Saturday, July 30, 2016
Joan Crawford Blogathon 2016: The Women a.k.a. The Park Avenue Badasses by Paul F. Etcheverry
Today's post, reviewing George Cukor's 1939 adaptation of the hit Claire Boothe play skewering "Real Housewives Of Park Avenue", The Women, starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell, (note: spoilers start immediately) is Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog's contribution to the 2016 Joan Crawford Blogathon, hosted by Crystal of In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood.
In a five decade career, Joan Crawford was a fascinating screen presence, especially once she had been doing talkies for a few years and had transitioned from perky Our Dancing Daughters ingenue to pre-Code "hot babe" to those hardworking and ambitious shopgirl parts to, eventually, the wide range of characters and genres she'd successfully tackle in her 1940's and 1950's films.
Throughout this review this movie will be described via clips of songs that, although not a single one had been recorded when The Women was released theatrically on September 1, 1939, nonetheless express the movie's essence. After all, this is not a movie blog but a "20th Century Pop Culture" blog - and proudly so!
The Women features no men in front of the camera - alas, Dorothy Arzner, who directed Joan Crawford in The Bride Wore Red was NOT behind the camera (the formidable George Cukor was) - but 135 actresses total, headlined by Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell, lead a super talented ensemble.
Here's George Cukor, both happy he got dismissed from directing Gone With The Wind and flanked by Florence Nash, Phyllis Povah, Russell, Crawford, Shearer, Paulette Goddard, Mary Boland and a very young Joan Fontaine.
Since The Women revolves around a bunch of largely unhappy Park Avenue housewives dealing with a deadly combo of boredom, a sense of powerlessness and either philandering or absentee spouses, this tune from a movie musical box office smash from 14 years later, says it all.
A topic central to The Women and related to "When Love Goes Wrong, Nothing Goes Right" is. . . well, let's not tell you, let's show you via the following two songs. First, let's hear Hank Williams Sr. in 1953.
The latter describes what both the women and the (offscreen) men in this movie do and have done to them. It is an equally great single recorded in 1968 at the mighty Stax/Volt Studios by r&b ace Johnnie Taylor.
While as much or more a product of its time than Gone With The Wind, the other massive box office hit produced in 1939 by MGM, The Women remains fascinating on many levels: a viciously funny screenplay, the consistently top-notch acting from the talented ensemble cast and the film's places in the celebrated movie careers of its stars, as well as director George Cukor.
Robert Osborne's introduction to the film on Turner Classic Movies touches upon much of this and then some.
The Women is a witty and at times raucous comedy about the wealthy Park Avenue set: quite the compendium of in-fighting, infidelity, Machiavellian intrigue and general skullduggery - with tea cakes served in between by the maid. Men are spoken of, but never seen or heard.
The back stabbing practically begins in the first frame. Indeed, a certain #1 hit recorded by The O'Jays four decades later sizes up these lethal ladies perfectly.
The tone is set immediately when Cukor gets his camera tracking in a beauty salon, catching a wide range of characters blithely trading vicious insults and snappy put-downs with the fervor of the crazed news reporters in another unbeatable classic movie filled with crackling dialogue and starring Roz Russell, His Girl Friday. The pervasive "all males, married or not, can't help themselves from being liars, cheaters and scumbags" theme also asserts itself throughout.
Norma Shearer had been a major star since her breakthrough role alongside 1920's heartthrob Ramon Novarro in The Student Prince In Old Heidelberg, the queen of the MGM lot for a decade and eventually Mrs. Irving Thalberg. By the time The Women was produced, she was winding down her very successful movie career. Along with Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer's competition for box-office laurels at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was Joan Crawford.
While the role of Sylvia Rogers is not the first major part in a movie for Rosalind Russell, it is, arguably, her coming-out party as a gifted screen comedienne and very likely the performance which specifically got that train a rollin' to her ultimate movie role as a gal we at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog like a great deal, Auntie Mame.
In this writer's opinion, Norma Shearer has the most difficult part as the happily married Mary Haines who learns that Stephen, her hubby, is a philandering, lying prick.
The central dilemma, then as now, involving a marriage described as "one philanders, the other doesn't" is one summed up nicely by this rocker by The Clash.
The movie presents the case both for staying and going, clearly leaning towards the former - and at least, if the relationship can be saved, doing what The Beatles suggest in one of their hit records.
Now, back to the MGM Big Three divas, this reviewer strongly disagrees with writers who slam Shearer's performance in The Women. Her portrayal of Mary Haines is warm, genuine, just right for the movie and actually quite a bit less over-the-top than most of the other cast members. It is the reality that Shearer's character, unlike most of her Park Avenue pals, is likable, kind to her daughter and not mean-spirited in the least that makes the story work.
Norma's scenes with Virginia Weidler, the lesser known but remarkable young actress who plays her daughter (and soon to be outstanding in Cukor's The Philadelphia Story), are among the best in the movie. Expressing the loving relationship between the two and underscoring that Mary Haines is a good, attentive and conscientious mom, their sequences together are pivotal.
