‘This story isn’t new – it comes to most wives,’ counsels Lucile Watson’s sage matriarch upon the news that her daughter Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) has lost her husband’s affections – to a perfume salesgirl in the man-eating mould of Joan Crawford, no less. Ma’s advice is as seasoned as her unblinking reaction: Mary should hold her tongue, not only if she wants her man back (and rest assured he hasn’t tired of her, only himself), but because her girlfriends will never hold theirs. ‘I’m an old woman, my dear – I know my sex.’
Cukor is often credited with a similar feminine sensibility, but on this high-register farce the slant was inescapable: adapted by ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blonde’s’ Anita Loos and Jane Murfin from Clare Boothe’s stage play, it featured what the publicity notes claimed was a cast of 135 women – Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard and Joan Fontaine among them – versus no men. (Even the animals were billed as all-female.) But it’s no proto-feminist declaration: from the make-up counter to the divorce train to Reno, men are either common cause or bones of contention. The tone ranges from flappy catfights to lusty intrigue to sweet mother-daughter confidences; Cukor at one point bursts the black and white with a dreamily commercial Technicolor fashion-show (this was 1939, when he’d just been replaced on ‘Gone with the Wind’ by ‘The Wizard of Oz’s’ Victor Fleming), but otherwise inscribes the film with his usual subtle sophistication, typically putting the element of performance centre-stage. A more eccentric film than the following year’s ‘The Philadelphia Story’, with which it shares a couple of faces, it’s almost as fabulous.