"There's a word for you ladies, but it isn't used in high society - outside of a kennel."
It is with this killer exit line, an admission of defeat at the claws of her own sex, that Joan Crawford steals the howlingly funny 1939 bitch-fest that is The Women. While the "b" word might not pass anyone's flawlessly painted lips during this ruthless two-hour satire, the metaphors are so unsubtle there remains no doubt that the stellar all-female cast possesses a bite even worse than its bark.
The BFI has revived this classic as part of a season of films by the director George Cukor, now showing at the National Film Theatre. Cukor was the "woman's director" of Hollywood's golden age. In the same year that he made The Women, he got himself fired from Gone with the Wind, and went on to direct The Philadelphia Story. Capricious and often impossible to work with, Cukor was nonetheless responsible for conjuring memorable performances from powerful actresses like Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Holliday, Rosalind Russell and Elizabeth Taylor. His astonishing body of work, spanning the years 1930-1981, leaves an indelible legacy.
The Women was adapted from Clare Boothe Luce's sensationally successful Broadway play. Although the story deals with marriage, infidelity and divorce,the males remain invisible and silent. It is only ever women who appear on screen.
And what a shower they are: a bored, high-society, New York lunch-bunch, shackled together by their mistrust of men and relentless thirst for strong cocktails and mean gossip. On the periphery of this group is the only sympathetic character of the lot: Mary Haines (Norma Shearer), contented wife of Stephen and mother of Little Mary.
When Stephen strays with a minxy department-store perfume pusher named Crystal (Crawford begged Cukor for the part), word gets out to the poisonous Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell) via a loose-lipped manicurist who paints the in-crowd's nails with the colour du jour: the aptly named Jungle Red. Bloody talons aloft, Sylvia sets out to ensure the devastating news quickly reaches Mary herself.
What follows is a hilarious satire on the choices and decisions women make in order to survive, when they have only the counsel of other women for guidance. Will Mary take her kindly mother's advice, put her pride in her handbag and preserve her marriage? Or will she listen to her scheming friends and ditch the faithless Stephen?
A changing-room stand-off between Shearer and Crawford, who were also box-office rivals in real life, is priceless. When Mary derides Crystal's taste in frocks, Crystal shoots back: "Thanks for the tip, but when anything I wear doesn't please Stephen I simply take it off." Before you can say meow, Mary's mind is made up and she's on the train to Reno, where she'll sit out six weeks on a "divorce ranch" in the only US state that can legally grant fast separations.
The ranch seemingly has a revolving door that sucks in and spits out a steady stream of divorcées, including the sweetly optimistic Countess De Lave (Mary Boland), pushing 60, awaiting her fifth divorce, yet still sticking with her mantra: "Oh, l'amour, l'amour - toujours l'amour!" L'amour can be toujours, it seems, just as long as you don't expect to get it all from one man. Words of encouragement are occasionally shared between the embattled divorcées, but even these are fatally barbed: "Never mind dear, chin up - that's right, both of them!"
After a lengthy period as an understandably un-gay divorcée, Mary finally decides to get her husband back, and realises that the only way to do so is to play Crystal at her own game. "I've had two years to grow claws," she announces, "Jungle Red ones!"
Although this film was a box-office hit, it wasn't the feminists of the time who were queuing up to see it. Anita Loos, who adapted the screenplay from Clare Boothe Luce's script, defended it against the outcry, claiming that it satirized only the shallowest, most spoilt and empty-headed women in rich society.
It does, after all,boast one of the funniest, most audacious scripts of its era. And it is also an unexpurgated portrayal, from a wholly female viewpoint, of the roles that were imposed on women in the early-20th century.
In a post-feminist society, you may think this film sounds like a thoroughly shallow and irrelevant portrait of marriage, but maybe it would be wise to leave the last word to the Countess De Lave: "Wait till you've had as many husbands as I have."
'The Women' is showing at the NFT, London SE1 (020-7928 3232) to 18 Nov
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