Category Archives: Joan Fontaine

Hired Wife (1940)

rosalind russell hired wife
A little boy and Rosalind Russell on the set of Hired Wife (1940)

After receiving rave reviews for her lightning fast, electric performance in the screwball comedy His Girl Friday, Rosalind Russell had established herself as one of film’s best comediennes. She was on top of the world and although she resented being “everyone’s fifteenth choice” when she was chosen for His Girl Friday, she was becoming first choice for the popular “career woman” comedies. The downside of this is that she would be typecast in the same type of role throughout the 1940s. Fortunately for movie fans, she enjoyed doing these comedies, even if she didn’t share the same ideals with her career woman counterpart. She wrote in an article in the Los Angeles Times, 1957: “It is simply to keep the goal of marriage and family always ahead of the job.” She’s speaking about the way a career woman can be happy, have a great career, and keep love in her life. Rosalind was incredibly ambitious in her career, but she was never as big a star as some others (Joan Crawford is a great example) partly because she made sacrifices to keep her home life happy and enduring. She started to freelance after she was married because she didn’t want to “belong” to the studio day and night.

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Rosalind Russell in Hired Wife (1940)

She could pick her own films when they came her way and figure out for herself if it was a good idea to take on the project, her husband (and eventually child) always first on her mind. No matter how she felt about these career women she played, she played them damn well. From her first role as a career woman (Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday) to her next ten or so similar roles in her career, she characterized them perfectly. The careers of these women may have varied in the fields in which they worked, but the films almost always started with “My career is the only thing that matters. I don’t have time for love” to ending with “Oh, I love you, darling” as she looks at the man with doe eyes, now wearing a lacy negligee.

In her second such role, the job of her character didn’t seem so important (a secretary), but as the audience observes how fantastically she controls every facet of her boss’s life, it is obvious how important she is. Hired Wife was also the first time Rosalind Russell was teamed with Brian Aherne, and most exciting of all, it was the first time since making Craig’s Wife in 1936 that Rosalind was billed above her leading man. It is a shame that it took this long for her to get this recognition, but at last it had come! She was a star, a star on fire.

rosalind russell brian aherne hired wife
Rosalind Russell and Brian Aherne in Hired Wife (1940)

When Hired Wife commences, we first see Rosalind (as Kendal Browning) jauntily walking down the street to her job, looking free as a bird. Suddenly, the first voice you hear is coming from a friend of hers from Argentina, José. As he graciously asks her if he can “lift her” (give her a lift), she hops inside the car and you can see right away they have a fun relationship. But as the film progresses, Kendal seems to have a fun relationship with everyone, talking freely to all. As José explains that he’s lost another rich girlfriend, she asks him, “What happened, according to you?” As he tells her that she didn’t want to spoil their beautiful friendship, Kendal laughs, calling him by his full name Señor Don José Antonio de Fragoza de Briganza. He confesses that he has “catch a cold in the feet.” Kendal, who is in love with her boss, Stephen Dexter, explains that José was born with a flower in his buttonhole, but when Stephen starts feeling all romantic, usually falling for some blonde, she can’t stand to watch it. In this very first scene, it is amazing to watch Rosalind closely as she involuntarily (I am so sure of this at this point) widens and narrows her eyes in reaction to what her partner is saying. Rosalind was born to do comedy. She had been practicing it ever since she crossed her eyes as a child to get attention.

rosalind russell hired wife
Rosalind Russell in Hired Wife (1940)

Kendal arrives at work and as she crosses the room to get to the back office, it is very reminiscent of the first scene of His Girl Friday. I couldn’t help but think of her newspaperwoman role as she passes everyone, saying hello, making small talk with them as she goes. As she enters her office, she passes her own secretary, a timid little man named William (Hobart Cavanaugh). Yes, Roz towers over him, as she does many of the characters actors in her films. Kendal is a bit apprehensive because it is about springtime and she knows it is around this time that Stephen starts humming the song “Juanita” and looking for a new blonde to go ga-ga over. As she goes into Stephen’s office with her pad and pencil, she first asks William if Stephen is wearing anything (meaning a flower in the buttonhole), but William just stares back at her, confused. Now we meet Stephen Dexter, played by Brian Aherne, whom I always thought was physically a great match for Roz because of his 6 feet 3 inches. His trademark characteristics include his British accent and his mustache. As the film progresses, it is wonderful to see how well Brian’s straight man persona bounces off Rosalind’s hilarious antics. Considering this is their first teaming (of four), I think they mesh together quite well. Immediately, Kendal is controlling everything Stephen does, and we, the audience, get the feeling that this is what she does every day. She tells him everything he will do today and at what time.

rosalind russell hired wife
Rosalind Russell in Hired Wife (1940)

He asks her, “Then can I go home?” She replies, “Yes, after you’ve had a haircut.” She’s beaming because he’s acting like his usual self. So far, so good. Unfortunately, when he needs a pin to attach the flower to his buttonhole, she knows it’s trouble. She takes a pin from William, who is cooing over a bird on the windowsill.

William: Tweet, tweet, tweet. Tweet, tweet, tweet!

Kendal: Ah, shut up!

When Kendal comes back, Stephen is gazing at a billboard across the way with a beautiful blonde on it while humming “Juanita.” Oh, no, the time has come. For the advertising campaign for his company, Dexter Cement, Stephen suddenly has girls on his mind as he decides to change everything. He wants to use a girl in the ad, something feminine that doesn’t even seem to match his product. However, that’s what he wants. As Kendal keeps interjecting with suggestions, he ignores her and wants to find a girl right away. He wants the girl on the billboard he was staring at. He orders Kendal to find her, and Kendal is less than happy in doing so.

