Celebrating 75 Years of THE WOMEN

It’s rather hard to believe that this year marks the 75th anniversary of George Cukor’s THE WOMEN—the acerbic wit and knockout performances by each of its leading ladies gives the film a timeless quality so that, no matter how many times you revisit the film, it always seems fresh and hysterically funny. And this freshness could not have been felt more than with the crowd that came to the El Capitan on Saturday night. While I had certainly enjoyed (and loved) the film in home viewings before, the cheers and laughs from the crowd helped me discover it anew (as did the print itself, which was the restored version soon to be featured on a Blu-ray release).

Prior to the start of the film, Ben Mankiewicz led a Q&A with actress and Oscar nominee Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect, Up in the Air) whose love for the film mirrored that of the audience. She was first exposed to the film when she was 12 years old during her run in High Society on Broadway (a part she received a Tony nominee for) by her co-stars. Her reaction to the film? She was “so in love with it…[she] wanted to be these women.” Her favorite of the women is Sylvia (played by Rosalind Russell) whom she called “the greatest character of all time.” And she even vowed that one day she would finally be able to reenact a certain move by Russell during the film—the moment that she slides a chair forward to sit using only her foot—in one of her films. But perhaps the most interesting question of the evening concerned not just the recent remake of the film, but those films that have tried to redo the fast-pace dialogue and snappy wit of films from the 1930s and 40s. In considering this, Kendrick said that today some people with “noble intentions have tried to make these movies..I wish it worked.” I think no one can dispute that this particular film became a classic because it was (and still is) a zenith of such style of filmmaking and features talent at the top of their game, both in front of and behind the camera.

The film is set amid Manhattan’s wealthy “ladies-who-lunch” set and the chaos that ensues when gossip breaks that virtuous loyal wife and mother Mary (Norma Shearer) has lost her husband to a golddigging shopgirl named Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford). Mary, surrounded by her gossipy friends, including Rosalind Russell, Phyllis Povah and Florence Nash, decides to head to Reno for a quickie divorce after listening to their so-called “advice.” There she meets the Countess de Lave (Mary Boland, in what I consider her best performance) and Miriam Aarons played by Paulette Goddard.

Much has been made of the film’s history—it came out in what many consider to be the greatest year in Hollywood history (1939) and rather unfortunately received no acting nominations at the Academy Awards. (It’s competition for the coveted Oscar statuette included Gone With the Wind, Wuthering Heights, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Ninotchka, Dark Victory, Gunga Din…the list goes on and on.)

The film was based on Clare Boothe  Luce’s hit Broadway play which was quickly snapped up by MGM with Norma Shearer in mind to star. Directed by George Cukor (known as Hollywood’s leading “women’s director”), the finished product features 130 speaking roles, all female, with sparkiling dialogue courtesy of screenwriter Anita Loos. The play’s racier references had to be toned down due to the production code, and Loos herself was on-set each day to quickly ad lib jokes as the cameras rolled. Of course, the film has also become known for the on-set rivalries occurring between its leading ladies (including the story during the filmmaking of Shearer’s coverage Crawford would sit off-camera knitting and never making eye contact with her co-star, a stunt which Cukor eventually made her apologize for). The rivalry between the two actress had been brewing for years—Shearer had been MGM’s queen of the lot, and often competed with Crawford for the most plumb roles. Shearer had also recently lost her husband, producer Irving Thalberg, but still retained much of the power that the studio had granted her since their marriage. Crawford meanwhile had recently been declared “Box Office Poison” and was looking for a part in a prestige production, after languishing for years in B projects at MGM and she had to fight for the part, even being discouraged from taking the role by L.B. Mayer.  Russell also had to fight for the part, as she was considered a dramatic actress meant for romances (or, as she was told, she was simply too beautiful for the role) but once Cukor saw her audition he knew she was right for the role of Sylvia. In the end the role would cement Russell’s reputation as a comedic actress and it was not long after that she would star in His Girl Friday.

Yet, much as I love the performances of Shearer, Crawford, Russell and the rest of the cast, not to mention the script by Loos, the real star of the film for me has always been costume designer Adrian, whose designs are on full display during the famous fashion show sequence of the film. Taking place in the midst of the catty in-fighting and just before the much anticipated first meeting of Shearer and Crawford, the fashion show stops the plot in its tracks—in Technicolor no less. It is the Adrian show, and before we ever see the stars wearing the costumes we, the audience, are given a chance to take a moment to fully appreciate them.

thewomen2In fact, the idea of the Hollywood costume designer as not just mimicking the famous fashion houses but userping it was a rather new concept in 1939 having been on the rise since the late 1920s. Before that, fashion had truly been dictated from Paris with the rise of the couture designer  at the turn-of-the-century, while in Hollywood many actresses still provided their own wardrobe for films. As the studio system began to create departments for art production and design, costumes were then placed in the hands of designers and craftsman who worked much like the designers in Paris but with story and character in mind. Not long after, Hollywood began to realize that these designs not only garnered attention but could also be used as a marketing tool. Soon copies of dresses and articles expounding how to dress like a star or character from a film were ubiquitous. And, as Adrian once put it, soon Hollywood and its costume designers and overtaken Paris as the center of the fashion: “Every Hollywood designer has had the experience of seeing one of his designs ignored when first flashed on the screen and then a season or two later become the vogue because it had the stamp of approval from Paris.” (quoted in Christian Esquevin’s 2008 book Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Label).

By the time of THE WOMEN, Adrian was MGM’s leading designer and had already made his mark on the fashion world with the Letty Lynton dress (created for and worn by Crawford in that particular film). Copies of the dress were sold in department stores and the public clamored for more. Because of this, it is no surprise that MGM would look for ways to show off his designs more—in this case giving him his own “fashion show” that would be seen by audiences across the nation, not just the fashion elite in New York or Paris.

Looking at the restored Technicolor brings these designs even more to life—they are a time capsule of the time in which they were made, as much as they were about the characters who would eventually don them in the film’s climatic final sequence. It brought the costumes to life in a way that I had never been able to experience before, much as the crowd had allowed me to rediscover the joy and comedy that one feels when watching the film. I will probably never forget the beauty of Adrian’s designs or the cheers which greeted the first appearance of each actress on-screen, a fitting way to celebrate the 75th birthday of the film. So, in the spirit of this celebration, I’ll simply end by raising a toast not just to “L’amour, l’amour” but the diamond anniversary of this classic film.

 Paulette Goddard, Mary Boland and Norma Shearer