In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
“It’s all about men!” proclaimed the poster for 1939’s The Women, and the marketing department wasn’t kidding. Adapted from the hit play by Clare Boothe Luce and directed by George Cukor (who was well known for his superlative work with actresses, though being pigeonholed as Hollywood’s go-to guy for “women’s films” reportedly annoyed him), this lengthy melodrama passes the Bechdel test, but just barely, and only thanks to a few quick conversations about fashion. Virtually all of the dialogue concerns the various characters’ husbands—specifically, whether or not they’re cheating and whether/how to hang onto them if indeed they are. That doesn’t make it a bad movie, of course, but it is a tad ironic, given the film’s unusual conceit: For the entirety of its two hours and 13 minutes, not a single man appears on screen, or is even so much as heard from off screen. While single-gender plays aren’t especially unusual, the movie version expands the cast significantly; IMDB’s entry for The Women lists a whopping 120 roles—many of them uncredited (as was common at the time), but every damn one of them played by a woman. (The same is true of the reportedly terrible 2008 remake, which starred Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, and Eva Mendes, among many others. That version only features about 60 speaking roles, though.)
Eliminating men entirely presented Luce with a real challenge. The Women’s primary storyline is a love triangle with one of its legs missing: Socialite Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) discovers that her husband, Stephen (nobody, never seen), is having an affair with Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford), who works the perfume counter at a ritzy department store. Various machinations ensue, and at roughly the movie’s midpoint, Mary decides to leave Stephen, heading for Reno to secure a divorce. Luce apparently wanted to dramatize this decision, but she couldn’t write the couple’s heated argument—at least, not directly. One option might have been to have the argument take place on the phone, with the viewer hearing only Mary’s half of the conversation; several other scenes in the film employ that strategy. In this case, however, Luce chose instead to have one of the wealthy family’s servants describe the argument to another. While that might sound as if it would constitute a tedious violation of the “show, don’t tell” rule, it turns out, improbably, to be one of the movie’s most purely enjoyable sequences—certainly, it’s a lot more fun than the actual fight would have been. Take a look:
Cukor opens the scene with a reminder of the event that became Mary’s final straw, showing a newspaper headline that reads “WIFE K.O.’S LOVE THIEF,” with the hilarious subhead “Society Matron Mauls Girl From The Wrong Side Of Park Avenue.” (It’s funnier when you’ve seen the actual showdown between Mary and Crystal—their first meeting in the movie—which is icy and vicious but involves no actual mauling. One of Mary’s most venal friends, played by Rosalind Russell, passed on false gossip that made its way to a reporter.) I confess that I spent a good five minutes trying to make out the text at the bottom of the page, some of which is barely legible even on Blu-ray. After several futile yells of “Enhance!,” I came up with, “The amazingly docile appearing and very lovely Mary Haines, wife of the well known [something] Stephen Haines of New York, today aroused considerable chaos in a [something] and pithy banter with a young perfume saleslady.” That might not all be correct, but “amazingly docile appearing”—what a glorious phrase!—is quite readable, and serves as a reminder that Mary confronting her husband’s mistress in public is something that, among the upper crust of 1930s America, was simply not done, mauling or no.
More significant, though, is the description of Crystal as “From The Wrong Side Of Park Avenue.” The Women doesn’t make an especially big deal out of it, but most of the film’s characters are insanely rich; at one point, Mary contemplates buying a nightgown that costs $225, which would be almost $4,000 today. Luce herself married not one but two millionaires (Henry Luce, a magazine titan, created Time, Life, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated), so she very likely had servants, and their eavesdropping may have inspired this scene. It’s taken directly from the play, though the Hays Code, which was then in effect, forced screenwriters Anita Loos (“What? Luce isn’t available? Well, get me Loos then!”) and Jane Murfin to remove a few of the more salacious exchanges (by the standards of that era). The younger servant’s name is Jane (Muriel Hutchison), and the older servant’s name is Maggie (Mary Cecil). Onstage, they also said stuff like this:
Jane: He was telling the madam: She’s a virgin.
Maggie: She is? Then what’s all the rumpus about?
Jane: Oh, she ain’t a virgin now. She was.
Maggie: So was Mae West—once.
That was surely a huge laugh line in the theater. Luce’s inability to depict the scene between Mary and Stephen directly allowed her to transform what would have been a harrowing confrontation into wry comedy, with Jane taking on both roles and Maggie providing running sardonic commentary. “You’re quite an actress,” Maggie tells Jane, and Hutchison justifies the compliment by speaking Jane’s own lines in a lower-class Brooklyn accent, but having her adopt a more patrician tone when performing as either of their two employers. But it’s primarily the rhythmic interplay of mimicry and interjection that makes this dialogue sing. A few lines are laugh-out-loud funny, with the best zinger being Maggie’s lightly but unmistakably derisive response to Jane’s boast about her new boyfriend, who says she has eyes like Jeanette MacDonald: “Did he say anything about your legs?” (MacDonald was a huge star at the time, though she’s little remembered today. Ironically, the original reference, in the play, was to “eyes like Joan Crawford”; presumably it was changed after Crawford was cast as Crystal.) The overall feeling, though, is one of abiding affection for Mary—a bit of wish-fulfillment fantasy, perhaps, but it helps to smooth over the sudden shift to Reno, where most of the movie’s second half takes place, as Mary awaits her divorce.
Having two minor characters relate Mary and Stephen’s fight offers other advantages as well. Even today, many screenwriters are horribly clumsy with exposition, constantly having people tell each other things that they already know, for the benefit of the audience. I wince every time I hear one of those lines, and I would certainly have winced had we seen Mary and Stephen arguing, and heard this exchange:
Stephen: I’m going out. I need some fresh air.
Mary: Is the air so much fresher in the Viceroy Hotel? That’s where Crystal lives, isn’t it?
Ugh. Honestly, I think you’d have to be pretty slow not to understand why Mary asks about the Viceroy Hotel, but Loos and Murfin (this particular line wasn’t taken from the play) were apparently concerned that viewers might not get the implication. Thankfully, the secondhand nature of the scene solves the problem, as it makes perfect sense for Mary to quickly, almost parenthetically inform Maggie, regarding the Viceroy, “That’s where the girl is.” Stephen knows that; Maggie might well not. Simple and elegant.
The one aspect of this scene that I find slightly bewildering is Mary’s quick journey back upstairs, for additional eavesdropping, smack in the middle of it. That doesn’t happen in the stage version, and there doesn’t seem to be any good reason for it to happen on screen, either—all it accomplishes is to slow things down unnecessarily, plus give the dog a little extra screen time. We don’t even hear Mary say anything, as we do at the beginning of the scene (in snippets deliberately kept so brief that it doesn’t seem like cheating that we never hear Stephen respond). Did Loos and Murfin feel that it was unrealistic for Mary to remember the entire conversation in such detail? If so, they were being silly. We’re not idiots—we recognize why this information is being relayed in this offbeat manner, and we’re perfectly willing to accept it as a convention, the same way we accept one-way phone calls in which the character we can hear repeats everything that’s being said by the character we can’t hear. (“Oh, you’re at the airport? And your flight is delayed?”) We’re an hour into the movie at this point. We’ve noticed the absence of men. We’re on board. Just keep making that conceit work as deftly as it does here.