Crawford portrays clever, conniving, despicable, amoral and ever-avaricious perfume saleslady Crystal Allen, the evil doppelgänger of her previous plucky shopgirl characters in MGM movies, with more relish than Ford Sterling portraying a dastardly villain in a 1913 Keystone Comedy - but totally without the Mack Sennett Studio star's customary nudge nudge wink wink approach.
This scribe has heard the Crystal Allen character described, quite accurately, as reptilian and life-sucking succubus. Yes, it is apparent from the moment of her entrance as she browbeats her department store co-workers that Crystal Allen is trouble personified!
Gotta hand it to Crawford, frequently a better actress than given credit for, who rolls up her designer sleeves and delves headlong into that evil, inhabiting the character with skill and expressing her truth. Key to the Crystal Allen role is that she's less a killer than a show-off, an individual who clearly gets off on the act of demonstrating to others how evil she is and relishes watching reactions to her brazen "bad girl" antics. It is not necessarily about being naughty and bad, but always about making sure others see that she's naughty and bad.
The big boob we never see in The Women (since this movie post-dates strict enforcement of the Production Code and nudity's a no-no) is wealthy engineer Stephen Haines, who dumps his nice wife and marries the selfish, mean-spirited and abusive mistress. First on the poetic justice list in this movie is that Haines gets to live "I'm A Fool To Want You," the classic love-gone-terribly-wrong standard by The Chairman Of The Board, orchestrated by Gordon Jenkins, as well as learn exactly what "be careful what you wish for" means.
Those who saw Ab Fab The Movie when it opened last weekend and are aficionados of the John Cleese & Connie Booth TV show Fawlty Towers know that it's quite possible to derive big laughs from the thoroughly reprehensible behavior of totally unsympathetic characters.
In The Women, just such a wretched sort, the role of Sylvia Fowler, is played to the hilt by Rosalind Russell. It turned out to be a star-making turn. Watch Roz' loathsome character insult everyone within earshot here - it's white-hot comedy brilliance!
Collaborating with a dirt dishin' gossip-obsessed manicurist, Russell's character drives the storyline and the lives of her would-be "pals" over a cliff. In this scene, the vicious gossip meets Crystal Allen. Mrs. Rogers derives pleasure from harming others via the spreading of gossip the same way Ms. Allen gets off big time by showing off how bad and naughty she is to others.
Some of the funniest scenes in the movies feature Crawford and Russell together, in a truly symbiotic and twisted relationship. The two actresses play off each other beautifully.
The dynamic recalls a lizard the riding on the back of a toad who possesses a poisonous and instantly lethal sting.
It turns out to be the horrid Sylvia's complete and utter inability to keep any secret that proves to be Crystal's undoing, once the terror of the Black's 5th Avenue perfume counter marries Mary Haines' rich but hapless former hubby and commences cheating on him either 150 days before or 150 seconds after saying "I do." Immediately, Crystal cheats with the country western singer married to the Countess (played by Mary Boland) on the inaccurate assumption that the Jimmie Rodgers wannabee possesses a fortune worth many millions. After all, Crystal's all about money and power.
Also unusual in this movie is that there are two misbehaving Park Avenue Playgirl philanderers among The Women and only one is actually unsympathetic. There are two Hoochie Coochie Gals here - one portrayed by Joan Crawford, the other by Paulette Goddard, still beloved for her essential contribution to Charlie Chaplin's wonderful 1936 film Modern Times.
The difference? The former, Crystal Allen, is slimy, unethical and cruel, the latter, Miriam Arons, isn't. In addition, there is some poetic justice to Miriam's lusty character messing around with the husband of awful Sylvia, from the miserable Mr. and Mrs. Howard Fowler, a couple that very likely had even less affectionate physical contact and sex than Basil and Sybil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers.
The key is not that Crystal Allen is a philanderer and home wrecker, it's that she's mean. If Crystal Allen was a man, she'd be a dishonest and unscrupulous businessperson - and also cheating on his wife with both mistresses and prostitutes.
Mess with these two chain-smoking Hoochie Coochie Gals at your peril - but put your trust in Miriam Arons, at least a kind, decent and honorable serial philanderer, who might actually have the good sense to fall in love with and marry another player, then make a go of the relationship.
Crawford herself would revisit some of this territory in an entirely different part in an entirely different but also wonderful movie, When Ladies Meet. As far as topics of the political-economic power of women, the myriad problems in coupling, cohabitation and relationships, why men and women (straight and gay) choose to cheat even more than Chico Marx did, well, many have tried to address these difficult topics in the many decades since The Women. . . and very, very few have succeeded.
The ads in 1939 say "it's all about men" but it's actually about the political power, social status and roles of women in society - and who's got the power.
There is a dark context throughout the film regarding a quiet tragedy of wasted lives, partly due to societal orthodoxy and marriage mores in 1939 and especially less opportunities for women. No doubt Joan Crawford herself would have been happier in business than she ever was as a movie actress. Joan Crawford's all-time favorite role very likely was as international spokeswoman for Pepsi-Cola and member of its Board Of Directors.
Kudos, bravos and huzzahs to Joan Crawford and all those who made The Women an amazing movie that holds up to multiple viewings. Thanks to Crystal Kalyana Pacey for organizing the Joan Crawford Blogathon and thanks to all the participating writers as well.