An immensely popular play by Clare Boothe Luce before it hit the silver screen, George Cukor’s sharply-directed film adaptation of The Women became an instant comedy classic upon release. The 1939 MGM comedy seethes with genial malice between its all-star female cast, continuing to entertain upon its 75th anniversary in 2014. Starring Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell and a deliciously shrewish Joan Crawford, it milks the Park Avenue society for every bit of comedic gold from their marriage foibles.
The Women uses an all-female cast to examine the various personalities found in high society of the period, an array of conniving husband snatchers, gossips, and cutthroat gold-diggers. The driving force in the movie was the social institution of divorce, a largely new phenomenon among the American wealthy in the Thirties, and how it affected their lives. Socialite Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) seemingly has a perfect life, content in her family and marriage. She is the central protagonist of The Women, as her fate determines its changing mood from comedy to melodrama, and back again.
Mary has a gaggle of loose friends in her wealthy circle, always gossiping about husbands and their possible infidelities. While the women are friendly with each other on the surface, there are deep-seated resentments underlying the niceties between them. Sylvia (Rosalind Russell) leads the pack, a nasty person that likes to spread rumors for her own gain. Sylvia hears from a manicurist that Mary’s husband is cheating with a perfume counter girl, Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford). Sylvia spreads the information around their circle of associates for her own purposes, knowing it will eventually get around to Mary and emotionally devastate her.
Without giving too much of the plot away, Mary confronts Crystal at a fashion show. It does not impact the movie’s flow but the fashion show has a spectacular Technicolor sequence that was an impressive gimmick to film audiences in the Thirties. The story proceeds as a battle of wits between the virtuous wife and opportunistic temptress. Mary truly loves her husband while Crystal is solely interested in using him for his money. That battle lies at the heart of the heated cat fights.
The comedy bits have classic fast-paced banter common to the era, harkening to the film’s roots as a play. Lines are delivered fast and furious, barely allowing a beat. Some of the ideas and assumptions inherent in the premise are quaint relics of an earlier era, likely offensive to some raised in a post-Feminist era. The women in Mary’s elite social circle are shown as entirely dependent on the whims of their husbands, forced into quickie ‘Reno divorces’ so the men can proceed on with their lives unabated. Divorce is clearly portrayed as a tool used by men to dump their original wives for younger women. The Women to its credit does not dwell heavily on moralizing, preferring to deliver laughs most of the time through verbal barbs and the ladies’ duplicitous treachery.
While the central thrust of The Women is not entirely relevant to modern audiences, its sharp-witted comedy and fine acting by a bevy of stellar names makes it a very watchable film. Hollywood must love the concept as the movie has been remade at least twice, once in the 1956 as The Opposite Sex, and more recently in 2008 under its original title.
Warner Bros. has restored The Women to pristine condition for this Blu-ray transfer. A gorgeous, film-like transfer from exemplary film elements, it contains all the hallmarks of a new film scan made at 4K resolution with minimal video processing. The 1939 movie’s black-and-white cinematography is remarkably crisp, displaying excellent black levels and sinewy shadow delineation.
Given a quality AVC video encode averaging over 22 Mbps for the main feature, the original grain structure has been retained with complete clarity. This is some of Warner’s best restorative work on a catalog title, bringing out every possible detail in the original negative without introducing added ringing artifacts.
Properly presented at its native aspect ratio of 1.37:1, the 1080p video also includes the absolutely stunning Technicolor sequence. Intended as eye candy for the changing whims of movie audiences, The Women’s five-minute scene during the fashion show looks incredible with perfect color saturation, possessing a razor-sharp quality rarely found on vintage films of this age. It will make a viewer wish they had filmed the entire movie in the expensive Technicolor process. This is definitely some of the highest quality Technicolor footage to hit Blu-ray.
If one has any interest in film preservation, this impressive transfer of The Women has to be seen on a large display. It is one of the best vintage restorations you will see for a movie that won’t light up the sales charts.
The Women was recorded in monaural sound using the Western Electric Sound System. A fine 1.0 DTS-HD MA soundtrack on the BD works shockingly well, showcasing a pleasing fidelity for the dated mix. All dialogue is presented in a clean, intelligible manner, backed by a decent orchestral score from David Snell and Edward Ward. While the audio has its limitations, the sonic presentation sounds good compared to other soundtracks from the era on BD.
A 1.0 Castellano Spanish Dolby Digital dub is offered as an alternative to the native mix. English SDH, French, Castellano Spanish and Latino Spanish subtitles are all choices, displaying in a white font.
For this 75th anniversary edition, WB has included a number of quirky, vintage special features relevant to the film. A commentary would have been a nice addition, since the film probably needs a little historical context for casual viewers. I’m giving extra credit since the easy thing to have done here was a barebones release.
Another Romance of Celluloid: From the Ends of the Earth (10:20 in SD) – A vintage promotional short intended to highlight upcoming MGM films in 1939. It uses the conceit of showcasing far-flung locations across the globe, the sources of props and other elements found in their movies.
Another Romance of Celluloid: Style Center of the World (11:07 in SD) – Another promotional short for MGM’s films, this time highlighting how influential the fashions seen in Hollywood films have on the American woman.
One Mother’s Family Cartoon (08:44 in SD) – An unrestored MGM cartoon from 1939, one that might have played before the main feature in a movie theater of the period.
Alternate Black-and-white Fashion Show Sequence With Different Footage (06:14 in SD) – This was the intended alternative to the stupendous Technicolor scene. It evolves a little differently from the Technicolor take, as the fashion models actually interact a bit with the cast. This footage has not been restored to any degree and looks far worse than the actual movie presentation.
Scoring Session Music Cues (38:37 in 2.0 Dolby Digital at 192 kbps) – Most of the film’s instrumental cues are presented in clear fidelity, showing little wear or age.
The Women trailer (03:27 in SD)
The Opposite Sex (03:45 in SD) – The 1956 musical remake’s trailer.
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Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.