Women, The (1939): Crawford and Shearer Feud–Cukor as Lion Tamer

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.

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.

But 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.

Cukor anticipated a showdown, and it finally happened, when Crawford and Shearer were preparing their big confrontation scene at the fashion show. The actresses were running though their dialogue together, a common courtesy on the set. Crawford, sitting in a chair, was “feeding” lines to Shearer while knitting with large needles that clicked noisily. Shearer took it for a few runthroughs, then asked her to stop. Conspicuously rude, Crawford ignored her.

Irritated, Shearer finally turned to Cukor and said, “George, I think Miss Crawford should go home now and you can give me her lines.” Outraged at Crawford’s behavior, Cukor reprimanded the actress, asking her to leave the set. Later, he gave her one of his famous lectures.

Secretly, Cukor enjoyed the temperamental feuds between his stars. The fan magazines also needed such stories. Both women were in their own ways experts at self-publicity and–the ‘feuds’ was good copy and they helped to promote them. Rumors actually circulated that Shearer had initiated the choice of Crawford as Crystal, knowing that their juicy scene, fighting over the same man, would attract audiences to the theaters. But the two actresses never spoke to each other once this scene was completed.