Home Classic Movies The Women Movie: MGM’s 1939 Classic All-Female ‘Bitchfest’ Getting 21st-Century Big-Screen Facelift

The Women Movie: MGM’s 1939 Classic All-Female ‘Bitchfest’ Getting 21st-Century Big-Screen Facelift

The Women movie: MGM’s 1939 “bitchfest” is getting some 21st-century restyling. Somewhat ironically, Norma Shearer’s best-remembered vehicle starred the Queen of MGM in one of her most conventional (talkie) roles. (Pictured: The Women movie with Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, and Joan Crawford.)
  • Murphy Brown creator Diane English to write/direct 21st-century The Women movie reboot starring Meg Ryan and Annette Bening.
  • Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s George Cukor-directed 1939 The Women movie original – based on Clare Boothe Luce’s 1936 Broadway hit – is notable for, among other qualities, its stellar all-female cast (Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, Mary Boland, Joan Fontaine, etc.).

Long-gestating The Women movie remake to star Meg Ryan & Annette Bening

Based on Manhattan socialite Clare Boothe Luce’s 1936 all-female stage comedy hit about (mostly) upscale New Yorkers, their men problems, and assorted social/sexual rivalries, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 The Women movie adaptation – directed by George Cukor; and starring the Queen of MGM, Norma Shearer; her studio rival, Joan Crawford, at the time in a career slump; and rising star Rosalind Russell – is the apotheosis of big-screen bitchiness.

Sixty-five years later, another cinematic version is in the works.

Murphy Brown creator Diane English’s feature film debut

According to Variety, the early 21st-century The Women will mark the feature film debut – as writer-director – of Diane English, the writer-creator of the long-running, two-time Emmy-wining television comedy series Murphy Brown (1988–1998).

English had initially been attached as the screenwriter of a planned mid-1990s The Women remake to have starred actresses-producers Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts, with Oscar winner James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, 1983) as director. She has been trying to get the project off the ground ever since.

Julia Roberts has moved on, but Meg Ryan remains on board. Variety states that Ryan, Annette Bening, Sandra Bullock, and Ashley Judd are all in negotiations to star in the remake, while Uma Thurman has been mentioned as a possible addition to the cast.

Betrayed wife Annette Bening

Two-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening (as Best Supporting Actress for The Grifters, 1990; as Best Actress for American Beauty, 1999)[1] is supposed to take over the old Norma Shearer role: cuckolded wife Mary Haines, all sweetness and light, in addition to nobility in suffering, smart taste in clothes, and, if you look closely, a touch of vindictive ruthlessness.

If indeed cast in the film, Uma Thurman will play the scheming, shopgirl/husband-stealer Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford in the 1939 version).

The reboot is to be co-produced by, of all people, Mick Jagger, alongside Victoria Pearman and Christopher Eberts. New Line Cinema is the potential distributor.

The Women movie with Paulette Goddard, Mary Boland, and Norma Shearer. In the picture above, Boland, accompanied by no-nonsense chorus girl Paulette Goddard and Perfect Wife – and soon-to-be Cunning Divorcée – Norma Shearer, is seen reflecting on “l’amour, l’amour.”

1939 The Women movie: Stellar cast

Besides Norma Shearer as Mary, Joan Crawford as Crystal, and Rosalind Russell as Mary’s frenemy and hardcore busybody Sylvia Fowler, MGM’s 1939 The Women movie adaptation features an extensive cast that’s no less prestigious than the one intended for the 21st-century remake, namely:

  • Scene-stealing stage and film veteran Mary Boland (Three Cornered Moon, Ruggles of Red Gap) as the oft-married, oft-divorced Countess De Lave, who delivers The Women’s funniest line (“Oh, the publicity! La publicité!”) – and one of the most memorable performances of the 1930s.
  • Future Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Paulette Goddard (So Proudly We Hail!, 1943), on the cusp of becoming a Paramount star (The Cat and the Canary, The Ghost Breakers).
  • Future Best Actress Oscar winner Joan Fontaine (Suspicion, 1941).
  • Future Best Supporting Actress nominees Lucile Watson (Watch on the Rhine, 1943), Marjorie Main (The Egg and I, 1947), and Ruth Hussey (The Philadelphia Story, 1940).
  • Soon-to-be (minor) leading ladies Mary Beth Hughes (Dressed to Kill) and Virginia Grey (Strangers in the Night).
  • Stage veterans Phyllis Povah, Florence Nash, and Cora Witherspoon.
  • Child actress Virginia Weidler (The Philadelphia Story).
  • Veteran actress/notorious gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Don Juan).

Phyllis Povah and Marjorie Main were the only two The Women movie cast members also seen in the stage production.[2]

Unusually conventional Norma Shearer

Equally of note, the 1939 The Women showcases MGM superstar Norma Shearer in her best-remembered role – which, as it happens, is also one of her most conventional.

