The Women (1939) Directed by George Cukor. Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Paulette Goddard, Rosalind Russell, Mary Boland, Joan Fontaine. (133 min.)
The Women maps out territory that “now seems obsolete, Park Avenue ladies living only for the bedroom, the beauty parlor and Reno.” (Gavin Lambert). Her only social status conferred by her husband, noble Mary Haines’ complacency is rocked when her spouse is hijacked by a perfume counter Mata Hari. The Women imagines a world of nothing but–where perpetual scheming and gossiping dominate, and even a virtuous wife must eventually stain her nails “jungle red.”
Claire Boothe (married to Time, Inc. mogul Henry Luce) authored the hit Broadway play, doctored out of town by George S. Kaufman before its 1937 debut. Hollywood bought the property but quickly blue-pencilled sections of it as unacceptable under the still strictly enforced Production Code. Freudian vocabulary was a problem (frigid, libido) but so were the sophisticated attitudes. In the play, Miriam Aarons tells Mary frankly that being contentedly married for 12 years was not excuse for losing interest in her husband sexually and recounts a love lost because she wouldn’t go to bed with him, “Then get a load of this. I should of licked that girl where she licked me–in the hay. That’s where you win in the first round. And if I know men, that’s still Custer’s Last Stand.” And mousy Peggy’s marriage is not endangered because (as in the film) her husband doesnt want to use her inherited money to buy a car when his salary can’t provide, but because he does want to use her money, and she won’t consent. “A woman’s best protection is a little money of her own.”
Donald Ogden Stewart and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s screenplay was written and rewritten over 4 months. It was rejected so many times, they both developed a “sullen apathy” for it. The credited script was by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin, and was spiced by Loos’ on set ad libs replacing forbidden dialogue. The all-star casting was volatile, director George Cukor directed The Women “with extraordinary skill and cunning, keeping the divergent temperaments in line by continual activity” both in front and behind the camera. Norma Shearer as wronged wife Mary and Joan Crawford as gold-digging Crystal had been long-time rivals at MGM. Crawford believed Shearer’s edge was personal; after all she was sleeping with the boss, producer Irving Thalberg. After Thalberg’s premature death, Crawford thought it was finally her turn for whatever plum roles the studio had to offer. Instead, she found herself labeled “box-office poison” and offered only a morsel of a contract when her long-term one expired. She sought the role of Crystal, not a leading part, but certainly a flashy one, thinking it would jolt her from the shopgirl Cinderella roles in which she’d stalled throughout the 1930s. Their on screen face off in a dress shop fitting room bubbled with plenty of real-life venom. Mary archly disapproves of a flashy outfit that Crystal is about to buy, saying her straying husband won’t approve. “Thanks for the tip,” Crystal snaps, “but when anything I wear doesn’t please Stephen, I take it off!”
Rosalind Russell was encouraged to ratchet up her performance as the conniving Sylvia to match Adrian’s over the top wardrobe for her; this was her first comic part, and she made a splash with it. Her brawl with Paulette Goddard was a highlight. Joan Fontaine’s restraint as young wife Peggy led directly to her being cast as another timid young wife in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. Mary Boland nearly steals the show as the much married and divorced Countess de Lave who philosophizes wistfully, “l’amour, toujours l’amour.” There were supposedly over 130 speaking parts, all for women, books only by women authors; photographs, artworks, even the animals in the film were all female.
Neither Rosalind Russell, nor Joan Fontaine were suitable for cheesecake poses, so their publicity photos stressed their fashionable elegance, instead.
In her introduction to the published play, Claire Boothe defended herself against charges of misogyony, saying the play was never intended as a condemnation of all women. “I did not like these women. I liked them so little that I put them into this small Doomsday Book, in order to rid myself once and for all of their hauntingly ungracious images…My only feeling when the curtain rose on the first night, was that perhaps I had not done justice to the awfulness of these few.” And, she apologised for the “saccharine” qualities of her heroine, saying that “the difficulty about rooting for Mary is obviously that she is so stupid that you hardly give a hoot…Why, if she had been one-tenth as intelligent as her own cook, as far back as Act One, Scene 4, she would have taken her husband from Crystal as Grant took Richmond.”
Right before the photographer told them to “smile!”
PBS filmed the recent Broadway revival of The Women. The strident overacting of the modern cast only increases admiration for this 1939 version.The one great revelation was Jennifer Coolidge’s Edith. She discovers laughs where no actress ever did before.)
Anita Loos and Jane Murfin received screen credit for The Women; both had a long history of successful scenario writing. Jane Murfin was first a playwright, beginning in 1918 with Daybreak. Her plays Lilac Time and Smilin’ Through, written in collaboration with actress Jane Cowl, became quite successful both on stage in and their screen adaptions. Her first scenario was Marie, Ltd., in 1919, and she directed several of her own films.
Her greatest accomplishment during the silent era was the thrilling adventures she did with Strongheart, her German Shepherd. She wrote and produced these hugely popular predecessors to the Rin-Tin-Tin films. Strongheart, who supposedly had served neutrally in the German Red Cross during World War I, was “a dramatic dog, an emotional actor” and was one of the most renowned animal stars of the 1920s. Strongheart’s films were so successful, that Murfin’s friend, Frances Marion, was inspired to use them as a blueprint for Westerns we wrote, starring a horse and her husband, Fred Thomson. Lilac Time, based on her play, was Colleen Moore’s most successful picture, a lavish, romantic story of a peasant girl’s romance with an aviator in World War I France. The film, which was silent with an orchestral soundtrack, made a romantic hero of Gary Cooper and contributed a popular standard, “Jeaninne, I Dream of Lilac Time.”
