Gilda usually scrunches up her face when I tell people I like watching old movies, especially movies from the 1930’s. Though she too can be fascinated by some of the theatrical treatments of history, or some of the libertine values depicted in early 1930’s movies, before the Hays Code was strictly enforced, she mostly leaves me to enjoy these cinematic treats by myself.
I was feeling just a little self-conscious about this disposition for old movies when I heard an excerpt from a Barbara Walters interview of a few years ago with Don Hewitt, aired last night on 60 Minutes as part of a tribute to the deceased creator of that iconic television news program. Hewitt admitted to being uncomfortable with the 21st century, that he was “still living Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.” But, Walters countered, “You produce a news magazine that has to be up to date?”, to which Hewitt replied, “Maybe having a foot in the past helps you deal with the present better.”
I couldn’t agree more. Here’s an example:
With all the news (do we really have to dignify it by calling it “news”?) about the philandering ways of Tiger Woods, Mark Sanford, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Alex Rodriguez...oh, the list can go on and on, it was fascinating to watch the 1939 film, The Women.
The Women tells the story of how infidelity by the husband of socialite Mary Haines impacts the lives of their family, friends and household staff. Keep in mind that with the exception of director George Cukor, all the main contributors to The Women were female. Originally a stage play written by Clare Boothe (Luce, though the title credits did not note her married name), the script was adapted for the screen by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin. All the actors were women. Not one man was seen or even heard.
The story is a snapshot of the mores and lifestyles of the 1930s, at least those of the privileged class, many surprisingly similar to those of today. You’ll find the scenes at the health spa particularly current.
You might think that 70-80 years ago was an ancient and prim time, but consider this bit of dialog by the aggrieved Mary and her mother, who confides that she too had to deal with a wayward husband 20 years earlier:
Mother: This story isn’t new. It comes to most wives. Stephen is a man. He’s been married 10 years.
Mary: You mean he’s tired of me?
Mother: He’s tired of himself. Tired of feeling the same thing in himself. He’s got to feel something new. He’s got to feel young again.
Unlike a woman who can redo her wardrobe, hair style or redecorate her home to reinvigorate her life, says Mary’s mother, “a man’s got only one escape from his old self, to see a different self in the mirror of some woman’s eyes.”
While worrying about their continued employment, Maggie, the cook, and Jane, the maid, reflected on the state of matrimony:
“You know,” said Maggie, “the first man that can think up a good explanation how he can be in love with his wife and another woman is going to win that prize they’re always giving out in Sweden.”
Asked if she believed in marriage, Maggie snipped, “Sure I do, for women; but it’s the sons of Adam they got to marry.”
After Jane related that during a bedroom argument she overheard Stephen Haines telling his wife to think about their nine-year-old daughter, Maggie observed, “No woman wants to be told she’s being kept on just to run a kindergarten.”
Throughout the film the repartee is snappy, perhaps too witty for real-life conversations, but the context and appeal of The Women are timeless.
And in one of the more startling lines of the script, Mary’s mother comforted her now divorced daughter by saying, “Living alone has its compensations. Heaven knows it’s marvelous being able to spread out in bed like a swastika.”
I had to remind myself that this script was written in the mid-1930s, that the swastika symbol had been around for some 3,000 years before its usurpation by the Nazis. Until roughly 20 years ago it was a widely used term for retail apparel displays, now called four-ways.
The Women has been reprised several times, most recently in 2008. If you’re at all interested in good cinema, do yourself a favor and opt for the 1939 version.