On Tuesday, July 29 at 7:00pm, the Napa Valley Opera House will screen the 1939 MGM classic comedy, The Women. This year marks the 75th Anniversary of what is considered the greatest year of filmmaking in the history of Hollywood. Everything that encompassed the art, across the board in every category, peaked that year. Every major studio was represented in the Oscar nominations. Whether with a title, director, performer, composer, cinematographer and host of engineers and designers – “Hollywood” had reached a pinnacle. It was the year of Gone with the Wind.
Among the Top 10 most popular feature films of 1939 is the outrageous comedy, The Women. The film is directed by George Cukor – who was readily acknowledged as a “woman’s director”. His major films at MGM during Hollywood’s Golden Age featured the studio’s top ranking female stars: Norma Shearer, Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford. During the next forty years of his career Cukor would go on to direct Ingrid Bergman, Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, Sophia Loren, Jane Fonda, Audrey Hepburn, and Maggie Smith. Cukor was the original director of Gone with the Wind, but was quickly replaced with Victor Fleming who had just finished The Wizard of Oz. That left Cukor available to direct one of the hottest properties in town – The Women.
The film would feature MGM’s most prestigious female star – the “Queen of the Lot” – Norma Shearer. That is, if she would just sign the contract! Cukor knew that Norma was perfect for the role of Mary Haines – a beautiful New York socialite whose Wall Street broker husband has been stepping out with a money-hungry sales clerk from the perfume counter at Blacks. Norma yawned – she wasn’t interested.
In the meantime, Joan Crawford was busy clawing her way into getting hired as the said floozy, Crystal Allen. The Women was to be a “prestige picture”, i.e., it would be given “The Works” – including a brilliant advertising campaign which stressed that, even though there are no men in the cast – “It’s all about men!” Crawford was very aware that the role of Crystal Allen was a supporting role and that her #1 rival, Norma Shearer, would get top billing – assuming she would sign the contract. Crawford knew that the role of Crystal Allen would give her career the boost it sorely needed.
The film absolutely changed the career direction of another of its supporting stars, Rosalind Russell. Cukor wanted the comedy style of the meddling Sylvia Fowler to be very broad, loud and aggressive. His direction liberated Rosalind Russell into a mode of comic expression that would inspire a wealth of new scripts for her.
Norma was smart and beautiful. Her late husband – MGM’s “wonder boy”, producer Irving Thalberg – had kept her on the lookout, about everything. The final contract was drawn up – among other details, her name would be above the title and larger than that of her co-stars. Norma signed. Arriving early on the set, she used her charm to get her dressing room trailer pulled forward into an ever-so-slightly more prominent position. Norma had already won her Oscar for Best Actress (The Divorcee, 1931) and had been nominated four more times since then, including her performance in 1938 as Marie Antoinette. As Mary Haines, Norma Shearer’s place in popular film history was secured. The Women grew into a cult favorite in the early '70s, was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 2007, and has become an amazingly popular title on Turner Classic Movies.
The Women needs to be experienced with an audience. It’s gimmick is that there are no men in the cast, even a dessert is called “Pancakes Barbara”. George Cukor’s amazing rapport with his superstar lionesses (who go through several coats of a nail polish called “Jungle Red”) resulted in a unique comedy that is a major focal point in Hollywood’s grand year of 1939.
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