After all, the sweet, virtuous – though, admittedly, a wee bit crafty – Mary Haines is no doubt a more ordinary character than, to name a few:

  • The young wife who sleeps with her husband’s best friend in The Divorcee.
  • The sophisticated divorcée who teaches her ex-husband a lesson in worldliness in Let Us Be Gay.
  • The spoiled brat who enjoys being slapped around in A Free Soul.
  • The poetess who defies her tyrannical, incest-inclined father in The Barretts of Wimpole Street.
  • The Austrian-born French queen who not only takes on a younger lover but also ends up with her head chopped off in Marie Antoinette.

Only females allowed on screen

One key aspect of The Women is that although its female characters’ lives revolve around men – loving them, leaving them, being left by them, fighting over them – not a single male specimen is to be found on screen. Off-screen, of course, things were markedly different.

But first, one must acknowledge that MGM’s The Women movie version was – officially, at least – penned by two veteran female screenwriters:

  • Anita Loos (Red-Headed Woman, San Francisco), who also happened to be the author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
  • Jane Murfin (Roberta, Alice Adams), who, in collaboration with actress Jane Cowl, also happened to be a successful playwright (Lilac Time, Smilin’ Through).

Even so, uncredited The Women contributors included at least two male writers:

The men behind The Women

In addition, The Women, like nearly every other movie of the studio era, was produced by a man, MGM stalwart Hunt Stromberg (Naughty Marietta, The Great Ziegfeld), and was directed by another, the previously mentioned George Cukor – on his first gig since being removed from David O. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind. (A quarter of a century later, Cukor would take home an Oscar for My Fair Lady, 1964).

Among the other behind-the-scenes male talent that helped The Women achieve its artistic success were the following:

  • Art director Cedric Gibbons & set decorator Edwin B. Willis (according to various sources, with the uncredited assistance of Jack D. Moore).
  • Cinematographers Oliver T. Marsh & Joseph Ruttenberg.
  • Composers David Snell & Edward Ward.
  • Film editor Robert Kern.
  • Costume designer Adrian.
  • Sound recording director Douglas Shearer (Norma’s brother).

In the 1939 The Women movie clip below, Mary Boland, accompanied by Norma Shearer and Paulette Goddard, reflects on “l’amour, l’amour.”

Bickering females vs. fighting men + Oscar ‘snub’

As per various online sources, The Women was released on Sept. 1, 1939 – the very day Germany invaded Poland.

Reviews were generally positive, with the New York Times’ Frank S. Nugent calling George Cukor’s escapist comedy a “glorious cat-clawing rampage” and “one of the merriest pictures of the season.”

At the domestic box office, The Women was a respectable hit with moviegoers ($1.6 million in rentals); on the downside, hindered by (mostly) men fighting in the deadliest conflagration in history, the female-centered film was only a modest performer internationally ($660,000 in rentals).[3]

Due to its high production cost ($1.7 million; not including marketing and distribution expenses), in its initial run The Women was a money-loser for MGM ($262,000 in the red). A 1947 re-release would push it barely into the black ($52,000 in profits).

Curiously, despite good reviews, solid (domestic) box office, and Mary Boland’s masterful scene-stealing turn, The Women failed to be shortlisted for a single Academy Award.

The Opposite Sex: Unfairly neglected all-star rehash

The first The Women movie remake – like the original, an MGM production – came out nearly half a century ago.

Directed by David Miller, and starring June Allyson (instead of initial choices Esther Williams and Eleanor Parker) as Kay Hilliard (the new “Mary Haines”), Joan Collins as Crystal Allen, and Dolores Gray as Sylvia Fowler, The Opposite Sex – with added color, widescreen, and songs – was released in 1956.

Another notable addition: male actors (Leslie Nielsen, Jeff Richards, Sam Levene, etc.), who were featured alongside the all-star female cast (Allyson, Collins, Gray, Ann Sheridan, Ann Miller, Joan Blondell, Agnes Moorehead, Charlotte Greenwood).

Unfortunately for the studio, name cast or no, The Opposite Sex was a sizable box office flop ($1.5 million in the red). Perhaps as a result, this moderately entertaining comedy-musical is, if remembered at all, perceived as an artistic disaster as well.

The Opposite Sex with Dolores Gray, June Allyson, and Joan Collins. MGM’s 1956 The Women movie remake features an all-star female cast, songs, color, widescreen, and, gasp!, men. Yet despite all these accoutrements, this fairly amusing reboot was a major financial disappointment.

The Women movie remake that got away

Another The Women movie version that shouldn’t be forgotten is the one that never got made.

In the late 1970s/early 1980s, producers Polly Platt (I’ll Do Anything, The Evening Star) and Jon Peters (Eyes of Laura Mars, The Main Event) – not necessarily working in tandem – considered an adaptation of The Women for Platt’s friend and Peters’ then-companion Barbra Streisand.

Joining the 1970s’ top female domestic box office draw would have been two-time Best Actress Oscar winner Jane Fonda (Klute, 1971; Coming Home, 1978) and, according to online sources, another Best Actress winner, Faye Dunaway (Network, 1976).