Stephen: (talking about the new campaign) It must be warm and it must be human.

Kendal: The cement you love to touch!

Stephen: No!

 

Stephen: Kendal, who is that girl?

Kendal: Well… I don’t know her name, but her face is on the canned tomatoes I use.

rosalind russell hired wife
Rosalind Russell in Hired Wife (1940)

Next thing you know, Kendal is at Phyllis Walden’s (Virginia Bruce) door, wanting her for a posing job. Acting like someone who is too important to bother with anything Kendal says, she says, “Phone me sometime next week, but not before 11.” She asks if it will be a big campaign, and as Kendal looks Phyllis up and down, she responds, “I think it’ll be one of his biggest.” The hostility between Kendal and Phyllis is immediate and strong. Phyllis can tell what kind of woman Kendal is, so she secretly has lunch with Stephen the next day without Kendal’s knowledge.

Kendal: William… back to the keys!

Phyllis and Stephen like each other right away and it’s apparent that Phyllis will be Stephen’s Spring Blonde. A laugh-out-loud moment occurs when he explains to Phyllis that his secretary suggested using an elephant as a symbol of strength for his advertising campaign. “Strength doesn’t appeal to men. Now take me. I’m a man. Well, here’s a picture of you (holds out his left palm toward her) and here’s an elephant! (holds out his right palm near an overweight man at the next table, who stares at him in disbelief) Oh, sorry, I was just illustrating a point.” And the comedy doesn’t stop there. Kendal calls Phyllis up and the phone is given to her. Kendal informs her that the posing job is off, that Stephen changed his mind, and too bad. He left for Chicago this morning and there’s no way he will change his mind again. Not knowing that Stephen is sitting next to Phyllis, she has no idea she’s being laughed at. Phyllis squeezes the phone between her and Stephen so they can both listen to Kendal as she explains exactly what Stephen said to her:

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Rosalind Russell in Hired Wife (1940)

Kendal: He said, “You call up Miss Goofy Face and tell her she can’t peddle her pan to Steve Dexter.” It’s just that women are things to him. He said, “Listen, kid, scrap that ‘girl on the bag’ idea.”

Phyllis: The cad! Are those his exact words?

Kendal: Oh, I never quote Mr. D’s exact words. I had such bitter notes from the telephone company.

In order to get back at Kendal for what she did to him, Stephen returns to the office, speaking little snippets of Kendal’s exact words on the phone: “Sorry, kid.” “Oh, I suppose they were flying to Chicago, too.” “That ‘girl on the bag’ stuff is out. She can’t peddle her pan to Steve Dexter. Eh, kid?” As soon as he utters that last line, Kendal knows exactly what’s going on and closes her eyes painfully, making a face. They get into a shouting argument, Kendal angry that he “dated her behind my back!” Finally, she gives up and says she’ll let him do whatever he wants. She doesn’t care. She leaves his office and this funny exchange happens:

rosalind russell hired wife
Rosalind Russell in Hired Wife (1940)

Kendal: I won’t stop you. I’m through!

Stephen: That’s better.

Kendal: For me, not for you. Close it, butch!

Meanwhile, some men from a big company with big bucks are trying to buy Stephen out. Both companies had put a bid in on a subway job and Stephen won the bid fair and square. The bigwigs want to file an injunction and eventually bankrupt Dexter Cement. They threaten that they will tie up everything he owns and knowing they’re fighting dirty, Stephen makes a speech, proclaiming, “I’m going to be foolish and fight [you men].” As he gives this speech, it is evident how much Kendal loves him. Anyone can see it in her eyes. Later in the office, Kendal, Stephen, and his lawyer Roger Van Horn (Robert Benchley) start kicking around ideas to get out of this mess. They finally get an idea when William comes in, mentioning that his wife makes him put everything he owns in her name. They all decide Stephen has to get married right away. And who else would Stephen pick but Phyllis? Kendal is upset because she doesn’t want Stephen to marry a woman who doesn’t love him. Once Stephen marries, they will put everything he owns in his wife’s name in order to escape trouble from the opposing company.

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Brian Aherne and Rosalind Russell in Hired Wife (1940)

Kendal: (About marrying in New York) No use. You have to wait three days in New York.

Roger: The law says 72 hours.

Kendal: My mistake.

As Kendal objects to Stephen marrying Phyllis, he shouts out to her, “You know how to talk to a woman!” Sadly, she says, “Yes…” But immediately her face lights up, getting a bright idea: “Yes!”

Kendal (Talking about Phyllis) Well, I can’t drag her here by her phony eyelashes!

When Kendal visits Phyllis to tell her Stephen needs a wife for business purposes, she subtly hints that Stephen is basically buying her as a wife and it is purely a business arrangement. Phyllis begins to believe Kendal is making up ridiculous stories and gets angry: “Silly-looking, aren’t you?” “Uh-huh!” “Oh, I love your lies. They’re not very good, but they’re very, very funny.” She tells her she intends to marry Stephen eventually, but not now.

Phyllis: You were born to be a cop, and the only way you’ll ever get a man is by arresting him!

