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02 December 2013

CMBA Film Passion 101 Blogathon: THE WOMEN (1939)

This post is written in conjunction with the Classic Movie Blog Association (CMBA) Film Passion 101 Blogathon.

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Old movies were a natural part of my childhood. My parents have always enjoyed classic films, so I grew up with AMC, Turner Classic Movies, and movies from our own VHS collection. My mother's best friend from college would hand down her old movies whenever she upgraded to a digital edition. The first classic movie I ever saw was THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) at my aunt's house. As a kid, movies were just movies, and it wasn't until my teenage years that I made my love for classic movies my own.

I remember watching THE WOMEN (1939) on TCM with my mom. I was probably about 13 years old and I was eating jelly beans (it's funny what you remember, isn't it?). I remember laughing my head off at the fast-paced dialogue. I remember the costumes. The movie can be viewed in full on YouTube.

the women ii
Joan Fontaine, Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Mary Boland, and Paulette Goddard
I also remember my mother connecting the faces and names to other movies I had seen. You know the feeling when you recognize an actress and you won't feel settled until you can place her name and at least one other film you've seen her in? It was like a game. It was THE WOMEN that inspired me to start looking at the coffee-table-sized books in the library about classic Hollywood.

After seeing THE WOMEN, I became thirsty for more black and white movies. I started watching movies from before WWII - an era my young mind could hardly fathom as having ever existed! I started looking for those names and faces. The more I watched, the wider my web of film-fandom grew, including more names and faces and genres. I never would have guessed that many years later I would be writing about these movies on the world wide web!

I always recommend THE WOMEN as a good introduction to the world of classic cinema. The modern nature of the subject matter engages a more universal audience. Viewers of any age can enjoy the wit and humor of the dialogue. But the film is also a solid representation of its age. It includes the glamor of the 1930s with some slight hints to the impending international situation ("It's lovely to be able to spread out in bed like a swastika.")

the women
Florence Nash, Phyllis Povah, Rosalind Russell, Crawford, director George Cukor, Norma Shearer, Paulette Goddard, Mary Boland, and Joan Fontaine

Most importantly, THE WOMEN introduces audiences to a slew of classic film stars they will undoubtedly re-encounter in other old movies. Below is a list of some of the key characters/actresses in the movie. They seem like old friends now, and I'm sure you've all met before, but there's nothing like a good wander down memory lane.

maryNorma Shearer (as Mary Haines)

Having worked in moving pictures since 1919, and being married to studio executive Irving Thalberg, Norma Shearer was the reigning queen of Tinseltown throughout the 1930s. THE WOMEN was one of Shearer's last films, made at he height of her fame and popularity.
"I've had two years to grow claws, mother - jungle red!"

[Reading from a book] "But if you would seek only love's pleasure, then it is better for you to pass out of love's domain into the outside world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears."

Rosalind Russell (as Sylvia Fowler)

Rosalind Russell is by far one of my favorite actresses, from HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940) to AUNTIE MAME (1958) to GYPSY (1962) al the way to her last movie MRS. POLIFAX-SPY (1971). Her Sylvia Fowler is the most comedic performance in THE WOMEN. Audiences just love to hate her. The best part about Sylvia/Roz was that she wasn't afraid to look less than glamorous for a few laughs.
"Oh, you remember the awful things they said about what's-her-name before she jumped out the window? There, you see. I can't even remember her name, so who cares?"

crawJoan Crawford (as Crystal Allen)
"Say, can you believe him?! He almost stood me up for his wife!"

"Thanks for the tip. But whenever anything I wear doesn't please Stephen, I take it off."

"There is a name for you ladies, but it isn't used in high society... outside a kennel."

mary bolandMary Boland (as Flora, the Countess De Lave)

Flora's plumy voice, affected use of French in every other sentence, and undying faith in the power of love (even after four divorces), make her one of the most endearing of Mary's gaggle of girlfriends. Mary Boland is most often recognized as Mrs. Bennett from the Laurence Olivier/Greer Garson PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (1940).
"Get me a bromide! And put some gin in it!"

"Oh, l'amour, l'amour, how it can let you down. How it can pick you up again, too!"

"Oh, poor creatures. They've lost their equilibrium because they've lost their faith in love. Oh l'amour, l'amour."

virginiaVirginia Weidler (as Little Mary)

Weidler is perhaps one of the lesser known of Hollywood's child stars, due to the brevity of her career, but she was a remarkably talented young women. Her rendition of "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940) had her co-star Katharine Hepburn in stitches (you didn't think I'd write a whole article without mentioning the great KH, now did you?)
"I don't understand grown-ups on the telephone. They all sound silly."

marj mainMarjorie Main (as Lucy)

Marjorie Main had a prolific career as a character actress in some of Hollywood's biggest blockbuster movies, like MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944), THE HARVEY GIRLS (1946), UNDERCURRENT (1946) and especially as Ma of the Ma and Pa Kettle movies. Her homespun, down-to-earth Lucy takes care of the gay divorcees on the ranch in Reno.
[Singing] "If the ocean was whiskey, and I was a duck, I'd dive to the bottom, and never come up. Oh baby, oh baby, I've told you before, the more I drink whiskey, I love you the more! Oh baby, oh baby..."

hedda hopperHedda Hopper (as Dolly Dupuyster)

Real life gossip columnist Hedda Hopper appears briefly toward the end of THE WOMEN as... you guessed it, a gossip columnist. Her appearance is brief, but serves as a reminder that the journalist, famous for her remarkable collection of unconventional hats, was once known as the "Queen of the Quickies" for appearing in dozens of films in the 1920s and 1930s.
Dolly: "Oh, hello girls! My, don't you look lovely! Got any dirt for the column?... I might as well shove off. I've never seen such a clean joint."
Mary: "Dolly! Stick around! Something's gonna pop!"
Dolly: "Good and dirty!?"