The Women Movie: MGM’s 1939 Classic All-Female ‘Bitchfest’ Getting 21st-Century Big-Screen Facelift” follow-up post:

‘The Women’ Remake: Critics Deride + Audiences Indifferent to All-Star, All-Female Feminist Comedy.”


The Women Movie” notes

Annette Bening Oscar nominations

[1] September 2019 update: In early 2005, not too long after the announcement that she was to star in Diane English’s The Women movie reboot, Annette Bening received another Best Actress Oscar nomination, for István Szabo’s Being Julia (2004).

A couple of years or so after the 2008 The Women movie came out, Bening garnered her third Best Actress nod (fourth overall), for Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right (2010).

The Women on Broadway

[2] The original stage presentation of The Women, which opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in December 1936 and ran for 657 performances, starred Margalo Gilmore as Mary Haines, Betty Lawford as Crystal Allen, and Ilka Chase as Sylvia Fowler.

Also in the cast: Margaret Douglass, Arlene Francis, Audrey Christie, Adrienne Marden, and the aforementioned Phyllis Povah and Marjorie Main.

The production was directed by Robert B. Sinclair, whose relatively few movie credits include MGM’s female-centered Dramatic School (starring Luise Rainer) and And One Was Beautiful (starring Laraine Day).

A relatively brief 1973 Broadway revival – 63 performances – featured Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Kim Hunter (A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951) as Mary, Marie Wallace (of the TV soap Dark Shadows) as Crystal, and former Warner Bros. star Alexis Smith (Rhapsody in Blue, Night and Day) as Sylvia.

Also in the cast: Jan Miner, Dorothy Loudon, Marian Hailey, Mary Louise Wilson, Doris Dowling, and, in their Broadway debuts, former MGM star Myrna Loy (The Thin Man, Libeled Lady) and 1950s sex symbol Rhonda Fleming (Out of the Past, Cry Danger).

Morton DaCosta, whose rare movie credits include the Best Picture Oscar nominees Auntie Mame and The Music Man, handled the proceedings.

Directed by Scott Elliott, a 2001 Broadway revival – 77 performances – starred Sex and the City actress Cynthia Nixon as Mary and, in her Broadway debuts, Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Jennifer Tilly (Bullets Over Broadway, 1994) as Crystal, and two-time Emmy-winning 3rd Rock from the Sun actress Kristen Johnston as Sylvia.

Also in the cast: Jennifer Coolidge, Lynn Collins, Heather Matarazzo, Amy Ryan, Roxanna Hope, The Golden GirlsRue McClanahan, and, from the 1973 revival, Mary Louise Wilson.

As part of the Public Broadcasting Service’s New York-based affiliate WNET’s “Stage on Screen” series, this production of The Women was aired on PBS stations in the United States.

The Women + The Opposite Sex budget & box office information

[3] Production budget (not including marketing and distribution costs) and box office information about MGM’s 1939 The Women movie and The Opposite Sex: online sources referencing the studio’s Eddie Mannix Ledger, found at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ library.

Inflation-adjusted figures can be found in the follow-up post about Diane English’s 2008 The Women movie remake. (See link further up.)

Note: “Rentals” refers to the studios’ share of their films’ total box office gross. Also, The Women’s international box office figures likely include belated, post-World War II earnings.


Recommended articles

If you liked “The Women Movie: MGM’s 1939 Classic All-Female ‘Bitchfest’ Getting 21st-Century Big-Screen Facelift,” check out:


Cast and other information about the Broadway stagings of The Women via ibdb.com.

Images of Mary Boland, Paulette Goddard, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, and Norma Shearer in George Cukor’s 1939 The Women movie: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

The Women movie clip: MGM / Warner Archive.

Dolores Gray, June Allyson, and Joan Collins The Opposite Sex image: MGM.

The Women Movie: MGM’s 1939 Classic All-Female ‘Bitchfest’ Getting 21st-Century Big-Screen Facelift” last updated in August 2020.

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Angela Texidor -

I enjoyed the remake. It was an interesting take and filled with humor. The original still ROCKS and is part of my film collection. Norma Shearer was fantastic as Mary Haines. I do have to add that the Opposite Sex with June Allyson was not bad either. Once again a different take of the movie.

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Stacey -

I just saw the trailer for the new the women movie. I have to say I am amazingly disappointed. The movie was cast all wrong. Meg Ryan for Mary Haines?????? Are you serious? The Women is probably my favorite movie of all time, and leave it to new Hollywood to screw up an amazing movie! So what’s next Gone With The Wind set in Modern Day Virginia? Write some new original stuff would you please, and leave my classics alone. A perfect example…Rear Window and Disturbia. I walked out of the movie. This should have been a movie for women who could really act, and give it the grace and off the cuff meanness it deserves. Not try to make it into a fluff piece with absolutely no imagination for people who’s careers are in the toilet.

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