Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Women


We get a kick out of watching remakes and original versions of movies close together, so they’re easier to compare. We watched all four versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers within a month. (The first one is still the best.) Every once in a while a remake (Sorcerer, 1977) is as good as or better than the original (The Wages of Fear, 1953), but you wouldn’t go wrong too often if you assumed the remake is not as good as the original: King Kong; 1933, 1976, 2005. We just saw the new version of The Women (review follows), based on the all-female play by Clare Booth Luce. I thought it was a failed project that had its moments, but was badly in need of a better script. I felt confident that this original version would be a damn sight better. After all, it’s directed by George Cukor, of My Fair Lady and The Philadelphia Story renown. It stars Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford … in fact, every female star on the MGM lot in 1939 except Myrna Loy and Greta Garbo, and believe me, that is more stars than in your typical galaxy. Even the dogs and horses and artwork on the walls in this movie were female. And we were happy to see the actress whose name delights me every time I hear it: Butterfly McQueen. It is an acknowledged classic. I was sure it would be better than the remake.

Boy, was I wrong.

I’m not saying it’s worse, and I’m sure that it was a knockout in 1939. But the passage of 70 years has brought about changes in our society that makes this movie almost as cringeworthy as the collected works of Stepin Fetchit. Sometimes a movie does not age well, and this one hasn’t.

As I said in my review of the 2008 version, I have always had a tough time feeling real empathy in stories of rich people and their problems. If their main concerns in life are shopping, fashion, and gossip, I’m even less likely to like them. The women in the remake were like that, but at least some of them had careers. In 1939 it would have been implausible to have a group of women friends who had careers, and in fact none of them do. Is there anything more useless than a “socialite”? Nothing comes to mind. These women’s lives are completely taken up with shopping (for clothes; the maids shop for groceries), hairdressers, manicurists, spa treatments, and endless, endless, endless nattering gossip. They speak of raising children, but you know that’s mostly a matter of instructing the nanny or governess on what to do. News of infidelity is delicious, divorce is even juicier. Even the Norma Shearer character, the sort of down-to-earth type, was awful, in a different way. In the end, which had Lee ready to throw things at the screen, she literally goes running to reunite with her cheating husband who she divorced 18 months ago. “Where is your pride, Mary?” one of the gals asks her. With a rapturous smile she gushes, “I have no pride!” The end. Ouch!

All of that said, I have to add that the performances here by all concerned are terrific. Roz Russell, in particular, shines. The script is sharp and witty, but with way too much talking for my taste. That’s because what they talk about is so disgusting and mostly trivial, but I can’t deny that it’s true to life.

Looking at this thing, you are reminded that in the 1930s, ‘40s, ‘50s … even, to some extent, today, though not as much as back then … one of the big reasons women went to “women’s pictures” was to see the clothes. Oh my god, the clothes! Every actress wears something new and outrageous in every scene. Much of it is simply horrid (to my eyes), or plain silly. Hats! Gowns! Sequins! Furs! Norma Shearer has an enormous fur robe, it looks like a whole polar bear skin, apparently for wearing only between the bed and the bathroom. There are easily 100 gowns and many, many other items of clothing such as leisure outfits and lingerie. In fact, right in the middle the film stops dead in its sprockets for a 15-minute fashion show … in Technicolor! This is a black and white film! I don’t doubt that many in the audience liked that part the best.

Enough. But since gossip is the life blood of these women, I can’t resist putting in a little dirt of my own. (Hell, Hedda Hopper has a small part, which I’m sure steamed Louella Parsons.) So … a one-named designer known as Adrian created all the gowns. I had vaguely heard of him, but now I find that most people rank him as the best costume designer ever to work in Hollywood. He has 250 screen credits. He’s the guy who designed all the costumes for the Munchkins. He designed the ruby slippers! He was to MGM what Edith Head was to Paramount and Universal, and was largely retired before she came along. He is credited with starting the padded shoulders fad, which became Joan Crawford’s trademark, and may be a large part of the reason that I’ve never liked Crawford; she looks like an NFL lineman! Adrian was gay, but was married to Janet Gaynor. They were apparently happy, as the marriage lasted 20 years, until his death. Then there was Paulette Goddard, who Charlie Chaplin featured in Modern Times. They were secretly married in 1936, divorced 1940. He was her second husband. Then she married Burgess Meredith, then Erich Maria Remarque, author of All Quiet on the Western Front. The lady got around!