Saturday Matinee–“The Women” and “Land of the Pharaohs”

This is the first of my new series, “Saturday Matinee,” in which I review classic films from Hollywood’s Golden Age.  For tonight’s edition, I have chosen two widely divergent films, George Cukor’s The Women (1939) and Howard Hawks’s Land of the Pharaohs (1955).

To begin with The Women, you would be hard-pressed to find a film that more deftly and acidly comments on the play between the sexes.  When sweet and charming Mary Haines’ (Norma Shearer) husband cheats on her with perfume counter girl Crystal (Joan Crawford), the stage if set for a battle of the sexes in which only one of them appears on screen (there is not a single man in the entire cast).  In the end, the film proves that love conquers all, and Mary reunites with her husband at the end, though he remains offscreen.

The film is easily one of Hollywood’s finest comedies, and it provides a compelling and sharply funny view of the relationships among women across class and racial lines.  Although the women of the film constantly talk about the men in their lives, the strongest and most affective relations in the film are among women, especially among Mary and her daughter.  However, some of the most entertaining relationships are antagonistic, as the various women scheme and talk about one another behind their backs, even while feigning friendship.

What emerges from the performances of these characters–it is worth noting, by the way, that in real life Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford were rivals at MGM–is a critical commentary about the ways in which these women’s lives are so structured by their social class that they often fail to realize just how important those female relationships are.  Just as importantly, however, it is important to recognize the extent to which the film is also highly critical of the ways in which men abuse the trust of the women in their lives by seeking some measure of escape outside of their marriages.

Just as importantly, however, the film does not seek to impose a particular vision of female subjectivity.  Instead, it points out the multiplicity of female perspectives that comprised the lives and experiences of women of various classes and (to a much lesser extent) races.  Thus, the film evades and to some extent denies a rigid imposition of a fixed meaning.  Instead, it invites and encourages an understanding of female subjectivity as itself full of contradictions and complexities that defy easy understanding (especially, I would argue, for many straight male viewers).

All in all, this is a fine example of how Hollywood films that ultimately affirm the power and primacy of the heterosexual union can still contain within them the seeds of subversion.  As David Halperin notes in How to Be Gay, the film is also widely popular among gay male audiences, an illustration of the potential gender subversion that such a film can contain, even within the restrictions imposed by classic Hollywood.  Is the film radical?  Certainly not, but maybe, just maybe, we can identify it as progressive.

If The Women has the potential to be read as advocating a complex and nuanced understanding of the position of women within 1930s American culture, Land of the Pharaohs is much less sanguine about the role of women.  The film tells the story of Pharaoh Khufu (Jack Hawkins) who, concerned that he will not be able to take his vast wealth within him into the afterlife, commissions the construction of the Great Pyramid.  Unfortunately, his wife Princess Nellifer (Joan Collins) is willing to do anything, including murder, to get that treasure for herself.

Featuring a cast of thousands (literally), the film is a visual delight, offering up the marvels that one expects to see in a 1950s epic film.  However, where the film is rather atypical of the genre is in its lack of a strong male character whose journey comprises the majority of the film’s narrative (as is the case, for example, with such other epics of that time such as David and Bathsheba, Quo Vadis, and The Robe).  However, it does offer some distinct moral lessons, especially about the dangers of greed, a lesson that applies equally to both the pharaoh and to his treacherous queen.

It is the queen, however, who is in some respects both the most interesting and least compelling of the film’s characters.  Throughout, she shows incredible cunning and cleverness in the ways in which she manipulates the men around her to do her bidding as she claws her way to the top (which includes, notably, tricking  the pharaoh’s son by his first wife to play a flute, which in turn draws the cobra that ends up killing her).  At the same time, however, the film allows her to be outwitted almost too easily by the pharaoh’s loyal adviser, the priest Hamar, who lures her into her dead husband’s tomb where they are all imprisoned.  Of course, such an act also leaves the audience in no doubt as to the price a woman pays when she dares to seek a power that is not rightfully hers.

All in all, the film is an interesting one, though more for its production history than for its actual plot (which is also rather short in epic terms, clocking in at under two hours).   This film was, in many ways, unlike anything Hawks had done before or after.  This, combined with the fact t hat it is rather un-epic (despite its large cast and other powerful visuals) may serve to explain why the film was not terribly successful at the box office.  However, it is still worth a watch for those who want to see the ways in which the genre of the epic was not as uniform as is sometimes supposed.  It is interesting to note, for example, that while some of the other major studios were well-known for their production of epics (Fox, MGM, and Paramount most conspicuously), Warner Bros. (the studio behind this film) was not.  For all of these reasons, Land of the Pharaohs is more than worth a watch.