Queering Cinema: 'The Women'

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Friday September 23, 2022
Originally published on September 22, 2022

Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell in "The Women"
Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell in "The Women"  

"There's a word for you ladies," says gold-digging Joan Crawford in the 1939 classic "The Women," "but it's seldom used in high society, outside of a kennel." The line is typical of the bitchy dialogue, which was adapted from Claire Booth Luce's 1936 hit play in which she turned her poison pen on the upper-class New York society women she was familiar with and part of.

That line, by the way, was not from Luce, but from screenwriters Jane Murfin and Anita Loos, who, along with director George Cukor, opened up the play for the screen and cleaned up some of the racier dialogue. They did not, though, change the play's conceit, which featured an all-female cast of 130 in speaking roles that ran the gamut of types — from dizzy Countess to shrewdly aware servants who know their livelihood depends on the romantic intrigues of their well-heeled employees.

George Cukor (center) with the cast members of "The Women"
George Cukor (center) with the cast members of "The Women"  

There are numerous reasons why this film should be part of this series, but the major is Cukor, the very out director whose famous pool parties were brought to life in Ryan Murphy's "Hollywood." But his being gay also led to him being the logical choice to direct the film when MGM bought the rights to a project that would only feature women.

After a successful start on Broadway, Cukor relocated to Hollywood and quickly became successful throughout the 1930s. By the time "The Women" came his way, he had directed 17 films and had established his place as Hollywood's pre-eminent director of actresses that led to him being called a "woman's director." He acknowledged that was code for him being gay, which was well-known in Hollywood at the time, and implied that because he was effeminate, he had a simpatico relationship with the actresses he directed who, prior to "The Women," included Katherine Hepburn (four films), Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo and Claudette Colbert.

"In studio-era Hollywood, 'woman's director' didn't merely describe Cukor's skills or the scripts he chose," writes Farran Smith Nehme in an essay on the film on the Criterion Collection website. "They were calling him gay ('not without reason' was the extra hint for the hip). Of course he can direct women, went the argument. He's gay, that means he's effeminate, that means he understands women in a way that macho guys never could."

George Cukor
George Cukor  

At the time, Cukor was famously dismissed by Clark Gable from "Gone With the Wind" because the actor felt he was favoring the female actresses over him; but, tellingly, because he didn't think he would be able to direct a manly man like him. It was even written about by gossip columnist Cal York in a 1939 issue of Photoplay. "To begin with 'Gone with the Wind' is a woman's story... Mr. Cukor, one of Hollywood's finest directors and the man who has directed Hepburn and Garbo in some of their best, is known as a woman's director... Mr. Gable became aware of these two facts and became suddenly unhappy, not without reason, one must admit." Rumors sprung up that Gable's discomfort with Cukor may have been because the director knew of the actor's gay past — he was said to have been a "rent boy" with actor William Haines when he arrived in Hollywood in the late-1920s. Haines, a friend of Cukor, was said to have visited the "Gone with the Wind" set, which made Gable uncomfortable. But the story is apocryphal; In all likelihood Gable's discomfort had more to do with him not liking working with gay men. He was said to have a similar problem when working with Charles Laughton a few years earlier on "Mutiny on the Bounty," and Gable was said to have been influential in having his more macho friend Victor Fleming, with whom he had worked with on "Red Dust" replacing Cukor.

For "The Women," Cukor was something of a referee with his leading ladies, led by Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell. Shearer was the queen of the MGM lot largely due to her husband Irving Thalberg, who was Louis B. Mayer's right-hand man and considered the studio's genius. But Thalberg died not long before "The Women" was to be filmed. Crawford long resented Shearer for her privileged place in the studio hierarchy, which led her to get the first choice of roles. But the shrewd Crawford saw the role of Crystal Allen — the shopgirl out to land herself a wealthy Park Avenue-type — as the film's best part and she pursued it. But her resentment of Shearer carried over during filming and, after a rude encounter, Crawford was forced to apologize to her co-star, though the pair never gelled. Russell played hardball with Cukor over billing, staying away from filming until she received above-the-title billing (though smaller) than her two bigger co-stars.

Cukor did advise Russell to play Sylvia Fowler, the story's villain, as an over-the-top comic gargoyle and she delivers by throwing off her bitchy lines with a screwball-comedy delivery while wearing some of Adrian's most outrageous costumes.

Luce and the screenwriters don't offer any queer characters in the contemporary sense, though the film codes one of the women in Mary's clique as a gay stereotype: Nancy Blake (Florence Nash), a successful writer who wears mannish suits — about as strong a coded image of lesbianism as Hollywood would allow. She is a curious character who early on describes herself as "what nature abhors, I am an old maid. A frozen asset." Despite this odd self-assessment, she is the most likable of the lot, and spends most of her screen time dodging the insults from Sylvia Fowler (Russell), the meanest of these Park Avenue mean girls. When Nancy says she's going to Africa on assignment after her book comes out, Sylvia says, "I don't blame you. I'd rather face a tiger any day than the sort of things the critics said about your last book." Nancy can dish, though, as well. When Sylvia shows off her new nail color, "Jungle Red," she says: "Looks like you've been tearing at someone's throat."

