The Women (1939)

The Women
Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer and Rosalind Russell

'The Women' is a classic comedy drama made in 1939, directed by George Cukor and is notable for having a completely all female cast. The movie stars a host of Hollywood female talent from the late 1930's led by Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer, supported by major talents such as Rosalind Russell, Mary Boland, Joan Fontaine, and Paulette Goddard. The movie was based on the play of the same name by Clare Boothe Luce, which opened on Broadway in 1936 and ran for 666 performances, also with an all female cast. It was adapted for the screen by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin.

The movie was well received on release but in 1939 - the wonderful cinematic year of 'Gone With the Wind', 'The Wizard of Oz' and 'Mr Smith Goes to Washington' - it received no Academy Award nominations. It has continued to be popular, and despite being remade as a musical comedy 'The Opposite Sex', in 1956, starring June Allyson and Ann Miller, and remade a second time in 2008, it remains immensely popular to this day. In 2007, it was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry of America.


'The Women' follows the lives of a group of Manhattan high society women, their dinner parties, visits to the hairdresser, and fashion shows, and we learn about their lives, their gossip, affairs and scandals.

We focus on Mary Haines, played by Norma Shearer, and we learn that her husband, Stephen, is having an affair with Crystal Allen, a man-eating shopgirl, played by Joan Crawford. We meet many of Mary's well-meaning and not so well-meaning, society friends such as the gossipy Sylvia, played by Rosalind Russell, and eventually Mary loses her husband to Crystal and her marriage breaks down. There are many twists and turns in the story until ultimately the saintly Mary wins out over the less than saintly Crystal.


The Broadway play 'The Women' was written by Clare Boothe and opened in 1936 at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, running for 666 performances.

The movie remained true to the spirit of the Broadway show in that every single member of the cast was female. MGM's attention to detail was impressive in that all the extras and even the animals and props such as photographs displayed were also all female. The total cast of 'The Women' numbered over 130 and there was not one male.

The screenplay, too, was written by an all female team, Jane Murfin and Anita Loos, both of whom had established considerable reputations during the Silent movie era. Murfin wrote the adaptation of the play and Loos cleaned up elements of dialogue deemed too risqué for the big screen. The end result is a fast-moving, witty, firecracker of a screenplay.

Originally, the movie version was intended to be directed by Gregory LaCava and to star Claudette Colbert but in 1938 when the play was purchased by MGM it was intended as a vehicle for Norma Shearer, then one of the reigning "Queens" of Hollywood, with Ilka Chase from the original stage version playing Sylvia Fowler. One month before shooting was scheduled to begin, in early 1939, George Cukor surprisingly lost his job as director of 'Gone with the Wind'. Hunt Stromberg, one of MGM's top executives, seized the opportunity to acquire the services of one of Hollywood's major directors and immediately signed him up.

Cukor was known as Hollywood's leading "women's director" and he needed all his tact and personnel skills to handle the oversized egos of his cast. In particular, Joan Crawford harbored a resentment of Norma Shearer who she felt had for years received starring roles better suited to Crawford. Top billing was a prize to be fought for and Crawford did just that, ending up with equal billing with Shearer and Rosalind Russell. Russell had to call in sick to achieve her share of the top spot.

One of the film's comic highlights is the fight sequence in which Paulette Goddard gets bitten by Rosalind Russell. M-G-M publicity states that no doubles were used and although Goddard received a small permanent scar, she and Russell remained friends.

Fashion plays a big part in the movie and Adrian Greenberg, chief costume designer at MGM, was responsible for designing 237 gowns for the movie's cast, including five identical dresses for the fight scene at Reno, due to the many takes which were necessary. The fashion parade in the middle of the movie was a major innovation, a Technicolor insert in an otherwise black and white film. It does not develop the plot at all but serves as an idealistic, fantasy counterpoint to the harsh reality of the cruel black and white world.

Main Cast

George Cukor, one of the shrewdest directors in Hollywood, infuses the film with subtle sophistication and wit, and wisely gives his talented performers every opportunity to show their skills.

The cast is uniformly magnificent. Norma Shearer works well with the difficult pivotal role of the "good girl" who is able to show her savage side when necessary. Joan Crawford was ideally cast in one of her most memorable roles as the scheming, man-hungry shopgirl, Crystal. Rosalind Russell had no previous comedic experience but seized her chance brilliantly, and stole scene after scene with her powerful, rapid-fire delivery of wonderfully sarcastic lines.