Final Analysis

I could go on and on about the dozens of other female stars featured in THE WOMEN, but we'd be here for hours. This movie is an absolute must-see for all classic film fans, and for all women as far as I am concerned. It's a great slumber party movie. Every time I watch it, I recognize someone else, or a pick up a line or joke I never noticed before. The costumes are spectacular, especially in the fashion show around the middle of the film. In a recent discussion, Robert Osborne and Drew Barrymore were debating the relevance of the brief color sequence of the film, she for and he against. Where do you fall in the debate?

fashion show

I'd like to say a special thank you to the Classic Movie Blog Association for hosting this blogathon. I can't wait to read about other film fans' favorite classic movies!


  1. It IS kind of unforgettable, isn't it?

  2. Well, as long as you're taking a poll, I'm all for the fashion show. I sit and drool and then try to look for the clothes on the models that appear later in the movie on the characters.

    Top-notch script, to be sure, but it's the seemingly easy way the actresses handle the delicious dialogue that makes it always entertaining. In the 2008 remake attempts at sophistication came across as petulance and it was most unpleasant.

    I really enjoyed your article and the way you highlighted some of the characters. I got a kick out of your mom connecting the actresses to other roles for you in that early viewing. I do the same thing for (to?) my daughter when we're watching a classic film. Most of the time she appreciates it, but sometimes she asks me to "mute the commentary".

    1. Haha! I always like watching movies with other filmn-lovers so we can talk about the actors and geek out when references are made to other movies. I nearly DIED watching THE ARTIST with my friends because none of them referenced all the allusions!

  3. What a delightful post bout your first viewing of THE WOMEN! Reference your jelly beans, I always think it's interesting what one remembers about a movie watching experience. I saw DOCTOR ZHIVAGO at a theater when I was 8 and my most vivid memory is that my big brother wouldn't take me in the bathroom (apparently, my parents required that I have an escort). Go figure! Your recollection is MUCH more charming! And, THE WOMEN is a much better movie.

    1. It's no fun watching a movie when you're uncomfortable. Have you gone back and rewatched DOCTOR ZHIVAGO after a good bathroom break? Maybe that's why you don't like it as much as THE WOMEN!

  4. Ah, what a wonderful memory, complete with jelly beans. "The Women" would be a terrific intro to classic film. Thanks for sharing. :)

  5. Great post, Margaret!

    I agree that THE WOMEN is a perfect choice to introduce people to the classics. I've seen it many times and when I see the cast listed I still have to shake my head at the talent! Love the jelly bean memory too! :)


  6. "The Women" is one of the great mega-classics of Hollywood's Golden Age - and year, 1939. It has everything in spades from its stars, the plot and script, plus George Cukor directing. Your entree to love of the classics came by way of one of the best.

  7. Ah! A game. That's how I describe my first love of classic movies as well. The Women was a good one to start with.
    I'm against the color fashion show as an interruption in the story, but wholeheartedly for it as a piece of history and fashion.

  8. I am completely in love with this film (well, until the very end when Norma throws her arms out to her good ole cheating husband). It's a great jumping off point for classic film fans, as the careers of the many female stars were so varied and full. Heck, you could watch nothing but Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard and Joan Crawford movies and you'd get quite the assortment of classic film heaven. The color sequence had audiences of 1939 oohing and ahhing over the hues and the great fashion. Nowadays, it looks dated and seems pointless; it completely takes you out of the story. I must admit I fast forward it when I watch it on DVD...

    Love your article!

    1. I totally agree! Except Katharine Hepburn. She could have made a good addition as the tomboy of the group who didn't really care but was fun to have around anyway. Also, I love the fashion show, but mostly, as you pointed out, for the historical significance of it. Thanks for stopping by!

  9. "The movie can be viewed in full on YouTube." LOL...we'll see how long that lasts.

    Nice write-up about a wonderful movie, Margaret. The Women is living proof of the type of movies "they don't make any more."

  10. Hi, Margaret!
    The Women is such a treasure and I totally agree that it is the perfect film for anyone to watch to get them interested in classic comedies. The cast, the costumes and such amazingly funny dialogue. It's one of my mother's favorites. I think we have both seen it at least 30 times. When I wrote a snarky photo review of it a couple of years ago my mother wasn't at all pleased but it was a lot of fun. Even now all I can think about is that strange 'seeing eye' sweater that Rosalind wore in the film.

    Thanks for sharing your views on the film and it's perfect that it is how you developed your desire to see more from this genre and era.

  11. The story is ageless. The costumes are breathtaking. George Cukor was a remarkable director who was constantly championed by women. The focus remains on women, regardless of what men have done. Thank you for sharing your memory for viewing this along with your passion for "The Women" in this blog. Well done!

  12. There are many great lines in this film - and you've mentioned most of them. Hurray for great scripts.

  13. Am I alone in thinking "When Ladies Meet" (1941) outshines "The Women" in every way? Its commentary on marital affairs, its memorable lines, its costumes, its sets, its splendid female cast (that dares to include an independent older woman brilliantly portrayed by Spring Byington) makes the women in "The Women" seem created from a limited male perspective. Is there a film that more openly and non-judgementally portrays an older woman living with a younger man, as this one portrays Spring Byington and her "live-in like"? A film more sympathetic toward "the other woman" in a marital affair? One cannot be surprised that this progressive film has been largely pushed to the perimeter of social film commentary. The fresh, sympathetic interaction in "When Ladies Meet" makes "The Women" appear dated, catty, and traditionalist.


Can't wait to hear your thoughts!