Woman’s World (DVD Review)14 Jul, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Available via Fox Cinema Archive
Stars Clifton Webb, June Allyson, Fred MacMurray, Lauren Bacall.
In the early days of CinemaScope at format instigator 20th Century-Fox, the studio sometimes used all that fresh new framing space at hand to fashion travelogues as backdrops to the story at hand, particularly with those set in what were then-contemporary times. So just as summer-of-’54’s Three Coins in the Fountain exploited a now much wider screen to wallow in the exotic glories of Rome and its countryside, this following fall release boasting an array of name performers set its anamorphic lenses on New York City. Predictably, the movie opens with an overhead skyline shot that anticipates what Robert Wise and Super Panavision 70 would do with the unforgettable first few minutes of West Side Story seven years later.
The director here was Jean Negulseco, and while I generally agree with Andrew Sarris’s assertion that he was quite accomplished before Scope and not so hot thereafter, it would be a lie for me to claim immunity from the charms of Negulesco’s first four Scope movies (that is, the ones he made up through Daddy Long Legs). This said, one cannot be oblivious to the reality that Woman’s World portrays a universe that must seem alien to anyone born in the last 30 or 40 years, though within the confines of a glossy piece of entertainment, I strongly suspect that it was highly accurate for the times. So let’s not kill the messenger.
Three regional star achievers employed by a major auto company are called to Manhattan to see which one will inherit the now open job of a company-first exec who worked himself to death in service of the man who owns the company (Clifton Webb cast as Ernest Gifford of “Gifford Motors”). The Gifford seen here looks a lot cooler and ’50s outer-spacey than Ford’s Edsel, which would come along three years later — and its designs were, in fact, dreamed up by the Ford folks themselves, including those in the Lincoln-Mercury Division. (The company would have been better off launching the Gifford, which looks like the kind of armored vehicle you could have an adulterous tryst inside without anyone knowing about it). Arriving with their wives from Kansas City, Philadelphia and Dallas, the three are in personally unsolicited competition with each other — and so are their spouses, which is what gives the movie a lot of its novelty value. Why they’re all not coming to Detroit instead of New York is something I’ve never quite figured out, but then we wouldn’t have 2.55:1 shots of the Stork Club or the United Nations. Actually, we don’t have them here, either, because the on-demand print utilized here brandishes a little less than the intended full panorama.
The movie’s judgmental view of the wives won’t go down well with a lot of women today, but if any kind of parallel situation even exists today, Webb's character would a) have to be a lot more subtle about it; and b) get used to the fact that his competitors' own execs might be women themselves who are prepared to clean his transmission. Coming off the eventually Oscar-nominated Fountain, Webb was at the peak of his career here — a star whose large fan base couldn’t have been predictable yet managed to sustain itself in full flower for a about a dozen years beginning with 1944’s Laura.
The couples break down into sincerely caring Cornel Wilde and klutzy comic-relief wife June Allyson; Fred MacMurray (ulcer-prone bundle of nerves) and Lauren Bacall (now secretly estranged); plus cerebral pipe-smoker Van Heflin with yowza-bait Arlene Dahl (flaunting her frame and red hair in obvious ways that may or may not pay off with Webb, though they do catch his attention). According to the AFI Catalog for the ’50s, the casting changed a lot before the production rolled, with Charlton Heston among the actors considered. One can easily savor the hope that he would have had MacMurray’s role; it would have been fun to see Chuck playing someone with an ulcer.
Every lead performance here seems on the money (it’s not unheard-of to see Bacall’s performance cited as her career best), and the production is so grade-‘A’ that the budget studio chief Darryl Zanuck OK’d is said to have been the biggest up to that time for a Fox modern-day drama. The studio still utilized Technicolor for about a year after the introduction of Scope before the move to DeLuxe pigments, and this is one of the last titles that did. The Four Aces over at Decca must have had a beeline into the Fox music department because they got No. 1 singles out of the title tunes from Fountain (though Frank Sinatra sang it in the movie) and “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.” Sandwiched between them, the Aces waxing of “It’s a Woman’s World” (which they sing over the opening credits) fell slightly short at No. 11 — though truth to tell, in ’54 it was really a “Mr. Sandman” kind of fall.