The supporting players are likewise out of the top drawer particularly Mary Boland as the riotous Countess De Lave and Paulette Goddard as the cynical Miriam. Marjorie Main, Lucille Watson, and Joan Fontaine also play their well written characters to the hilt. In addition to the big name stars the movie also featured a number of actresses who had made their name in Silent movies, such as Maude Allen, Flora Finch and Nell Craig.

Norma Shearer ... Mary Haines
Joan Crawford ... Crystal Allen
Rosalind Russell ... Sylvia Fowler
Mary Boland ... The Countess De Lave
Paulette Goddard ... Miriam Aarons
Phyllis Povah ... Edith Potter
Joan Fontaine ... Peggy Day
Virginia Weidler ... Little Mary
Lucile Watson ... Mrs. Morehead
Marjorie Main ... Lucy
Virginia Grey ... Pat, perfume counter clerk
Ruth Hussey ... Miss Watson
Hedda Hopper ... Dolly Dupuyster
Florence Nash ... Nancy Blake
Cora Witherspoon ... Mrs. Van Adams
Mary Beth Hughes ... Miss Trimmerback
Dennie Moore ... Olga, the manicurist
Jane Isbell (uncredited) ... Edith's daughter
Margaret Dumont (uncredited) ... Mrs. Wagstaff
Butterfly McQueen (uncredited) ... Lulu, Perfume counter maid
Barbara Jo Allen (uncredited) ... Receptionist
Gertrude Astor (uncredited) ... Mud bath attendant

Norma Shearer (1902-83) Norma Shearer was a Canadian actress who became one of the biggest Hollywood stars of the 1930's and was known as the "first lady of MGM". She was nominated six times for the Academy Award for Best Actress, winning once, for her role in 'The Divorcee' in 1930.

Joan Crawford (1905-77) was one of the greatest of the movie actresses of Hollywood's Golden Age. She was a top star for several decades, cleverly renewing her image at regular intervals, so ensuring that she had one of the longest-ever movie careers in Hollywood. She always had great charisma, great style and hers is a true rags-to-riches story of a lowly chorus girl rising to the heights of show business success to rival all the great names of Hollywood. She succeeded through talent, great beauty, huge determination and boundless energy.

Rosalind Russell (1907-76) Rosalind Russell was an American movie and stage actress and singer. She was a tall, stylish beauty with expressive eyes, best known for her versatility in witty and sophisticated roles such as the fast-talking newspaper reporter in the screwball comedy 'His Girl Friday' in 1940. She is also fondly remembered for her portrayal of Mame Dennis in the film 'Auntie Mame' in 1958. She won 5 Golden Globes, a record at the time, and in 1953 won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Ruth in the show 'Wonderful Town' on Broadway . She was also nominated four times for the Academy Best Actress Award and in 1972 she received a Special Academy Award, The Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

Mary Boland (1882-1965) Mary Boland began her Broadway career in 1907 and became a silent movie actress in 1915. After returning to the theater in 1920, she went back to movies in 1931 after 11 years and became well known for her comedic roles, often opposite Charlie Ruggles, and for her appearances in dramatic movies such as 'The Women' in 1939 and 'Pride and Prejudice' in 1940.

Paulette Goddard (1910-1990) was an American movie actress adept at playing both sophisticated comedy and sultry melodrama. She was a child model who grew up to become a stunningly beautiful singer, dancer and leading lady with a trademark infectious grin. By the early 1940's she was one of Hollywood's top stars and in 1943 she received an Academy nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her sensitive performance as an Army nurse in 'So Proudly We Hail!'.

Joan Fontaine was a British American actress, the younger sister of actress Olivia de Havilland. She was famous for her polished performances in Hollywood movies of the 1940's and 1950's, and she was exceptional in Alfred Hitchcock's 'Rebecca' in 1940 and 'Suspicion' the following year. She received, in all, three Academy Award nominations for Best Actress and won the award once for 'Suspicion'. As her movie career wound down in the 1960's Joan turned her talents to Broadway and television.

Marjorie Main (1890-1975) She made her Broadway debut in 1916 and her first movie appearance was in 1941. She specialised in playing strong women such as Lucy, the ranch operator in 'The Women'. She went on to become a stalwart of MGM and became famous as "Ma Kettle" in the 'Ma and Pa Kettle' series of the 1940's and 50's.


Director ... George Cukor
Producer ... Hunt Stromberg
Written by ... Anita Loos, Jane Murfin
Original book by ... Clare Boothe Luce
Music ... David Snell, Edward Ward
Cinematography ... Joseph Ruttenberg, Oliver T Marsh
Distribution Company ... Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date ... September 1, 1939
Running time ... 133 minutes

Academy Awards

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