‘The Women’ Versus ’The Opposite Sex’

In this installment of ‘Comparing Classic Cinema,’ we meet major Hollywood actresses in two very different film script adaptations.
‘The Women’ Versus ’The Opposite Sex’
(L–R) Peggy Day (Joan Fontaine), Mary Haines (Norma Shearer), Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell), Countess De Lave (Mary Boland), and Miriam Aarons (Paulette Goddard), in “The Women.” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Tiffany Brannan

Often, films become cult classics because they include elements which attract modern audiences. “The Women” (1939) was directed by George Cukor, and featured an all-female cast of MGM’s top actresses. Although I’m a big fan of Cukor as a director, and I like several actresses in the cast, “The Women” is one of my least favorite Golden Era movies, if not my least favorite. Surprisingly, however, this movie was not only popular upon its original release, but is now acclaimed as one of the greatest movies from the 1930s.

What makes “The Women” so surprising is that it was released in 1939, during the Breen era of the Production Code Administration (PCA). Between 1934 and 1954, the Code guided the morals of American movies, resulting in clean, entertaining films for the whole family and put an end to the risqué shenanigans of the Pre-Code Era.

This film is an exception and its musical remake from the Shurlock era of the PCA, “The Opposite Sex,” (1956), is much more Code-compliant.

Steven Hilliard (Leslie Nielsen) and Crystal Allen (Joan Collins), in "The Opposite of Sex." (MGM)
Steven Hilliard (Leslie Nielsen) and Crystal Allen (Joan Collins), in "The Opposite of Sex." (MGM)

‘The Women’

“The Women” employed a unique plot device: an entirely female cast, so feminine that even the pet dog is a girl. Males are not absent from the story, however, as the original tagline advertised, “It’s all about men!” The plot revolves around New York society women, and their relationships with their husbands, both their own and each other’s.

Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) is a contented married woman with a young daughter also named Mary (Virginia Weidler). Her cousin is a shameless gossip named Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell). Other women in their little circle include the perpetual mother, Edith (Phyllis Povah), a gentle young bride, Peggy (Joan Fontaine), and a bitter old spinster journalist, Nancy Blake (Florence Nash).

Sylvia makes sure that Mary hears the rumor going around that her husband, Stephen, is having an affair with a shop girl, Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford).

Mary is devastated, as she eventually discovers it to be true. Before long, Mary is headed to Reno and divorce, against the advice of her mother (Lucile Watson). On the train, she meets two frequent visitors to the “biggest little city in the world,” chorus girl Miriam Aarons (Paulette Goddard) and an overly romantic older woman, Countess Flora De Lave (Mary Boland). After Mary’s divorce is granted, she realizes that she’s made a big mistake, but she learns too late that Steve has already married Crystal. Two years later, however, Steve’s numerous new marriages prove to be rocky.

This movie was based on a 1936 play of the same name by Clare Boothe Luce. The rather scandalous all-female play was adapted for the screen by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin. According to later interviews with Loos, the PCA required that they cut some of the more risqué passages.

Anita Loos, co-screenwriter of "The Women." (Public Domain)
Anita Loos, co-screenwriter of "The Women." (Public Domain)
The finished film violated basically every clause in Section II of the Code, dealing with romantic relationships. The Code required that the state of marriage be upheld and not subjected to ridicule. It seems they used Section II of the Code as inspiration for subject matter rather than as guidelines for things to avoid. The state of marriage is mocked and ridiculed throughout the film. Divorce and remarriage are treated in an extremely offhand manner. Extramarital affairs are discussed brazenly, barely showing the likely consequences. There are many shockingly suggestive lines throughout the script, and several costumes are daringly indecent for the era.

‘The Opposite Sex’

Seventeen years later, “The Women” was remade as “The Opposite Sex.” This film was changed significantly from both the play and the earlier film in two ways: musical numbers were added, and so were male characters. This adaptation was written by married screenwriters Fay and Michael Kanin. To make the musical numbers fit the story rather than seeming like forced additions, a show business theme was added.
(L–R) Ann Miller, June Allyson, Dolores Gray, Joan Collins, Ann Sheridan, and Joan Blondell in a publicity shot for “The Opposite of Sex.” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
(L–R) Ann Miller, June Allyson, Dolores Gray, Joan Collins, Ann Sheridan, and Joan Blondell in a publicity shot for “The Opposite of Sex.” (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Mary became Kay Hilliard (June Allyson), a former nightclub singer married to theatrical producer Steven (Leslie Nielsen). Crystal Allen (Joan Collins) is a showgirl in this version, while Ann Miller played Goddard’s role, renamed Gloria Dell. Dolores Gray took over the role of gossip Sylvia Fowler, and Joan Blondell played the ever-expectant Edith. Instead of a mother, Kay has a kind friend who advises her, Amanda Penrose (Ann Sheridan). Agnes Moorehead played the role of the countess, and Jeff Richards gave a face to Buck Winston, the cowboy who marries the countess but later becomes Crystal’s lover.

In 1954, Joseph I. Breen retired after being head of the PCA for 20 years. He was succeeded by Geoffrey Shurlock, his longtime assistant, who quickly proved to be a poor replacement. The change is noticeable in many movies released just the next year. However, nothing had officially changed to lessen the Code’s importance or strictness, so there are many Code-compliant movies from the first few years of the Shurlock era.

Although this film still features the questionably flippant treatment of infidelity, divorce, and remarriage, the simmering, suggestive undertones in the dialogue and the situations are toned down in “The Opposite Sex.” Much of that happened naturally through the casting and the musical setting, which automatically lightened the mood.

Although “The Women” was well-received by many critics and audiences alike in 1939, it failed to make a profit because of its high production costs. “The Opposite Sex” was even less financially successful, and many critics compared it unfavorably to the original.

The point of the original story was for the audience to find the bored rich women obnoxious. This did not happen, and the main theme in “The Women” was sacrificed to the gimmick of the all-female cast.

Screenwriter for "The Opposite of Sex," Fay Kanin in 1974. (Public Domain)
Screenwriter for "The Opposite of Sex," Fay Kanin in 1974. (Public Domain)

The Breen-era film was released despite its crudeness because Joseph Breen couldn’t personally work on every film, and other members of the PCA, such as Shurlock, occasionally approved films which didn’t meet the Code’s standards.

In both films, adultery, divorce, remarriage, and sexual undertones paved the way for films from the ‘60s to the present regarding moral conduct.

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Tiffany Brannan is a 22-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, vintage fashion enthusiast, and conspiracy film critic, advocating purity, beauty, and tradition on Instagram as @pure_cinema_diva. Her classic film journey started in 2016 when she and her sister started the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society to reform the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code. She launched Cinballera Entertainment last summer to produce original performances which combine opera, ballet, and old films in historic SoCal venues.
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