Women, The (1939): Cukor Makes Rosalind Russell Comedienne

Like Shearer, 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.

Russell was only a few lines into her first scene when Cukor stopped her. “No, no, no,” he said, “do it like you did it in the test. The very exaggerated version is the one I want.” Russell was horrified, “Mr. Cukor, I can’t do that, the critics will murder me.” “You have a big following at Loew’s state in New York,” said Cukor, “but in Waukegan, Illinois, they’ve never heard of you. Now you do it the way I tell you.” Cukor explained that Sylvia was breaking up a family and there was a child involved. “If you’re a heavy, audiences will hate you. Just be ridiculous.” Cukor was right: Though frightened to death, Russell did it exactly the way he said. “Everything that came to me from The Women,” Russell acknowledged, “my reputation as a comedienne, I owe to George.”

Cukor was an endlessly inventive director, always coming up with bits to enhance a scene or characterization. When they were shooting the ladies room scene with all the women, Cukor suggested to Russell, “After they leave, I want you to look at your teeth.” “What” asked Russell. “When you girls make up in front of people,” he reasoned, “you make up one way, and when you’re alone, you make up another.” Russell bared her teeth to the mirror, and eventually got credit for an inspired moment–courtesy of Cukor.

Under Cukor’s direction, the nuances in all the women’s speeches were witty. Uncharacteristically, Cukor even made a few textual suggestions, like adding the famous line of Mary Brian, who played the Countess–“l’amour, l’amour.”

The day they shot the fashion show sequence, Russell was running lines with Shearer while practicing her knitting, a bit she needed for the scene. Russell was chewing gum, her head bent over her needles, and her glasses had slipped down her nose. She was unaware that Cukor was watching. Cukor announced they were ready to and an assistant gave Russell a Kleenex for her gum. But he stopped her, “I want her to chew gum in this scene.” Cukor was always observant, always alert to new possibilities.

Shearer, however, was not thrilled by the idea. As it was, Russell, with her non-stop chatter, dominated their scenes together. “Is she going to knit and chew gum and let those glasses hang down on the end of her nose in a scene with me” Shearer complained. “Who can compete with that” “Yes, she is,” was Cukor’s assured answer, “Now let’s go.” Feigning sympathy, Russell said, “I don’t blame you kid, it’s rough,” pretending to understand her irritation. But then she went ahead joyfully with her lines. The scene was filmed precisely as Cukor wanted it.

With Cukor’s help, Russell grabbed hold of the part without worrying about being unsympathetic. Though broad, her delivery rang true. She played the bitchy gossip so outrageously that audiences actually found her irresistible.

One of the film’s comic climaxes was the fight between Russell and Paulette Goddard, who steals Russell’s husband, at the divorce ranch in Reno. The two women scratched, bit and kicked their way through seven sets, requiring eight changes of costume before the sequence was completed. The fight took 3 days to shoot. Cukor shot the rough-and tumble scene at the end, so that any black eyes or sprained ankles engendered by the fight would not affect the budget.

With her teeth clenched, Goddard starts the fight by giving Russell a kick in the ass. Russell loses her balance and pitches forward on her face. Shearer ineffectively tries to stop Goddard hitting Russell, who bites Goddard’s left leg. At the end, Goddard rubs her bitten leg, while Russell sits up and squeals in tearful rage. Goddard took the bite only in the long shot of the scene. In the closeup, the leg belongs to Mary Beth Hughes, who was chosen because her underpinnings resembled those of Goddard.

To prepare his actresses for the scene, Cukor made them study famous female screen fights, which included the battle between Marie Dressler and Polly Moran in The Callahans and the Murphys, Ginger Rogers and Frances Mercer in Vivacious Lady, and Alice Faye and Constance Bennett in Tailspin.

Goddard, a woman with exceptional allure, had usually played the coquette on the screen. But in this movie, Cukor wanted something else. “Look, kid,” he told her, “just forget those female tricks of yours, and try to give the best imitation you can of Spencer Tracy!”

Shooting completed on June 28, l939, but a new problem emerged: the credits. Shearer demanded that her name appear above Crawford in all the ads. But having lobbied hard for a role designed to elevate her status, Crawford managed to slip her name above the title too. The billing was settled to read “Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford in The Women. But then Russell waxed aggressive and demanded her name over the title with the other two. Her strategy was a four-day sick leave from the set. Russell’s “sickness” ended only when MGM moved her name above the title, albeit in type only half as large as that of Shearer and Crawford.

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 arrived 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.

There is going to be a premiere to end all premieres, Cukor told Russell, inviting her to enter the theater on his arm, with their thousands of fans cheering. Cukor thought it might be good publicity for the picture if they were married in the ‘forecourt’ after the show. For her part, Russell asked him to “put it in writing, in Waterbury we don’t fool,” and noted that her mother wanted to see the prenuptial Dowry and that she had just wired Louella and Hedda about their love. Russell asked for a decent support of their child, but said she would settle for a good picture with him–“I refuse to come back to you until you get me the proper vehicle. If Sylvia contributed in any way to The Women, it is because of you, your faith, your generous help.”