THE WOMEN – “It’s All About Men”…and interior design

Next up in our Hollywood Modern series at the AFI Silver Theater is George Cukor’s 1939 film adaptation of the Clare Booth Luce play The Women (links to clip and trailer).

Poster, THE WOMEN (1939, MGM) - IMDB

Norma Shearer’s husband is having an affair, and her closest friends will do everything they can to make sure she knows it, in this sharp-tongued all-female extravaganza (the husband in question never appears onscreen, nor do any male characters).

The culmination, in many ways, of contemporary interior design of the 1930s, The Women presents a variety of the ‘modernisms’ at play in American design at decade’s end.  With sets designed by Supervising Art Director Cedric Gibbons and Associate Art Director Wade B. Rubottom, and decorated by Edwin B. Willis and Jack D. Moore. 

It kicks off with the fantastic, and fantastical, Sydney’s Salon (named for chief MGM hair stylist Sydney Guilaroff). The salon’s sweeping staircase, high-gloss surfaces, and whimsical decorative touches (giant hand, anyone?) provide the perfect air of luxury and frivolity necessary when opening a film about the romantic problems of pampered women.

Sydney's salon, THE WOMEN (1939, MGM)

After the sleek salon we’re whisked to the country, where we meet the jilted woman in question, Mary Haines. The Haines’ country home is designed in a style that would later be deemed “Hollywood Provincial” (House Beautiful, July/Aug. 1942)–a style where early American designs mingle with colorful patterns and overstuffed furnishings set in comfortable arrangements, conveying an “American ideal of good living” (article quoted in Christina Wilson, p. 191).

Country house, THE WOMEN (1939, MGM)

The connection between furniture arrangement and casual, contemporary, living is also reflected in the Better Homes & Gardens (Feb. 1939) illustration below. Of course, Mary Haines has not one, but two, fireplaces surrounded by a cozy group of furnishings–just right for the less-than-cozy conversations that happen when Mary is out of the room.

"Arranged For Living," Better Homes & Gardens (Feb. 1939)

Mary’s city apartment is much more streamlined, featuring a modern palette of pale colors and rich textures alongside attenuated classical forms. The quilted fabric seen on the furniture matches the drapes – a technique recommended by Anson Bailey Cutts in “Homes of Tomorrow in the Movies of Today” (California Arts and Architecture, November 1938). Quoted in Christina Wilson’s fantastic masters’ thesis Cedric Gibbons & Settings for MGM, Cutts described the movie-modern home as having “cool and harmonious decor” of “almost Greek subtlety.”

City apartment, THE WOMEN (1939, MGM)

A few years earlier, another spread in House Beautiful highlighted interiors that successfully mixed old and new forms to create a style called “Well-mannered Modern” (Sept. 1937)– that could just as easily be used to describe Mary’s city apartment. Shown is a curving leather couch and ceiling-high draperies, flanked by Queen Anne-style club chairs and facing a pair of framed Audubon prints.  A top hat and tails appear next to the photo just in case anyone might wonder who could live in such a posh space.

"Well-mannered Modern," HOUSE BEAUTIFUL (Feb. 1937)

In contrast to the luxe realism of Mary’s apartment, is the “ridiculous” bathroom belonging to her ex-husband’s new wife, Crystal (Joan Crawford). The modern settings graced by Ms. Crawford spans all the way from Art Deco to mid-century modern and beyond-and this is no exception. The set is nothing if not over the top: sculptural glass bathtub atop a glossy platform, fabric ceiling with drop-down shower curtain, Grecian harp towel rack, etc. Even a retail-ready niche filled with the bottles of perfume she once sold at Black’s.  The environment’s design instantly confirms Crystal’s lack of taste and propriety.

Crystal's bathroom, THE WOMEN (1939, MGM)

The last set used by the ensemble cast is also one of the film’s best–the cloakroom (last in a long line of bathroom-set scenes) where we see the final showdown between the good the bad and the ugly.  With matching crown-like mirrors above the dressing table and doors, curvilinear mirrored side table, plump chairs, and a fringed chaise–the room is filled with texture and sheen, but is restrained by a cool palette. It is a design that allows the women, and their dresses, to shine.

THE WOMEN (1939, MGM)

Cloak room, THE WOMEN (1939, MGM)

THE WOMEN (1939, MGM)

The effect is in keeping with the decorating philosophy outlined by Cedric Gibbons in his July 1933 article “Every Homes a Stage” for Ladies Home Journal:

“When a room is designed with neutral tones, it will lend charm to the woman and to her dress…Simplicity of surroundings adds to a woman’s personality; ornate and overdecorated effects depreciate the charm of the woman who moves among them.”

I can’t think of any better words to go out with, when concluding a closer look at the interiors seen in The Women!

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