Once Kendal arrives at the airport without Phyllis, Roger and Stephen suddenly get the idea that Stephen should marry Kendal. They can trust her and she’s a woman. That’s all they need. When they get to South Carolina to marry, they watch a young couple in love being married before them. Kendal’s eyes fill with tears at the magical, happy scene before her, and at the same time, her tears are for her and Stephen because their marriage will be a sham—one without love on both sides.

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Rosalind Russell in Hired Wife (1940)

Nevertheless, they do get married and when they arrive at Stephen’s house, he signs some papers that Roger has ready for him. Roger, who keeps falling asleep mumbling nonsense and snoring, is sent home by Kendal, who promises to take a taxi home. As Stephen goes into the kitchen to get Kendal and himself glasses of buttermilk, Kendal lights a cigarette, looking around the room. Suddenly, she feels the wedding ring on her left hand and frowns, wondering what she got herself into. As Stephen and Kendal sip their buttermilk, which they both loathe, they laugh and pour it into the dirt of a potted plant. Now that he is married to her, Stephen thinks they can do anything a married couple would do. He kisses her, but as he leans in close to her face again, she stops him, telling him that she is a liar and she didn’t become his wife honestly. He now knows how Kendal manipulated Phyllis and he gets angry. As she walks into the living room, she shouts, “Besides, I don’t like being kissed by a man who keeps his eyes closed!” “Well, they’re open now!” As she makes her way to the front door, he tells her she’s fired. She says, “Yes, Stephen,” turns, and leaves.

rosalind russell brian aherne hired wife
Rosalind Russell and Brian Aherne in Hired Wife (1940)

Fortunately for Kendal, she knows that Stephen can’t possibly get on without her. Predictably, he comes to her home the next morning as she hums happily, making popovers in the kitchen. They go back to the office, but not before Kendal takes a hat off the refrigerator, puts it on her head, unzips her dress to reveal a “work” dress underneath, and informs him that he’s coming with her. And he utters that repeated line: “Oh, Kendal, what am I gonna do about you?” They look in the paper for their marriage announcement, which they discover is on the sports page. Stephen plans to keep dating Phyllis in spite of his marital status and Kendal just laughs about it because he hasn’t told Phyllis yet (“She isn’t conscious before 11”) and he isn’t single (legally) anymore. Right before they arrive at work, he says to her, “I wish I could afford to strangle you.” No words are necessary. She simply smiles at him with a funny giggle in her throat. It is funny, adorable, and perfect.

Kendal: (reading the marriage announcement) Oh, the fools! Don’t they read the proof? I’m not 92!

 

Kendal: (talking about Stephen and Phyllis) You two are going to have cozy evening, chatting about your bachelor days.

 

Kendal: (talking about Phyllis) I’m sure she doesn’t read anything but the cold cream ads… IF she can read.

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Rosalind Russell, Brian Aherne, and Virginia Bruce in Hired Wife (1940)

In the office, the employees have arranged a celebration of their marriage with flowers abound. Phyllis arrives, wanting to see Stephen. She doesn’t know about the recent marriage and when Stephen goes out to see her, he tries to hide the celebration from her. But when she sees rice come off him, she stomps into the office. Kendal sees her and for Phyllis’ benefit, she mentions Stephen as her husband twice. Another visitor comes into the office. This time it’s José, Kendal’s friend. He mistakes two men for Kendal’s new husband, even kissing Roger on the forehead, which he doesn’t seem to like. Kendal and Roger are sure the marriage will be found out to be a fake, so they decide Kendal should move in with Stephen. Roger also moves in as a sort of “chaperon” for Kendal. Kendal moves into Stephen’s bedroom and he moves in with Roger in the other bedroom. Roger plays a little ukulele and starts singing “Little Brown Jug” as Stephen moves all his clothes and things into the other bedroom. Stephen joins in at the “HA, HA, HA!” parts, which is amusing.

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Rosalind Russell and John Carroll in Hired Wife (1940)

The next evening, Stephen takes Phyllis out. Kendal makes sure to show up, inviting José along. They intrude on Stephen and Phyllis and sit at their table.

José: Is she a blonde?

Kendal: This year.

José: Is she a very blonde blonde?

Kendal: She’s almost invisible.

As Stephen dances with Phyllis on the dance floor, José and Kendal concoct a plan for José to seduce Phyllis to get her out of the picture. Kendal will supply all the money to José to woo her and it would be a secret between them. When Kendal and Stephen start dancing, they have to smile and keep up appearances, even though they are saying insulting things to each other. What follows is a tender, sad scene. Kendal may be all fun and games, wisecracking all day, but when she gets home at night, she cries herself to sleep. You can’t help but feel sorry for her!

rosalind russell brian aherne joan fontaine on the set hired wife
Rosalind Russell, Brian Aherne, and Joan Fontaine on the set of Hired Wife (1940)

And so the love triangle starts between Stephen, Phyllis, and José as they both battle to woo her almost every day. Meanwhile, Kendal is writing checks for all of José expenses. One night, she is doing this and Stephen comes home. She puts a check in his hand and pretends José was leaving anyway. He leaves Kendal and Stephen alone in the house.

Kendal: But José, $75 for one bird?

José: It talks.

Kendal: Well, for that amount of money, it ought to read, write, and vote.

