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VIDEO REWIND : '39 Film Offers Modern Take on Battle of Sexes : 'The Women' boasts a stellar cast, including Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell and Hedda Hopper. And there's nothing old-fashioned about their opinions.

February 16, 1995|MARIA D. LASO

Although divorce and adultery may seem odd subjects for a post-Valentine's Day rental, stick with "The Women" for a range of views on love, most of them quite sensible, and a surprisingly happy ending, with a few tears and plenty of laughs along the way. The 1939 film has fun using the relationships between women (there are no men in the cast) to explore the relationships between men and women.

Norma Shearer plays Mary Haines, who learns that her husband is having an affair--although not before much of her social set has learned it. What ensues is two hours of what brings out the worst--and best--in women in love, with wisdom, wit and feminine wiles.

In the incredible cast, Shearer has top billing, so this is a chance to see a handful of future leading ladies early in their games.

Joan Crawford is perfectly wicked as Crystal Allen, and Virginia Grey gives a smart turn as Crystal's knowing co-worker. Paulette Goddard appears for a featured role as a feisty sister who is the other kind of other woman.

Rosalind Russell is hilarious as the cattiest of the Park Avenue set; her Sylvia and Phyllis Povah's procreative Edith are almost too good to be despised. Joan Fontaine plays the young innocent with faith in romance.

Also watch for level-headed approaches to love from Marjorie Main (a decade before Ma Kettle) and Lucile Watson, plus a cameo by Hedda Hopper as gossip columnist. Butterfly McQueen, who has a couple of lines about cooking a lamb chop, had a bigger role that year as Prissy in "Gone With the Wind."

Two unexpected touches are in the opening credits, which use animals as a hint of what's to come, and the mid-film fashion show: The only part of the movie in Technicolor, it features the creations of MGM star designer Adrian.

"The Women" is based on a successful Broadway comedy by Clare Booth (later Luce), reportedly inspired by gossip that Booth overheard in the women's room of a New York nightclub. Despite the Hollywood censors, most of Booth's best lines made it into the MGM comedy three years later.

In an incredible year for movies, the fine cast earned no Oscars, but the film did well at the box office and can still be appreciated for both its surprisingly modern views and its time-capsule quality on the subject of the relationship between the sexes.

"The Women" (1939), directed by George Cukor. 133 minutes. Not rated.

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