Women, The (1939): Cukor’s Casting

Claire Booth’s stinging play, about the cattiness of upper-crust wives and mistresses was a smash-hit on Broadway. Somewhat reminiscent of Dinner at Eight, desperation underscores the comedy, though Booth’s work is less cynical. Unfortunately, a great number of the funniest lines were blue-penciled by Hollywood censors. “The most innocent jokes about sex were banned,” recalled Anita Loos who, along with Jane Murfin, was credited for the script.

Cukor’s genius for casting was once again evident in The Women. The all-female ensemble was particularly appropriate to the facilities of MGM, a studio always boasting more impressive female than male stars. “The cast was a wonderful combination of personalities,” Joan Fontaine recalled, “Cukor cast each woman very skillfully.” And Loos, who considered Cukor one of the few truly creative directors at MGM, observed: “Cukor could detect hidden qualities in an actress that would make a star of her.”

The first to be cast was Norma Shearer. With a large piece of MGM in her pocket, Shearer was still powerful in 1939, and with this privileged position, she had no trouble snagging the lead role. Though a straight and humorless character, Mary is the center of the story, or as Cukor said, the glue that holds everything together.

As soon as she heard about the film, Joan Crawford announced that she wanted to play Crystal Allen, the tough perfume girl who steals Mary’s husband. Crawford, who had been labeled “box-office poison” after a string of lackluster films, knew that a prestige film like The Women, with its all-star cast, could boost her career. Crawford began an active campaign to win the role. But Louis B. was appalled at such a radical divergence from her established screen image; Crawford usually played strong career women. “It would offend your fans if you played such a cold-hearted bitch,” he told her. Louis B. did not stand in her way, but refused to go out of his way to help, telling his star she would have to convince producer Hunt Stromberg and Cukor.

Stromberg was also dubious about Crawford, fearing her inclusion would offset the film’s balance. Besides, the part was too small for an actress of her stature. But Crawford, knowing the part was a gem, held to her guns. The hard-boiled Crystal had bite, and though the part was small, Crawford knew she would stand out–the other women had sympathetic parts. Stromberg left it up to Cukor.

At the time, Cukor had little respect for Crawford; she was too much of a mannered movie queen. They had met in l935, on the set of No More Ladies, a vehicle, which Cukor took over when director Edward G. Griffith fell ill. “Miss Crawford,” he said during that shoot, after a long speech he particularly disliked, “You remember your lines, which is fine, now try to put some meaning into them.” Crawford was shocked–No director had spoken to her in this manner before. “George is a hard task-master,” she later said, “he took me over the coals, giving me the roughest time I have ever had. And I am eternally grateful.” Cukor did respond to Crawford’s feisty personality and ambition; he respected the fierce determination with which she played each role.

Another factor motivated Crawford’s campaign for the role. She relished a direct confrontation with Shearer, now that Thalberg was dead. Thalberg and Shearer had always condescended to Crawford, perceiving her as a pushy, working-class girl–a duel had been building up for a decade. Now, for the first time, MGM’s two queens would be in a film together–cast as rivals.

Rosalind Russell, another ambitious actress, was also trying to get away from her “nice girl” image, when she begged for the part of Sylvia Fowler, the gossipy gadfly. “I must have taken several particularly deep drags of oxygen,” she recalled in her book, “the day I went after a flashy part in The Women. MGM had tested everybody, but Lassie and Mrs. Roosevelt, for the film.” Competition was fierce; even the small maids’ roles were being fought over.

One day, looking very smart after a visit to the Elizabeth Arden salon, she drove out to Metro and marched straight into Stromberg’s office. “I want to play Sylvia,” she said, “why haven’t you tested me” “Well, Roz,” he said, “You’re too beautiful.” This caught her by surprise. “We want somebody, who gets a laugh just by sticking her head around the door.” Russell was considered a dramatic actress, but not a comedienne. But in the spirit of fairness, Stromberg arranged a test.

Cukor was less than thrilled. “I don’t want you in this part,” he said, “I want Ilka Chase, she’s a friend of mine, she played it in New York and she’s right for it.” But they went onto a soundstage for the test, and Russell asked if the camera was fully loaded. She then proceeded to play the scene in three entirely different ways: as drawing room comedy, more realistically, and then in a flat out exaggerated style. Impressed, Cukor told Russell the next day she could start the fittings for Sylvia’s wardrobe.

The Women was also a breakthrough film for Joan Fontaine. Fontaine’s career as a leading lady at RKO had not been successful, and she was terribly insecure about her acting. Cukor’s direction gave her the confidence she lacked. “This film was a turning point,” Fontaine said, “It was the first time I had a director who showed me that acting was not standing in front of a camera reading lines. Up to that point, directors had not bothered.”

“The magic words of acting,” Cukor told Fontaine, “are, ‘think and feel,’ the rest will take care of itself.” She maintained that Cukor’s simple advice is the nucleus of acting, and the best advice any actor, male or female, can get. “We just rehearsed a scene and shot it,” Fonatine said about Cukor’s technique, “We didn’t do any intellectualizing. George was against Method Acting, because it kills the spontaneity and emotion of the role.”

Cukor’s aversion to Stanislavsky (and later Lee Strasberg’s Method) was known from his stage days. A famous story circulated of how Dorothy Gish asked Cukor during rehearsals for Young Love to explain her motivation for crossing the stage. “Just motivate your ass over there and sit in that chair,” Cukor told her.

Fontaine recalled Cukor’s habit of standing behind the camera, acting a scene as it was being shot: “He moved as if his whole soul was reaching out to you to call the performance from you.” Cukor’s distinctive talent was empathy–his actors believed he cared about their work. Kindness, humor and wit were tools Cukor used to finesse consistently strong, often surprising performances from his stars. “He wasn’t a marshmallow by any means,” Fontaine quickly added, “he could be caustic, but he did all to help you do the best job.”

Faced with an all-female cast, studio publicists couldn’t feed gossip columnists with the usual spicy tales about romance, so they embellished all kinds of stories about the feuding stars. Poor Cukor, they were saying, referring to his directing 135 women, a dozen of them stars. “In a sense you had to be a lion tamer with all those ladies,” Cukor said. Cukor would later cite Hedda Hopper (who appeared in a small role): “I always thought it a pity that we didn’t have room for Mae West in that picture. She would have taught these gals the meaning of the word sex.”

The Women was actually one of the easiest film Cukor ever directed. He explained it rather simply: “When one deals with stars, he is dealing with intelligent people. If they weren’t intelligent, they wouldn’t arrive at the star pinnacle. Stars understand the business. They have learned that a show of temper gets them nothing, save perhaps a salary suspension or at least headache.” At the end of shooting, Cukor sat back and smiled, for he won a new lucrative contract on the merit of The Women.