Reviews and notes
Adapted from Clare Boothe Luce's play, this glossy 1939 satire about pampered Manhattan wives hasn't lost its bitchy edge. The catty banter and Wildean aphorisms (some of them contributed by Anita Loos) are delivered with impeccable timing by a cast only MGM could have mustered: Norma Shearer is a wife vexed by her husband's infidelity, Joan Crawford the tough cookie who seduces Shearer's man, Rosalind Russell a gossip fond of outrageous hats, and Marjorie Main a wisecracking hick. George Cukor directed with characteristic theatricality and love for his actresses.
- Ted Shen, Chicago Reader.
Unique for it’s women-only cast — a gathering of some of the finest studio talent of the 1930s — George Cukor’s acid comedy about love and infidelity created a rare female view of the war between the sexes. A group of friends spirits society wife Mary Haines (Shearer) off to a dude ranch near Reno for divorce when they convince her that her husband’s affair with a shop girl (Crawford) must be avenged. Rosalind Russell delivers a wickedly comic performance as the confidente who gains sadistic pleasure from her friend’s misfortune.
- Harvard Film Archive.
The tonic effect of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's film of Clare Boothe's The Women
is so marvelous we believe every studio in Hollywood should make at least one thoroughly nasty picture a year. The saccharine is too much with us; going and coming to syrupy movies we lose our sense of balance. Happily, Miss Boothe hasn't. She has dipped her pen in venom and written a comedy that would turn a litmus paper pink. Metro, without alkalizing it too much, has fed it to a company of actresses who normally are so sweet that butter (as the man says) wouldn't melt in their mouths. And, instead of gasping and clutching at their throats, the women — bless 'em — have downed it without blinking, have gone on a glorious cat-clawing rampage, and have turned in one of the merriest pictures of the season.
Her comedy, which Metro's Anita Loos and Jane Murfin have adapted remarkably well, is in the nature of a sociological investigation of the scalpel-tongued Park Avenue set, entirely female, who amputate their best friends' reputations at luncheon, dissect their private lives at the beauty salon, and perform the postmortems over the bridge table, while the victims industriously carve away at their surgeons. It is a ghoulish and disillusioning business and the drama critics, when first they saw the play, turned away in chivalrous horror, wondering — no doubt — whether they, too, had a Mrs. Hyde under their roofs.
Possibly some of that venom has been lost in the screen translation. Edith Potter's "glorious motherhood" — do you remember the scene in the play when she blew the cigarette ashes off her infant's nose? — has not been satirized so bitingly. A few of the blunt words have been softened. The omissions are not terribly important and some of the new sequences are so good Miss Boothe might have thought of them herself. Among these, however, we do not include a style show in Technicolor which may be lovely — at least that's what most of the women around us seemed to think — but has no place in the picture. Why not a diving exhibition or a number by the Rockettes? It is the only mark against George Cukor's otherwise shrewd and sentient direction.
The most heartening part of it all, though, aside from the pleasure we derive from hearing witty lines crackle on the screen, is the way Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, and the others have leaped at the chance to be vixens. Miss Shearer, as the Mary Stephens whose divorce and matrimonial comeback keep the cat-fight going, is virtually the only member of the all-feminine cast who behaves as one of Hollywood's leading ladies is supposed to. And even Miss Shearer's Mary sharpens her talons finally and joins the birds of prey. It is, parenthetically, one of the best performances she has given.
Rosalind Russell, who usually is sympathetic as all-get-out, is flawless — by which we mean as good as Ilka Chase was — as the arch-prowler in the Park Avenue jungle. Miss Crawford is hard as nails in the Crystal Allen role, which is as it should be; and Miss Goddard as a frank house-wrecker, Mary Boland as a shameless buyer in the love mart, Virginia Weidler as Miss Shearer's daughter, Lucile Watson as Mrs. Morehead, Marjorie Main as the realist from Reno are all so knowing, so keen on their jobs, and so successful in bringing them off that we don't know when we've ever seen such a terrible collection of women. They're really appallingly good, and so is their picture.
- Frank S. Nugent, The New York Times, 22 September 1939.
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