The BFI's Joan Crawford season, celebrating the legendary star, is running at BFI Southbank this September.
As a fully paid-up member of the Joan Crawford fan club (Jonny Guitar remains a favourite western of mine, in large part due to her performance) it was my pleasure to see the George Cukor-directed 1938 satirical comedy THE WOMEN tonight. Stuffed to bursting with a football pitch-worth of female hollywood stars - Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russel and Joan Fontaine are just a few, in a film with top names seemingly happy to turn up in minor roles - Crawford purrs her way to the top even in a supporting turn, and it feels appropriate therefore that the BFI showcase this film as the highlight of their season celebrating the legendary actress. Crawford, as a shamelessly man-pilfering social climber called Crystal, gets some of the sharpest, slinkiest lines in the film, most of them shot full-force towards her rival in love: the more straight-arrow middle-class housewife, Mary (Shearer). Crystal is soon the talk of the town for going after Mary's husband, and she doesn't care who knows it. She seems, for most of the film, to be winning the fight too.
Anita Loos’ and Jane Murfin’s screenplay frames the Crystal-Mary feud against a rich backdrop of gossip, sisterly solidarity, money worries and much ranting about the caddishness of men that fills up the diaries of the disparate group of Manhattan women that circle around Mary's life. Intriguingly, not a single man appears on screen during the entire running time, making this film seem like a revolutionary act even if men, and marriage, makes up a good chunk of the female conversation. The more obvious satirical jabs at high society's peccadilloes and penchants, such as the opening sequence featuring a bravura tracking shot through the gossip-drenched rooms of a salon where only a good scandal tip-off is allowed to interrupt a good facial, makes it hard to judge how seriously the film wants us to take certain main characters when they express what we might call a more 'conservative' approach to sexual politics. Should we be laughing, or taking this as the film's 'message'? Treating your husband's infidelity as something partly your fault, for not kicking his lover's ass hard enough to impress him, is not a sentiment likely to impress modern audiences. But the huge number of women in the cast, and even the maids and cooks get a few minutes on screen to shoot the shit, mean we get a wide range of alternative views expressed on the intersection of marriage and masculinity and how women should deal with men's bullshit, with lashings of whip-crack smart humour in the mix to balance out the heaviness. Crackingly good stuff.