The cattiness drives the comedy, which Cukor directs at a breakneck pace, save when the film focuses on Mary Haines (Shearer) whose husband Stephen's infidelity drives the plot. He has been caught in an affair with Crystal Allen (Crawford), a shopgirl in a ritzy Fifth Avenue store; and it becomes the talk of the town largely through Mary's gossiping friends. Before she knows it, Mary's on the train to Reno. It is there she meets the much-married Countess DeLarge (Mary Boland in a wonderfully campy performance) and Miriam Aarons (Paulette Goddard). If any of these women send out gay vibes it is Goddard in a sexy turn as the cynical showgirl who offers Mary some advice a bit too late for it to be effective. They have unusual chemistry, but it largely goes unexplored. Later in the film when she tells Mary she's going to see Crystal at the nightclub, she promises she'll spit in her eye. "You're passing up a swell chance, honey," Goddard drolly says. "Where I spit no grass grows ever."

Two years pass before Shearer gets to put into practice Goddard's advice. But when she does, she gets to say one of the film's most famous catchphrases: "I've had two years to grow claws mother," as she flashes her neatly manicured nails. "Jungle red." The film cuts to Shearer dressed in Adrian's jazziest clubwear lighting a cigarette ready to fight for her man.

A scene from "The Women"
A scene from "The Women"  

When it arrived on Broadway in 1936, New York City was still in the midst of the Depression, which made it wise for Luce to incorporate the upstairs/downstairs dynamic to drive the narrative with entire scenes set amongst the service workers who offer a proletariat perspective. By the time the film was made three years later, life was somewhat better for most Americans, who most likely saw the film as a vicious satire of the one-percenters of its time, which it is. Cukor does Luce one better by visualizing the play's interplay between the wealthy and those who serve them in a frantic, hilarious opening montage. In it the employees of Sydney's, an elegant Fifth Avenue salon, show their contempt of their wealthy clients with stinging zingers. The sequence sets the vicious tone perfectly. It was also invented for the film, and shows Cukor at his most dexterous.

With its patriarchal construct which leaves women with no agency of their own, it's easy to see criticism of the film as an anti-feminist tract. The tagline of the film is, "It's all about the men," and these women are from decent role models in the way they pursue their men. But, aside from the aforementioned Blake, there is no queer content. That these women could happily exist in a world without men is not considered by Luce as a plot meme, but that could be that she was shrewd enough to realize that would make for a difficult play to produce, let alone turn into a Hollywood film. That these women are so vicious has also led to it being considered an anti-feminist tract. Are women really this mean to each other? Interestingly, though, because of that viciousness, the dialogue became a code amongst gay men. As the critic Christopher Harrity writes (as quoted in the Stanford Daily), "For gay men of a certain generation, 'If you heard a man quoting the film, you knew you were among friends.'"


And then there's Adrian, who was said to have invented Joan Crawford's famous shoulder pad look with this film. Midway through, the action stops for six minutes with the inclusion of a fashion show in Technicolor that shows the designer at his most surreal. "Here is our little peek into the coming season and, a glimpse of the future too," promises the narrator at its start. The fashion show moves from the zoo to a picnic in the country to a theater, finally ending on an abstract backdrop. Between them, Adrian's evening wear is displayed. Cukor was said to have wanted this cut from the film, but the MGM front office disagreed, and it remained because sequences like this were popular at the time and helped promote both ready-to-wear and design patterns that would be published in magazines in conjunction with the film's release.

1939 was also a big year — he also designed "The Wizard of Oz," including the ruby slippers, which currently reside in the Smithsonian. You might think with his resume (which also included "Camille," "Dinner at Eight," "Marie Antoinette," and "The Great Ziegfeld,") "How did Adrian never win an Oscar?" But that was largely due to timing. Costume design was not a category at the Oscars until 1949 and Adrian left MGM in 1941 after designing another Cukor film, "Two-Faced Woman," and finding himself at odds with the director. Garbo also retired with that film, which led him to start his own design firm, bringing his couture looks to the Hollywood elite.

He was openly gay within his Hollywood circle — at least until he married Janet Gaynor, and had a son. "(He) was really thinking beyond convention and living that way too," novelist and Hollywood writer William J. Mann told The Advocate. "He'd walk around town in these capes and this extravagant clothing and was pretty open about being with men. (But) when the Hays Code came in, Adrian looked at changing times and acted accordingly." Mann adds, though, he should not be judged by contemporary standards. "It's important not to pass a contemporary judgment on him. We're not inside his head, and sexuality is fluid."

Mann feels that he remains a gay icon, if not for his outre fashions for "The Women," but also for creating the look of The Munchkins in "The Wizard of Oz." "These are iconographic images in our culture. Hollywood is filled with all sorts of expression of gay creativity, and Adrian's a very big example of it."


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Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].