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Brian Aherne and Rosalind Russell in Hired Wife (1940)

Stephen tells Kendal that the big guys backed down and he wants a divorce now. He is nice about it. He gives her a check and a plane ticket to go take a vacation. She responds by ripping them up, not intending to do anything of the sort. She likes being Mrs. Stephen Dexter. She runs out on the terrace, bangs on the table loudly, shouting “Yoo-hoooooo, yoo-hoooo!” She wakes up Roger and Stephen tells him he wants a divorce, but Kendal isn’t willing to give him one. After Roger tells him if Kendal fights, the divorce may take years, Stephen gets angry. “Oh, you like being Mrs. Stephen Dexter, eh?” He backs her straight into a bench and they fall down on it hard. He violently kisses her all over, not letting go of her. She screams, “Mother!” as if her mother could come whisking by and save her. He even knocks an earring out in the process and Stephen yells out to Roger: “How can I get rid of this woman?” “Not that way.” Roger says he will testify to an annulment, that there never really was a marriage in the first place.

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Rosalind Russell and Brian Aherne in Hired Wife (1940)

Unfortunately, this doesn’t go well for Stephen. Kendal leaves that night for her home, but Roger is not aware of this. However, he does see Stephen leave their bedroom for his own that was once occupied by Kendal. As he watches him sneak in there, he assumes he’s going in there to sleep with Kendal. The next morning, Stephen is happy as a clam and Roger is very suspicious of him. Kendal comes back, running up the stairs to get her clothes. Neither of the men know she is there. She listens in on Roger’s suspicions from the upstairs window and gets an idea. She lets a handkerchief fall out of the window down into Roger’s lap and he knows something’s up. When Kendal comes down for breakfast in a nightgown, Stephen knows he’s in trouble. “I already said good night to Stevie.”

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Brian Aherne and Rosalind Russell in Hired Wife (1940)

The next day back at the office, Stephen and Kendal are deciding which men should be sent to different locations around the country.

Kendal: He’d be glad to get away from Denver and that little redhead.

Stephen: Oh, is she his secretary, too?

Kendal: Yeah, I see what you mean.

Kendal believes Stephen really loves her and won’t let him go.

Stephen: I promise you until I have a beard down here, I’ll never lay a hand on you… except maybe in anger.

Suddenly, Kendal is in trouble when the judge who married them in South Carolina arrives and tells them that his license expired four years ago. That means their marriage is not legal. Stephen is happy about this, but Kendal is not. After the judge leaves and Kendal realizes she’s been licked, she gets angry and before she leaves Stephen’s office, she gives his rear end a good, swift kick.

rosalind russell brian aherne hired wife
Rosalind Russell and Brian Aherne in Hired Wife (1940)

José and Phyllis arrive at the office, ready to go away to be married. José told Phyllis a tiny bit of the truth about himself, but not all. However, she does learn the truth as Roger brings in a bunch of checks made out to José. So Stephen and Phyllis try to usher José and Kendal out, knowing they both double-crossed them. Kendal tells Phyllis to just tell her two more words, pointing her two fingers at her as if to poke her eyes out. She almost does when Phyllis says emphatically: You’re pathetic!

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Rosalind Russell in Hired Wife (1940)

When José and Kendal leave, Phyllis and Stephen suddenly have two conversations at once. Phyllis goes on and on about José, while Stephen does the same about Kendal. They suddenly realize they are with the wrong mate and go after José and Kendal. They find them on a double-decker bus and Stephen climbs on the bus, while José goes down into the car on the street. Stephen smiles at Kendal, glad to be with her.

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Brian Aherne and Rosalind Russell in Hired Wife (1940)

Kendal: Darling… did you remember to put Kelly in Kansas City?

Stephen: Oh, Kendal, what am I going to do about you?!

 

 

IMDB page for Hired Wife

TCM oveview of the film

A clip from the movie:

The Women (1939)

rosalind russell the women
Rosalind Russell in The Women (1939)

When it came to the movie that finally made Rosalind Russell a bona fide star, The Women, she made a few smart decisions, even if one in particular was underhanded and not very professional.  Although Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford were much bigger stars than she was, Rosalind was determined to have her name billed above the title and wasn’t willing to settle for “with Rosalind Russell” after the title. So this is what she did: after much of the movie had been shot, she pretended to be sick.

She wrote:

“You couldn’t pull that trick in the first few days, they’d just replace you. I never attempted it again in my whole career, and I only did it that once because I had a feeling I could make it work…Norma Shearer wouldn’t give in on the billing, so I wouldn’t come to work. I wasn’t holding up production, they had plenty to shoot, but I let it be known that I was going to be under the weather for quite a long time.

I lay out in my garden, looking up at the sky, and every day Benny Thau, who was in charge of talent and their problems, would phone and ask how I was coming along, and I’d say, ‘Not very well. I don’t feel very well.’

rosalind russell the women
Rosalind Russell in The Women (1939)

The last time he called—it was the third or fourth day of my strike—he said, ‘Oh, something happened this afternoon. Norma Shearer says you’re so good in this film that she’s going to allow you to be starred too.’

‘That’s very nice of Norma,’ I said.

Pause. Then Benny spoke again. ‘Do you think,’ he said, ‘you’d feel well enough to come to work tomorrow?’

‘Hmm,’ I said. ‘I’ll call my doctor, Benny, and I’ll make a stab at it.’

Not only did The Women bring her the stardom and recognition she yearned for, it also brought her to the attention of the man who would become her husband of 35 years.

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Rosalind Russell in The Women (1939)

On the voyage to America, he watched The Women on board, the only movie they would show, and Rosalind’s crazy antics caused him to proclaim: “I’m either gonna kill that girl, or I’m gonna marry her.” And marry her he did.

