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In late 1936, Clare Boothe Luce's The Women premiered on Broadway, beginning an amazingly successful run. This comedy of manners is all about what goes on in the powder room when women don't think anyone else is listening. There are no male parts at all, even though it's all about men – as in cheating men. In 1939, MGM finally started work on its film version, although screenwriters Anita Loos and Jane Murfin had to sanitize it a bit to pass the Production Code. The result is one of the (many) classics produced in 1939 and it's surprisingly coming to Blu-ray this Tuesday.
The Women is about Mary Haines (Norma Shearer), who has just learned that her husband Stephen is cheating on her with a store clerk, Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford). Of course, Mary's friends didn't really want her to know, but Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell), who is always running her mouth to anyone with ears, just had to tell her. The film follows Mary's turmoil, as she confronts Crystal and even goes off to Reno to get divorced.
This movie would be best billed as a war of words. The Women is all about language and rapid-fire delivery of the dialogue. It is what makes the performances here so good, because they all have to one-up each other. Norma Shearer is at the top of it all, having to stay strong in spite of the venom constantly spewing from Rosalind Russell's mouth. You also have Joan Crawford playing the vile mistress. But Shearer has to carry the entire film on her shoulders. She is truly at her best when explaining divorce to her young daughter, in one of the truly heartbreaking scenes in the film. It's sad that Shearer isn't as beloved as other MGM stars from the era, because she was really good.
Like many other films of the era, we have a cast of great supporting stars. Paulette Goddard is hilarious as Miriam, a woman Mary meets on the way to Reno. The very young Joan Fontaine (a year before Rebecca) is wonderful as the newlywed Peggy. Her character is crucial to the story, as her young marriage provides a counterpoint to Mary's 10-year marriage. Peggy breaks up with her husband because he can't deal with the fact that she has more money than he does. There's also scene-stealing performances from Majorie Main, Mary Boland and several others.
Of course, none of these great performances would be possible without the direction of George Cukor. He is always remembered as a great director of women and The Women only strengthened that reputation. We should be thankful that he was fired from Gone with the Wind, because no one else could have directed this movie. He does not get flashy with camera moves or editing. It was about capturing and getting great performances from women.
For many who know that The Women is among the classics of Hollywood cinema, the main question is how does the Blu-ray look. It is absolutely gorgeous and more proof that black & white, 1.37:1 films deserve to be presented in high definition. Warner Bros.' presentation retains a film-like quality and the Technicolor fashion show (pointless to the story, but beautiful still) looks wonderful.
Where the disc falls a bit short is the bonus material. We lose the behind-the-scenes text screens from the DVD, but gain a color MGM cartoon. The two Another Romance of Celluloid shorts from 1939 and 1940 are still here, but both are just mash-up trailers for MGM films from those years. (The second one is pretty cool, because it highlights Cukor's underrated 1940 Crawford comedy Susan and God.) Thankfully, Warner Bros. did keep the music cues, along with the trailers. Still, it's unfortunate that the interesting stories about the making of The Women are nowhere to be found.
In short, The Women is an absolute classic. Sure, the plot may be tough to take for today's audience, but the performances are what has kept it alive. The Blu-ray is an excellent presentation of the film and comes as a pleasant surprise. I really never expected to see this film in high-definition, but I'm pleased that Warner did it. Let's hope there's more coming (especially movies with Shearer)!