever to grace the screen. And I do not think that there is single weak performance. Norma Shearer is sweetly sympathetic even when it would be nice to slap her. Joan Crawford is at her slutty best as "Crystal," the callous home wrecker. Rosalind Russell is hilarious as the gossiping Cousin Sylvia, who basically rejoices over Mary's misfortune. Paulette Goddard is the goodhearted wench who tells Mary what's what. A remake is debuting this year; it seems a little coarser and less elegant than the original, but then, of course, it is a reflection of our time.


Enbrethiliel said...


From what I read here (not having seen the movie myself), the divorce was a disastrous decision. Yet I can't see how Mary's mother's advice to just ignore the infidelity is much better. Did she mean that Mary should confront her husband and try to work things out before giving up in the marriage completely?

I'm getting the impression that Mary's husband wouldn't have filed for divorce on his own--that he wasn't really serious about the girl he was seeing behind his wife's back. Does the movie imply that his remarriage is also partly Mary's fault?

elena maria vidal said...

Enbrethiliel, honey, you would have to read the play or see the film to get the full impact of what Mary's mother was telling her, in the context of the situation. She was basically warning her from making a public spectacle of the thing, since Stephen did not love the girl and was having a mid-life crisis which doubtless would pass. What Mary and Stephen had together was much stronger and worth quietly fighting for. However, Mary confronts Crystal in public, at the instigation of Sylvia, and the humiliation and hurt which comes from the scene causes Mary to divorce Stephen. Divorce pushes Stephen permanently into Crystal's arms, whereas before she was just on the sidelines. The Paulette Goddard character Miriam tells Mary in Reno that she should go on the offensive and fight for her man, rather than take the defensive by running off to get a divorce, especially since Stephen did not even want a divorce. Not to take the blame away from Stephen... the advice of "The Women" is how to deal with such situations by ignoring human respect and public opinion and instead focus on the strong points of the marriage, building on those, rather than tearing apart whet is left.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like an interesting movie. I wonder how the remake will be. It would be a wonderful thing to have contemporary audiences watch a film which shows divorce and affairs in a negative light -- a very counter-cultural message these days. I hope they retain it.


elena maria vidal said...

I hope so, too. I hope they stay close to the original play.