Although Miss Russell had some trouble getting the bigwigs to believe she would be good as the vicious, gossipy Sylvia Fowler, she gave a rather exaggerated screen test that made them finally believe in her. The Women is a film full of women with no men in sight. The tagline says it’s “all about men,” but it’s more about the women in the film and the complicated relationships between friends and enemies. There are many different types of women represented in the film, from the good wife (Norma Shearer) to the gold-digging hussy (Joan Crawford) to the fiercely disloyal gossip monger (Rosalind Russell) to the naïve, timid newlywed (Joan Fontaine) to the older, more experienced mother of many (Phyllis Povah). I could go on and on, but these are quite a few of the different characters represented.

joan crawford norma shearer rosalind russell the women
Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and Rosalind Russell in The Women (1939)

When the movie opens and it starts with two female dogs yapping at each other and then we start to see the cacophony of yappity-yap from the mouths of the human females inside Sydney’s salon, it sets the scene for this film.  We can all tell gossip will be a very important component of this film and how it damages others, as funny as the situations are. Incidentally, the first star the audience sees is the first creature shown—the dog who plays Toto in The Wizard of Oz, which was released the same year as The Women. The first prominent character we see in the film is—ta-da—Rosalind Russell as Sylvia Fowler! She couldn’t look more bored as she sits in her chair, getting her nails done, while reading a magazine, her glasses dangling from her mouth so precariously.

joan crawford rosalind russell the women
Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell in The Women (1939)

The manicurist, Olga (Dennie Moore), is rattling off one rumor after another, but Sylvia’s ears do not perk up until she hears the name of her friend and cousin, Mrs. Haines. It is not long before Sylvia is on the phone, spreading the rumor to another friend, Mrs. Edith Potter (Phyllis Povah), who has children (all girls) crawling all over the place. She informs her friend that “Stephen is stepping out on Mary” and “wouldn’t it be ghastly” if Mary was to hear about it? And “won’t it be too tragic, eating her food and knowing all about her husband?” This scene allows us to have a peek at what type of person Sylvia is.

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Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, and George Cukor on the set of The Women (1939)

Let’s just say we wouldn’t want to have her as a friend. It also reflects the opening titles, which have each actress and character represented by an animal. For example, Mary (Norma Shearer) is a docile deer, Crystal (Joan Crawford) is a predatory cheetah, and Sylvia is a black cat, hissing. No, the black cat is not your friend and no, you do not want this black cat to be your friend.

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Joan Fontaine, Rosalind Russell, and Norma Shearer in The Women (1939)

Sylvia is due to be at Mary’s house later that afternoon for lunch. In the meantime, we meet Mary, who is riding horses with her daughter, dubbed Little Mary (Virginia Wiedler). They appear to have a very close, fun relationship. Mary is very excited about a yearly trip to Canada she takes with her husband—to the spot where they had their honeymoon about ten years earlier. Her guests soon start coming in. As Edith arrives, we find Sylvia in the living room chatting her head off with Peggy (Joan Fontaine) and Nancy (Florence Nash) in the room with her. As Sylvia takes off her jacket to reveal a blouse underneath that has eyeballs on it, Nancy cracks, “Great guns, what are you made up for, the Seeing Eye?”

joan crawford rosalind russell the women
Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell in The Women (1939)

“You better save your cracks for your next book, dear,” Sylvia fires back. Little Peggy is clearly the youngest of the lot and hasn’t been married very long. It is obvious how naïve she is by the way she talks. This type of character is one that Joan Fontaine would go on to play to great acclaim in Rebecca the following year. As much as Sylvia loves to gossip with Edith, she isn’t safe from her insults. “Oh, Edith, you are a bore!” she says at one point and after Edith leaves the room, she continues, “I’m devoted to Edith Potter, but she does get me down.”

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Rosalind Russell and Norma Shearer in The Women (1939)

When Nancy insinuates that Sylvia wouldn’t hesitate to tell Edith about her husband’s flirty habits, Sylvia says, “I’d die before I’d hurt Edith,” to which Nancy replies, “Nuts?” holding out a bowl of nuts. This is a funny little trick because Rosalind does the same thing 19 years later in the movie Auntie Mame:  In response to what someone has said, she holds out a bowl of nuts, saying, “Nuts?” Sylvia goes on about how it may be possible Mary’s husband is straying. The deliciously funny banter between Sylvia and Nancy the novelist is great. Nancy: “Oh, you’re so resourceful, darling. I ought to go to you for plots.” Sylvia: “You ought to go to someone.

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Hedda Hopper, Rosalind Russell, Norma Shearer, and Joan Fontaine in The Women (1939)

Another one—Nancy: (talking about Mary) “She’s content to be what she is.” Sylvia: “Which is what?” Nancy: “A woman.” Sylvia: “Oh, and what are we?” Nancy: “Females.” Sylvia: “And what are you, pet?” Nancy: “What nature abhors—I’m an old maid, a frozen asset.” A lot can be said about this absolutely brilliant screenplay, which was mostly written by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin based on the play by Clare Booth Luce, but a lot of writers contributed to it, including the famous author F. Scott Fitzgerald. That wonderful, biting dialogue is to die for!

