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Warner Home Video presents
"There's a name for you ladies. But it isn't used in high society, outside of the kennel."
DVD ReviewBefore there was Sex and the City, before there was the women's movement, there was The Women. The type portrayed in this 1939 movie is recognizable today: the pampered Park Avenue women who spend their days with their personal trainers, primping, preening, complaining about their husbands while spending their money, and most important of all, making heaps of trouble for one another. It's far from the most charitable portrait of women in film, but it's done with a tremendous amount of panache; and really, wouldn't the world be a better place, and wouldn't all department stores be easier to take, if the clerks served glasses of sherry to shoppers as they browsed?
It's clear from the credits just what we're in for, as each of the principal members of the cast is introduced with a photograph of an animal. (Easily the best of these is the billing for Phyllis Povah, who plays Edith—she's compared to a cow. Moo.) And things only get meaner from there—the opening sequence is set in a beauty parlor, where one character charitably remarks to another, "I hate to tell you, dear, but your skin makes the Rocky Mountains look like chiffon velvet."
Adapted from the successful Broadway play by Clare Boothe, its nastiness would be ascribed to misogyny if the author were a man. The stunt is that there are no men on screen—it's all mothers and daughters, best girlfriends and cooks and maids and nurses—and the boys are just on the other end of the telephone, or sending notes or emissaries (invariably other women.) But the fur flies in a big way, as the absent gender is the principal subject of conversation. As the original poster reproduced on the DVD case exclaims: "It's all about men!"
The principal dramatic action concerns Mary Haines, who learns from a gossipy manicurist that her husband, Stephen, is carrying on with a girl who works behind the perfume counter at an upscale department store. Mary's heartbreak and efforts to maintain her dignity drive the story forward, but in truth it's a pretty drippy narrative, more of a necessary evil than a compelling drama in its own right. Norma Shearer plays Mary, and while she's perfectly creditable, a good friend and wife and mother, she just isn't a whole lot of fun.
But gracious heavens, there are plenty of others to pick up the slack. Joan Crawford plays Crystal Allen, the other woman, and if you know Crawford only from parody (Mommie Dearest) or self-parody (Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?), you'll be knocked out by her here. She's a slinky little number who knows just how to play the married man who's infatuated with her, and Crawford demonstrates a sharp gift for comedy nowhere to be found in too many of her later performances.
Best of all, though, is Rosalind Russell, who plays Sylvia, the most gossipy and backbiting of all these women, and in this company, that's surely saying something. Sylvia has a nice word for no one, least of all her husband, and takes her greatest pleasure in making mischief for others. (It is she, for instance, who sends Mary to the manicurist spreading dirt about her husband's affair.) There's something slightly horsy about Russell, and she's not shy about making herself look more than a little ridiculous—she does some great physical comedy and isn't afraid to show her rough edges. Some of this was tamped down a year later in His Girl Friday, but here, since she's not asked to carry the story, she can just go wild, and the movie invariably gets funnier and more fun when she's on screen.
Not that she's lacking for good company, though. Dishy Paulette Goddard is a pip as the chorus girl stealing Sylvia's husband away, and Mary Boland is especially delicious as the ever-hopeful romantic getting yet another divorce—her fourth husband has been trying to poison her, not long after her third tried to push her off the side of a mountain. The weak link is probably Virginia Weidler, the young actress who plays Mary's daughter; but this seems like a weakness in the writing, as Weidler was excellent the following year as Katherine Hepburn's little sister in The Philadelphia Story.
Aside from the melodrama and the cattiness, The Women may be most notable as the closest Hollywood has ever come to producing millinery porn. It's a movie full of hats, hats and still more hats—silk hats and crystal ones, hats with brims as long as your arm, teeny tiny hats the size of demitasse, pointy hats, round hats, hats of seemingly every shape and size. Rosalind Russell gets many of the best ones, or at least the most outrageous—she even wears a bow nearly as big as her head when she's taking a calisthenics class. (How I love that in a woman.) Adrian, the legendary MGM designer, does nothing understated here, and the dresses are as outrageously fun as the hats—the movie even stops in its tracks for a fashion show, a sequence shot in color, unlike the rest of the feature, designed to do nothing more than show off some more wacky clothes. Isaac Mizrahi designed the costumes for a recent Broadway revival of this play, and it's no mystery what the appeal must have been for him.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: The original black & white photography retains much of its luster, but the DVD transfer introduces lots of debris and scratches. Nice saturated black levels and the MGM high-gloss lighting look fine, but overall the print could have used a fairly substantial makeover.
Image Transfer Grade: C+
Audio Transfer Review: Dialogue is generally clear enough, though the mono mix seems limited; you'll notice this particularly in the many sequences when more than one character speaks at once. Ambient noise is at a low level, as are levels of aural interference.
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 34 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Opposite Sex
1 Deleted Scenes
The second featurette, From the Ends of the Earth: Another Romance of Celluloid (10m:19s), celebrates the pillaging of other cultures as tons of stuff is brought to the MGM lot in Hollywood to fuel future productions. Special mention is made of the perfumes imported from France for The Women, but it seems that the movie would have been just as successful merely with the perfume bottles, and without their contents.
The scoring stage sessions offers eight musical selections from the score of the film, but unfortunately without any other information about the music. The deleted scene is an alternate version of the fashion show, this time in black and white. The additional trailer is for The Opposite Sex, a musicalized version of The Women produced in the 1950s, with Joan Collins and Agnes Moorhead, among others, and it looks absolutely awful—for one thing, it's full of men, and where's the fun in that? And for a little extra fun, turn on the English subtitles—not even they can keep up with Rosalind Russell, as great swatches of her dialogue are cut or paraphrased.
Extras Grade: B-
Final CommentsYou might want to put a saucer of milk next to the television for this one, because when you press play, the catfight is on. The Women is high-style Hollywood at its most posh, and while it's more than a little unkind in its view of the fairer sex, it's a breezy romp in the mud with great hats. Big fun.
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