Back to the Perfume Counter: Joan Crawford in The Women (1939)

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It is Joan Crawford month at Turner Classic Movies, with sixty-two of her features airing on Thursday nights in January. Today I’ll be looking at one of her scene-stealing supporting turns, as the gold lamé digger Crystal Allen in The Women (1939, screening on 1/16 at 8PM on TCM). It was directed by George Cukor, recently the subject of a complete retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Cukor was canned from Gone With the Wind a month before shooting started on The Women, and it was a fortuitous re-assignment. The Women was based on the hit stage comedy by Clare Booth Luce, trumpeted as having ran for 666 performances at the Ethel Barrymore theater. Famed for having an all-female cast, Cukor’s movie claimed that even its animals were of the fairer sex. A sensitive director of actresses, Cukor elicits a wide range of performances from his volcanically talented cast. Norma Shearer is the nominal lead, projecting regal innocence as news of her husband’s infidelity is smeared over the tabloids. Rosalind Russell is her loudest friend, a motormouthed gossip buried under headscarves and microscopic hats. Cukor was fondest of Joan Fontaine, one of his discoveries, perfecting her shaking leaf naivete. But the one who hip-swivels away with the picture is Joan Crawford.

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Crawford had first worked with Cukor on No More Ladies (1935). The original director, Edward H. Griffith, took ill, and Cukor was brought in to finish the film, uncredited. Crawford was impressed with his work, telling Charlotte Chandler that he was “the director who, hands down, helped me the most. She went on to say that, “his words stayed with me always, so he was actually directing me later when I worked with lesser directors.” The character of Crystal is selfish, cruel, and rather irresistible. She gains a kind of integrity from being brutally honest about her intentions. Louis Mayer warned her against accepting the role, worried that playing such an “unsympathetic” character would upset her fans.  Cukor valued how Crawford “made no appeals to audience sympathy: she was not one of those actresses who have to keep popping out from behind their characters, signaling, ‘Look…it’s sweet lovable me, just pretending to be a tramp.” 

She is not introduced for a good thirty minutes, the name of “Crystal” thrown around as a particularly vile piece of trash. Her name begins as an idle piece of gossip passed along the routes of a Park Avenue spa, traversed by Cukor in a series of long tracking shots. It circulates from the loose lips of a manicurist to hyperactive social butterfly Syliva (Russell), who spreads her venom throughout town. Crystal, it appears, is a trampy perfume counter girl is breaking up the happy home of Mary (Shearer) and Stephen Haines. By the time Crawford appears as Crystal, she’s been given a buildup as fraught with anticipation as Orson Welles’ in The Third Man.

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She is first seen behind that counter, her face set in a mask of the bland affability of customer service. In this first shot Crystal is already performing a role, one she sloughs off immediately upon entering the back room, where the soft edges of her voice harden. Her voice is a flirtatious weapon, molded to the circumstance. In a flurry of movement she prepares for dinner with Stephen Haines, set to prove her bona fides as a good girl, or at least one that can make a decent meal. She sarcastically tells her co-worker that it’s time Stephen”found out I was a home girl.” Crawford laces the line with irony, bouncing on the balls of her feet while trilling her voice upward on “home girl”, indicating how much of it will be just another show. It’s that little bob, the slightest of movements, that reveals the density of her hard heart. It also shows why Cukor called her a “great movie personality.” He elaborates: “All she has to do is walk across the room, from one side to the other, and you notice that something very special is happening.”

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When she then gets Stephen on the phone, it’s a master class in manipulation. After issuing gruff orders to her maid to cook dinner (to pass off as her own), she receives the call. Her voice is sanded down into a gentle, rounded chirp, that of a submissive housewife. She successfully plays the victim, guilting him out of breaking their engagement. Her victory screech: “He almost stood me up for his wife!”. The scene ends with a pitched battle between Sylvia and Crystal. Sylvia throws loaded questions about the Haines family at Crystal, who swats them away with icy cold disinterest. The customer service mask cracks into one of condescending hatred. Then Crystal disappears for another twenty minutes, but her presence hangs over the proceedings like soap scum on a shower wall.

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One of the early climaxes of the film is the first encounter between Crystal and Mary Haines, who stare each other down inside a dressing room. The MGM publicity department positioned this as “the catfight of the century”, even though they never come to blows, by playing up the real life tension between Crawford and Norma Shearer. Crawford famously complained, “How can I compete with Norma when she’s sleeping with the boss?”. Shearer was married to MGM head Irving Thalberg. He had died before filming on The Women began, but she still retained enormous influence at the studio. Though exaggerated by publicity flacks, their feud added some extratextual flair to their boudoir fracas.

Shearer is wearing a swooping ball gown, and Crawford a short-skirted gold lamé contraption with a turban and excess bow ties (designed by the overworked Adrian). Crawford’s outfit looks like a reject from a Busby Berkeley harem routine, but she exudes arrogant charm anyways, owning that getup. After Mary orders her to cease her affair, Crystal purrs with Olympian disdain, “he seems to be satisfied with the arrangement.” She seems to be totally free of shame or insecurities, completely content with her destabilizing station in life. Crawford then smokes a cigarette with exasperation, as if dealing with a pesky child. Then she gives Mary the ultimate kiss-off with, “You noble wives and mother bore the brains out of me.”

Though she loses the game of musical husbands in the manic closer, she never loses her sense of self.  So when Crawford says, “back to the perfume counter for me”, it is not with regret or sadness but a matter-of-fact rationality. Money comes and goes, but there will always be rich men she can sucker with soft words and a firm touch.

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6 Responses Back to the Perfume Counter: Joan Crawford in The Women (1939)
Posted By Karen : January 7, 2014 3:05 pm

I loved your write-up — The Women is, if not my favorite movie, then certainly the one I have seen most often. And I’ve always maintained that Joan Crawford delivers a tour de force — in scenes like the one you describe when she’s on the phone with Stephen, as well as her dressing room confrontation with Mary, and the scene when she’s in the bathtub, she is simply mesmerizing. Thanks for highlighting this awesome film and Crawford’s superb performance.

Posted By LD : January 7, 2014 3:45 pm

Crystal may not return to the perfume counter for long, but next time she will be smarter.

Posted By Doug : January 7, 2014 8:17 pm

Just watched Rosalind Russell in “She Wouldn’t Say Yes” the other night, and she impressed in that comic programmer. I haven’t seen “The Women” but I imagine Russell is great in the stronger, tighter film. Shearer and Crawford and Russell trading dialogue?
Wish I had TCM.

Posted By Vienna : January 7, 2014 9:59 pm

Surely quite brave of Joan to take this role,so very different from her usual roles. Brave and magnificent. Joan obviously realised what a great part it was. My other two favorites in The Women are (of course) Rosalind Russell who also must have realised what a great change this would be for her., and Paulette Goddard is perfection too
Loved your review and pictures too.

Posted By Qalice : January 7, 2014 10:03 pm

I must admit (even though I’m in the wrong place for it) that I’m not a big Joan Crawford fan. But she is fantastic in this movie. Without her, I don’t think the film would work at all.

Posted By robbushblog : January 13, 2014 5:09 pm

This, along with Mildred Pierce, are my two favorite Joan Crawford movies and performances. I really think she is at her sexiest in this movie. I don’t know why. Maybe I just like the bitchiness or the entitlement of her character (Not traits that I routinely admire in women), but she makes it work, and she’s great in it. It’s a great movie, aside from that overly dramatic final shot. Everything leading up to that is near perfect.

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