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Joan Fontaine, Rosalind Russell, Florence Nash, and Phyllis Povah in The Women (1939)

Before Mary comes in to greet her guests, Sylvia finally gets Edith in the bathroom, telling her more details about the rumor. Stephen has been seeing a woman named Crystal Allen who sells perfume at Black’s, Fifth Avenue. It is clear how Sylvia thinks she’s better than working class people; the way she looks down her nose at the fact that Stephen is seeing a woman so obviously beneath him is proof.

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Suzanne Kaaren, Joan Fontaine, Phyllis Povah, Norma Shearer, and Rosalind Russell in The Women (1939)

In the middle of all this, Sylvia doesn’t pass up the chance to insult her friend: “You know I go to Sydney’s for my hair. Oh, you ought to go, pet. I despise whoever does yours!” Also, when she complains about the sort of creature Olga the manicurist is, it is ironic how it so accurately describes her: “You know how those creatures are—babble babble babble—a lot they care whose lives they ruin!” And that’s just what Sylvia’s set out to do.

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Rosalind Russell and Norma Shearer in The Women (1939)

As Mary finally comes out to meet her friends, Sylvia starts right away in trying to get Mary to go to Sydney’s Salon, showing her the nail job they did on her. She smiles mischievously and devilishly puts her hands together after Mary makes it a point to remember Sydney’s and Olga’s names.

 

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Rosalind Russell, Norma Shearer, and Phyllis Povah in The Women (1939)

In the next scene, Mary goes to Sydney’s just like Sylvia wanted her to and gets her nails done by Olga. Just like with any other customer, Olga quickly starts telling Mary the rumor about her husband. Mary is shocked and hurt by what is being said and Olga doesn’t realize the damage she is doing because she doesn’t know Mary is Mrs. Haines. Now Mary knows everything, including the woman’s name—Crystal.

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Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, and Norma Shearer in The Women (1939)

Before you know it, she is crying to her mother about her husband’s betrayal. I enjoy this scene because although her mother has very old-fashioned ideals, telling Mary she must ignore it and go on with her life and marriage as is, Mary is adamant and says she will not stand for it because giving in to it is “shockingly wrong.” Mary is acting more of a feminist than her mother is—at least for now. While Mary goes off to Bermuda with her mother to get away from her husband, her friends, and the rumors, Sylvia and Edith stroll over to Black’s to get a peek at Crystal for the first time.

 

paulette goddard rosalind russell the women
Paulette Goddard and Rosalind Russell in The Women (1939)

As Sylvia and Edith look around the shop, they know right away which one is Crystal as soon as they see her. Played by Joan Crawford, this man-eater has only one thing on her mind—getting herself out of this job as she uses her wiles on Stephen more and more. When Stephen calls her up at the shop, even though she has that tough kind of voice, as soon as she speaks on the phone, her tone has turned to such a sugary sweet one, working on getting sympathy from Stephen. This is a very funny bit because Virginia Grey (whose only scene is this one) is a co-worker of hers and the whole time she’s on the phone, she’s wisecracking about everything she says. As soon as Crystal hangs up, she declares: “Can you beat him? He almost stood me up for his wife!” But before she can leave to meet him, she has to go attend to some customers who asked for her by name—Sylvia and Edith, of course.

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Rosalind Russell, Norma Shearer, Joan Fontaine, and Florence Nash in The Women (1939)

As Crystal waits on them, Sylvia keeps looking her up and down and when Crystal mentions that “so many men” come into the shop that there would be no way that she’d remember someone named Stephen Haines, she responds, “I shouldn’t think you’d let that disturb you.” Crystal is getting fed up with Sylvia obviously (disguised as subtly) mentioning Mary’s name, trying to pry her for details. As Sylvia and Edith leave, Crystal “mistakenly” calls her Mrs. Prowler. Sylvia glares at her and corrects her: “Fowler!” She is convinced Crystal said it on purpose and declares she will have her fired and will go to management immediately. Suddenly, she and Edith fall into a cart headfirst that has come their way.

 

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Rosalind Russell in The Women (1939)

Mary and some of her friends go to a fashion show at a posh clothing store and Sylvia is looking as wild and crazy as ever—large hat sticking straight up into the air, a very strange, ill-fitting dress, snapping her chewing gum loudly, and knitting while talking a mile a minute. It has been said that Norma Shearer was rather annoyed by Rosalind’s loud gum chewing, which was something she only did when she was working on a set and nowhere else. However, the director liked this part being added to Sylvia’s character so he let her keep chewing while the cameras rolled. This scene includes a color fashion show sequence which is about five minutes long. It is gorgeous to see the outfits and models in color—some outfits that were outrageous, some beautiful—although it adds nothing to the plot.

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Rosalind Russell in The Women (1939)

It is after this fashion show that we see another complicated relationship of Sylvia’s—with the model named Princess Mara (Suzanne Kaaren)—causing Sylvia to snap at her, “I may not be a model, lamb, but nobody disputes how I wear clothes!” after Princess Mara insinuates that Sylvia’s husband flirts with her. As Princess Mara walks away, Sylvia shouts hilariously, “Did you get her innuendo?!” They all discover that Crystal has also come to the shop and Mary sees her for the first time. It makes her feel sick to see her and she immediately goes to a dressing room to try on a dress. It is obvious Stephen is “buying” Crystal because she is buying everything in sight, despite being just a perfume salesgirl.

mary boland norma shearer rosalind russell joan crawford paulette goddard phyllis povah the women
Mary Boland, Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, Paulette Goddard, and Phyllis Povah in The Women (1939)

Suddenly, Sylvia calls outside Mary’s dressing room: “Yoo-hoo! May I come in?” Before Mary can respond, she bursts into her dressing room and tells her to go in and confront Crystal. She says she doesn’t want Mary to be made a fool of, but Mary’s faux friend only wants to start some trouble to satisfy her incredible thirst for gossip. She keeps getting into Mary’s face about the situation, buzzing around her like a bee, even at one point appearing behind Mary and showing up three times in the three-sided mirror so there are four Sylvias.

