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Friday, July 22, 2011

Movie of the Week: The Women

Some movies are so good, they should never be remade...  The Women is one of those films.  Unfortunately, Hollywood couldn't leave well-enough alone and did remake the movie, twice.  But, if you don't ever listen to anything else I say, don't bother with the newer versions of one of the most entertaining films ever made.

The Women, starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine and Paulette Goddard, among many others, is certainly one of the best movies to come out of the golden age of Hollywood.  It also happens to be a women's picture in the truest sense...  Throughout the entire movie, you will not see one male face.  Even the photographs decorating the magnificent Manhattan apartments are of the women in the film!  Don't worry, men are the topic of much discussion, but it truly is the women who rule this picture.

Mary Haines, played by Norma Shearer (a name that, sadly, is not all that familiar to moviegoers today), is the ideal wife.  She's charming, funny and seems to be game for just about anything.  She's also madly in love with her husband of ten years, Stephen.  Stephen, however, seems to be straying from his perfect family.  Rumor has it that he's taken up with a shop girl, masterfully played by Joan Crawford, before she took up roles in melodramtic pictures like Mildred Pierce, Sudden Fear and Harriet Craig (all of which are great movies...).  Crawford is everything that a wrong-side of the tracks floozy should be - brash, hard, mean and willing to do whatever it takes to get her "meal ticket".

If that weren't bad enough, Mary's big-mouthed cousin, played perfectly by Rosalind Russell, can't wait to stir up trouble in the Haines household.  Spreading the news all around town, Roz makes sure Mary hears all the seedy details, whether she wants to or not.

If you've gotten this far, you are probably under the impression that The Women is a dramatic and rather sad film.  You couldn't be more wrong.  This movie is funny, it's sharp, it's perceptive and it has subtlety, something you won't find in most movies today.  While there are plenty of risque references, you are left to figure out the details yourself (thankfully).  It's fast-paced, which means you have to be on your toes to follow along and get all of the inside jokes.  But, best of all, the ending gives you all the satisfaction you could ever want.

All the women of The Women...

To make matters even better, there's not a bad performance in the whole picture.  From the main cast members down to the character players who appear as servants and extras, everyone's part has purpose, and all of the actors fill those parts with their best offerings.  You'll especially like Lucile Watson who plays Mary's no-nonsense mother.  Watson is, like many of these actresses, largely forgotten today.  But, you can catch her charmingly overbearing mother roles in other movies like Watch on the Rhine and The Great Lie, both with Bette Davis.  She's a formidable character, but the sort of mother you'd love to be able to run back to for advice.

Also appearing is Marjorie Main, best known as Ma Kettle from the Ma and Pa Kettle series of movies.  Marjorie Main always seems to play the same part - no nonsense and no class but with a heart of gold and an inappropriate comment for every occasion.  A wonderful character actress who, in real life, was quite different from the characters she played, Main can steal just about any scene.

People may talk about the great actors and actresses of today, but films like The Women remind us that many more amazing talents were appearing on screen in those far off days.  It can also be surprising to realize what writers were available to Hollywood in the earlier part of the last century.  The Women comes from a hit play by Clare Booth Luce, former U.S. ambassador and wife of Time-Life's founder Henry Luce.  Other writers churning out work in the Hollywood of this time included F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Anita Loos and countless other big literary names.

The Women is the kind of film you'll come back to again and again.  We watched it just this evening -in fact, we've watched it so many times that I've lost count!  But, it's never boring and you'll catch something new each time you screen it.

Other suggestions for the weekend?  Meet Me In St. Louis can't be beat.  We'll talk about this magnificent picture in our next installment.

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