The Women (1939)

7 04 2014

I hesitate calling this George Cukor’s “opus” but it’s still certainly the biggest film of his I’ve seen. That’s vague, but a film like The Women has such limitless possibility, that it’s a bit overwhelming to even try to begin at all. I don’t think I’ve seen a film where each reading seems to contradict the others. Some might see the film what it is at its surface: a satire of gossipy women, but such a view is remarkably short-sighted to me, and threatens to destroy the film’s more impressive illuminations. The most succinct and radical of which is that in a world that only physically consists of women, men still have control over them. Sure, the gossip and fights are entertaining, but Cukor’s film manages to live on because it offers something that has to go beyond the simplistic critique of “catty” women.


Mary Haines seems to have what many dream of: love and money. The former may be compromised, though. Her husband, Stephen, is having an affair with Crystal, a lowly perfume girl. Sylvia, who has an unhealthy interest in tearing down the Haines marriage, goes out of her way to arrange Mary an appointment with the gossipy manicurist who informed her of the affair. In a cruel twist, Mary learns about her husband’s affair from a complete stranger. Distraught, her mother tries to convince her to keep her marriage alive if only for her daughter. She takes her time to make a decision, but finally decides upon a divorce and to move away from her posh New York City lifestyle to a dude ranch in Reno. While there, she gets word that Stephen is now married to Crystal, but that their relationship has also begun to reach it rough spots.


Maybe the best place to begin with The Women is what it isn’t. At least, what it isn’t to me. To me, it isn’t a “satire” because that denotes something flighty, and ultimately inconsequential. Satire usually suggests social commentary, which The Women has, but it suggests a rather benign type of commentary. It’s the type of commentary that is not interested in dismantling the powers that be, but instead revels in their absurdity. There are parts of Cukor’s film that work as satire, particularly when the titular women’s conversations get framed around as being combative, something the film physically illustrates with a rather bizarre fighting sequence during the film’s brief visit to Reno. I think categorizing the entire film as a satire is a disservice, though, as a satire would be content with just presenting a group of women, self-absorbed and materialistic, as being vapid and insincere. This is not what The Women is, it is far more.


The dialogue can begin to tell us something about what lies beneath Cukor’s carnival of feminine hjinx. The film’s opening has this comic energy that makes it easy for one to get lost in what the film presents on the surface. The momentum of the introduction seems to channel that of a lengthy tracking shot, but Cukor never actually does this physically. He dissolves, but the pace of the performers every time a new frame bubbles to the surface is so rapid that the editing seems invisible. The film regains the more conventional Hollywood flow, but the opening’s breakneck speed is important in that it introduces us into a film world that doesn’t have an equilibrium. Indeed, things will continue to seem “off” for the audience as the film continues and the reassuring presence of a white, heterosexual male is nowhere to be found. Men still exist in The Women, but the fact that they are not physically represented is in itself, a slyly novel move on Cukor’s part.


The presence of the male gaze is not absent in The Women. Again, no physical men, but most queer readings of the film suggest that many of the supporting women, particularly Sylvia take on the male gaze as their own. That’s certainly a sound explanation when she enters the perfume store looking for Crystal. Her and Edith take on the eyes of a man, specifically Stephen, as they enter the store looking for a woman worthy of a man’s desire. This all plays out like simple narrative proceedings under Cukor’s touch where as they would cumbersome in someone else’s hands. Think of Joe Swanberg’s musings on the male gaze in The Zone which I discussed here. Swanberg, although, admirable is inside his own head too much. I like what he’s trying to say, but he says it in his convoluted, ultra heavy, and woefully heterosexual way. Cukor makes the same point, and it breezes by and his queer atmosphere (so to speak) is more beneficial (and relevant) to the experiment.


More than Cukor’s own queering of the women’s genre picture, is a profound and kind of heartbreaking critique of a patriarchal society. The film’s saddest moment involves periphery characters. In regards to sex, one proclaims “you can’t trust men, that’s all they want” which is met with “what else do we have to give?” On the surface, this seems kind of backwards, as if Cukor himself is buying into the idea that women are nothing more than sex. The quote reveals, in a rather cynical and deflating way that men often perform their courting (or dating or just “being nice”) all because of sex. Women being viewed by the opposite sex as good for nothing but intercourse is not the most unique idea ever, but its position in regards to Cukor’s world, one dominated by women physically but all of whom are still controlled by men.


I think that’s the lasting image of The Women. Yes, it ends with Mary running back into the arms of her cheating husband, but the film doesn’t grant us the satisfaction of their conventional happy ending. If anything, the film’s attitude in the last five minutes seems to suggest that what is happening is somewhat cyclical. The “gold-digger” Crystal, whose designated “low” class status just cries out for more attention that Cukor unfortunately doesn’t give her, gracefully accepts her reunion of a world without financial stability. “Well, girls, looks like it’s back to the perfume counter for me” before putting in one last zinger. Crystal is put back in her place, but so is Mary. Equilibrium has been restored, but everything to this point has suggested that said equilibrium is something to challenge, not accept. It’s a force that is so imposing (again illustrated by the absence of men, but their ability to control the women in the film) that returning to it seems comforting.  Comparing The Women to a film as subdued and observant as Mikio Naruse’s Flowing seems awkward and forced, but Cukor’s protagonists are limited like Naruse’s protagonist. Perhaps its problematic to make such a connection with the differences in class, but Cukor’s women also seem to fall victim to this: ““If they move even a little, they quickly hit the wall.”




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