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Norma Shearer, Joan Fontaine, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, and Mary Boland in The Women (1939)

After Sylvia mentions that Crystal was spending time with Mary’s daughter, Mary stomps over to Crystal’s dressing room and confronts her, telling her to stop seeing her husband and especially her daughter. They have a very heated verbal confrontation, which ends with Crystal saying to Mary, “Thanks for the tip, but whenever I wear something that doesn’t please Stephen, I take it off.”

 

norma shearer rosalind russell paulette goddard the women
Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, and Paulette Goddard in The Women (1939)

The next day, Sylvia, whose mouth never gets a rest for a second, is doing some leg lifts with her exercise instructor. She does several of these lifts until she lies on her back and proclaims: “Ohhh, I am simply exhausted!” Sylvia, are your legs exhausted or just your mouth? Next, her instructor has her crawling up the wall slowly with her feet. Sylvia says to her, “The way you say that makes me feel like vermin.” The instructor replies, “That shouldn’t be too much effort… I mean, crawling up the wall.” Even after Peggy comes in late, they don’t actually get very much exercise done at all.

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Rosalind Russell in The Women (1939)

What is mostly apparent are the wisecracks going back and forth between Sylvia and the instructor, such as Sylvia mentioning that most of her friends exit a room horizontally. Sylvia has other things on her mind when Edith bursts in, having some more juicy dirt. Sylvia would much rather exercise her mouth muscles than any muscles in her body. She informs her instructor she is done and when the instructor objects, Sylvia asks her, “Look, whose carcass is this, yours or mine?” The instructor responds, “Yours, but I’m paid to exercise it.” “You talk like a horse trainer,” Sylvia says. “Well, Mrs. Fowler, you’re getting warm,” says the instructor, ending the conversation. Edith tells Sylvia that she accidentally told Dolly Dupuyster (Hedda Hopper, in a role similar to the woman herself), a gossip columnist, that when Mary confronted Crystal in her dressing room, she socked her.

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Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford in The Women (1939)

It was something Sylvia told her, even though it never happened. Edith wonders how Sylvia will fix this and Sylvia gets up, saying, “Well, I’ll just tell them you were lying! Oh, let the story ride. It’ll all be forgotten in the morning. Remember the awful things they printed about what’s her name before she jumped out that window? See, I can’t even remember her name, so who cares, Edith?”

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Norma Shearer and Rosalind Russell looking like they are having lunch in between takes of The Women (1939)

Before you know it, Mary is getting a divorce from Stephen because the story is all out in the open about her confrontation with Crystal. She prepares to catch a train to Reno as her husband’s secretary comes over to get her to sign some papers. This is Ruth Hussey in a very small, insignificant role. She would be noticed a lot more the next year in her turn as Liz in The Philadelphia Story. Peggy, who has also had a falling out with her husband, Johnny, is also on the train with Mary to Reno. She cries the whole time, not really wanting to divorce him. Mary doesn’t want to divorce Stephen, either, but she tries not to let it show.

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Joan Fontaine, Florence Nash, Rosalind Russell, Norma Shearer, and Marjorie Wood in The Women (1939)

It is on the train that we meet a few other colorful characters—the ever poetic, much-married Countess De Lave (Mary Boland) and Miriam Aarons (Paulette Goddard), a younger woman who has a sarcastic wit. It becomes the Countess De Lave’s trademark catchphrase to declare “Oh, l’amour, l’amour!” everywhere she goes. She is in love with love, but she always picks the wrong man, now getting divorced from her fourth husband. At the ranch for the divorcing women in Reno, the proprietor is Lucy, played by the always funny Marjorie Main.

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Poster of The Women (1939)

Miriam tells the Countess that she has been having an affair with Howard Fowler, who is Sylvia’s husband. Barely before she has let this little secret out, Sylvia has shown up at the ranch (“Who the heck is paging l’amour?”), ready to divorce Howard.

 

This is probably the most famous and well-known scene of this delightful movie. Edith has sent Sylvia a letter with the latest gossip, as well as a clipping from a column naming Miriam Aarons as the woman Howard left Sylvia for. Miriam quickly backs away and gets on her horse to take a ride. Sylvia runs over to her, grabbing the reins.

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Rosalind Russell joking with Paulette Goddard in Paulette’s dressing room, obviously before or after shooting the famous catfight scene

Forming her mouth into a big “O” and staring at her with those widened brown eyes, Sylvia starts to call her a name when Miriam fires back: “Don’t you call me names, you Park Avenue playgirl! I know a lot more words than you do!” Sylvia pulls Miriam off the horse and just as Miriam is about to hit her, Sylvia screams, “Don’t you dare strike me! I’ve got glasses on!” “Well, now you don’t!” Miriam takes the glasses off and hits her. Sylvia makes the most outrageous face and Rosalind breaks that rule that tells you that you cannot look straight into the camera.

paulette goddard rosalind russell the women
Paulette Goddard and Rosalind Russell in The Women (1939)

However, she does it anyway and it is priceless. Sylvia pulls Miriam’s hair and pulls down her skirt. Horrified, Peggy exclaims, “Oh, Sylvia!” It is funny how Miriam, who is a good four inches or so shorter than Sylvia, is a much better fighter than Sylvia. Sylvia is clumsy and even accidentally strikes the horse. Just when it looks like Sylvia is beat, she lifts her head and sees Miriam’s leg right in front of her. Licking her lips like she’s about to eat something delicious, she sinks her teeth into her leg.