Strongheart, splendid actor and game trouper, is dead. He was the first dog actor of the screen, and will be remembered affectionately by many beside his owner and friend, Jane Murfin. Strongheart made good in his very first picture, “The Silent Call,” and thereafter was one of the most popular stars on the screen. He is survived by his mate and co-star, the lovely Lady Julie, and by his son and heir, Strongheart II.
Murfin then collaborated on scripts for many important female stars at RKO and MGM in the 1930s and early 1940s. What Price Hollywood? was a stark look at disillusionment in the movie capital. Based on a story by Adela Rogers St. John, who had been writing about the movies since the early days, it is the model for the several versions of A Star is Born. Murfin scripted Our Betters, also for Constance Bennett; Spitfire, The Little Minister and Alice Adams for Katharine Hepburn, Roberta for Irene Dunne and her Smilin’Through was adapted for Norma Shearer. She co-wrote the Greer Garson-Lawrence Olivier Pride and Prejudice with Aldous Huxley. Her last screen credit was for Dragon Seed, based on Pearl Buck’s novel, about a rebellious Chinese woman played by Katharine Hepburn.
Anita Loos sold her first script to DW Griffith in 1912, although she was not 12 years old at the time, as she later claimed. She was one of the most prolific chroniclers of Hollywood’s early days, although her accuracy waxed and waned as she got older. But, she had many accomplishments, including writing many of Douglas Fairbanks early comedies and films for Norma and Constance Talmadge, great stars of the 20s. And, of course the book, play and movie of Gentleman Prefer Blondes (she was a brunette) brought her lasting fame.
Loos was born in 1893 and spent part of her childhood on stage playing in the San Francisco companies of plays like Little Lord Fauntleroy and Quo Vadis? Short films were often shown at intermissions and as she watched from behind the screen, she decided she could do just as well, or better. Biograph seemed to make the best pictures, so she copied the address off a film can and sent them a script for The New York Hat, which was filmed with Mary Pickford in the lead. The check for $25.00 made out to A. Loos was quite gratifying.
When Griffith moved Biograph to California, A. Loos made an appearance, dressed so youthfully that Griffith mistook her mother for his scenario writer. She wrote over 100 other scripts for him as well as the titles for Intolerance. The scenarios for her 2-reel films were one- and one-half pages, but by the time she was writing features, they’d expanded to 40. Douglas Fairbanks was under contract to Griffith at Triangle Pictures and Griffith didn’t know what to do with this wellspring of pep and humor. Loos wrote an energetic romp for him, His Picture in the Papers and Doug was off and running. “If I every ventured into sentiment, Doug would send for me and say, ‘Dammit, I’m no actor. I can’t play a love scene.’ So, I’d cancel the sex activities and have Doug jump off an airplane.”
The director of the Loos-Fairbanks films was John Emerson, who was first her collaborator, and then her husband. How much he actually contributed to these films is in dispute. Loos was a creative dynamo, bur she deferred to a husband who spent his life cheating on her, squandering her money and taking credit for her work. Their comedies like American Aristocracy, His Picture in the Papers, Manhattan Madness, The Matrimaniac, The Americano and Wild and Woolly were hugely successful. Loos watched the filming in order to incorporate any sudden inspiration, as she would later do for The Women. She then moved to the editing room, where she wrote the titles. “It was all very easy in those days. We had so much fun that I don’t really remember when the work got done.” She went onto a series of comedies for the vivacious Constance Talmadge before writing Gentleman Prefer Blondes. Peg, the mother of the famous Talmadge sisters, was known for her bawdy wisecracks, and Loos paraphrased some of them in GPB, first serialized in Harper’s Bazaar, then progressing to book, film, play, musical and on to Marilyn Monroe.
She wrote several films for Jean Harlow in the 1930s, including Red Headed Woman, one of the scandalous films that brought the censors’ wrath upon the movies. Irving Thalberg worked with Loos on the script telling her to “make fun of the sex element, just as you did in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” In it, trampy Harlow wrecks her bosses’ home and is rewarded for her amorality with a wealthy older lover and a seductive chauffeur, played by a youthful Charles Boyer. Frances Marion, with credentials even more illustrious than Loos, was at MGM then too, and said she, Loos and Bess Meredyth were consulted on nearly every script at the studio in the 1930s but given no credit. Loos’ name was on San Francisco and The Women.
She gave up movie writing in the 1940s, but then continued writing plays (including a stage adaption of Gigi that made a star of Audrey Hepburn), novels and several memoirs and gave numerous interviews up until she died in 1981. Louise Brooks, another sharp chronicler of moviedom’s early days faulted Loos’ “crime of corrupting film history” by passing on mistakes. “She could have written the greatest history of Hollywood and winds up listing all the very tall men she didn’t go to bed with.” As for her autobiography, “Every page is a lie and a mess of facts. But I love her and she writes me because I think Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a work of art, as good in its way as Jane Austen’s Pride and Predudice.”
(Photo of Loos and George Cukor from Loos’ out of print picture autobiography “A Cast of Thousands;” Loos ad from May, 1929 Photoplay magazine, Strongheart photo from September, 1929 Photoplay, portrait of Shearer, Crawford and Russell from the Museum of Modern Art Stills Department, other photos from Claire Drazin’s movie star scrapbooks)