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Paulette Goddard’s leg and Rosalind Russell in The Women (1939)

Miriam shrieks and hops away from the scene. Sylvia is not done with her crazy antics. As Mary helps her up off the ground, Sylvia starts wailing like a child and screaming hysterically, “I hate you! I hate you! I hate everybody! I hate everybody!” while breaking every single dish and object within her reach. She can’t be calmed down and Lucy carries her away, shouting, “Mrs. Fowler, you’ve got the high-sterics!”

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Rosalind Russell in The Women (1939)

Miriam calls Mary a coward for “deserting” Stephen when it’s obvious he doesn’t love Crystal the way he loves Mary. Suddenly, Mary is very happy to finally receive a phone call from Stephen. Unfortunately, it is only to inform her that he has just married Crystal. She breaks down into fits of tears, not believing this is really happening. It is also on this trip that the Countess has already found a new man, a man with a southern drawl named Buck Winston. In general, he sounds like a loser, but the Countess is smitten. Some time passes and by this time, the Countess has married once again—to Buck.

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Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford in The Women (1939)

Crystal has become bored with her life as Stephen’s wife and has initiated an affair with Buck Winston. Sylvia also shows herself to be as disloyal as can be. She is not friends with Mary anymore and is now on Crystal’s side. She bursts in on Crystal while she is taking a bath. She shouts her usual “Yoo-hoo! May I come in?” but come in she does. Sylvia soon learns about Crystal’s affair with Buck Winston, whom she calls “the chambermaid’s delight.” She picks up the phone before Crystal does and it’s Buck. She snorts and cackles in loud laughter, telling her he didn’t say anything: “Not a thing, not a single thing, he was singing!” and she goes on to mimic his strange yodeling.

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Rosalind Russell in The Women (1939)

This all culminates in the last few scenes. At a happening club, a bunch of the ladies have gathered, including Crystal and Sylvia. Most have learned that Sylvia has been seeing a therapist and is absolutely ga-ga over him, even though the therapist, Dr. Sylvester, just wants to laugh at her absurdity. After Mary has heard from her daughter that Stephen really doesn’t love Crystal after all, she excitedly gets up to go to the party, too. When her mother asks her where she’s going, she laughs and proclaims: “I’ve had two years to grow claws, Mother!” She dramatically holds up her manicured hands. “Jungle Red!”

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Rosalind Russell in The Women (1939)

In the large powder room, some women have gathered there to touch up their makeup. This scene includes a walk-on appearance by Barbara Pepper, who was famous for her role as Doris Ziffel in the 1960s sitcom Green Acres. She has one line, but it’s a good one. After telling her friend that her boyfriend wants to stay with his wife for Easter, she tells her she had asked him, “What do they expect you to do, lay an egg?” And just like that, she’s gone.

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Joan Fontaine, Florence Nash, Rosalind Russell, Norma Shearer, and Marjorie Wood in The Women (1939)

Mary has arrived and she is on a mission to get back at both Sylvia and Crystal. Sylvia enters the room with Crystal, arms around each other like they are the best of pals. As they are leaving, Mary subtly mentions Dr. Sylvester’s name and Sylvia walks right into a wall, she’s so interested. She pretends to leave and then comes back in, talking in a small, sweet voice as if she’s so innocent: “Hello, Mary.” As Mary tells her that the doctor grew a long beard so that Sylvia couldn’t see him laughing at her, Sylvia asks her where she got her information. “From Crystal!” Sylvia attacks: “Why, the rotten little… I’ll—I’ll slit her throat!”

joan crawford rosalind russell the women
Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell in The Women (1939)

As the news of Crystal’s affair with Buck Winston has been let out in the open downstairs and upstairs, Crystal is on her way up to see Sylvia. Three of the smallest women in the room grab Sylvia (it looks awkward, but it’s funny!) and push her into a closet, locking it. Crystal comes in, looking for her. Someone opens the door and Sylvia screams, spilling out of the closet, many pieces of clothing stuck to her. Sylvia blames it on Mary for getting the secret out of her, which is not hard to do.

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Clockwise from bottom left: Phyllis Povah, Paulette Goddard, Rosalind Russell, Norma Shearer, Florence Nash, and Mary Boland in The Women (1939)

It only takes a minute before Crystal finds out Buck isn’t rolling in dough because the Countess is financing him. It also doesn’t take long for Sylvia to once again switch sides and be at odds with Crystal. Crystal sighs and says, “Well, I guess it’s back to the perfume counter for me,” and delivers one of the most iconic lines: “Oh by the way, there’s a name for you ladies, but it isn’t used in high society–outside of a kennel.”

 

The film ends with Stephen arriving at the club (unseen, of course, because there are no men in the movie) and Mary running toward him, arms open for him to take. This ending irks me because she is running back to a man who cheated on her and she could at least demand an apology or something for all the pain he has caused her. But I suppose that’s just the way it was sometimes with marriage and infidelity in those days.

IMDB page for The Women (1939)

TCM overview of the film

The trailer: