The other night, I watched The Women. Has anyone ever seen it? Rosalind Russell, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Joan Fontaine preside over the salon, the department store, the dinner club, the dressing room, the living room, the kitchen. There isn't a single man in the whole film--not in the flesh, not off screen, not even a disembodied voice on the phone, but men of course play a crucial role in the proceedings, just as the tag line promises. The Women: It's All About Men!
Norma Shearer finds out from Rosalind Russell's manicurist that her husband, Steven Haines, is seeing shopgirl Joan Crawford. First Shearer fights to win him back, then she caves. She divorces him, and he marries Joan (Crawford, not Fontaine) who cheats on him with a man she thinks is wealthy (in fact, he's kept himself). Meanwhile, busybody Russell, who from the beginning of the story has thrilled at the slightest misfortune of others, is dumped by her husband for Paulette Goddard. She finds this out in Reno, at a recuperative ranch, where all the women migrate, post divorce.
One of the best scenes of the film is set at Crawford's place of work, the perfume counter of Black's Fifth Avenue. The movie was adapted from a play by Clare Booth Luce, which openly refers to Saks. I'm guessing Saks didn't take kindly to the suggestion it employed women of questionable repute; thus, the name change. Blacks, Saks, or otherwise, the scenario says a lot about the various social intersections revolving around perfume, intersections which don't occur at the cosmetics counter, pretty exclusively the domain of women.
A man goes to the counter to buy his wife a present. Summer Rain is the latest thing. An enormous display features the decorative, umbrella-themed bottles. Every woman who passes has heard of the stuff. To have it is to be what it says it represents. To buy it and present it is to bestow luxury, glamor, sex appeal. The shopgirl sees that her male client cares enough to buy the very best, which is actually probably crap, meaning that in addition he is also very impressionable, easily led. She leads him astray. Wifey gets Summer Rain. Shopgirl hits the jackpot.
Gossip Rosalind Russell visit Blacks to investigate, hiding behind the Summer Rain display to spy on Crawford. Joan has just been on the phone with Steven Haines, playing him like a fiddle. He was calling to cancel their dinner plans (the assumption being, dinner is at her place, which was bought and paid for by him) but she can't allow his interest in her to go interrupted, so in her best little girl voice she declares it happens to be her birthday, and he changes his mind.
Crawford has no idea who Rosalind is, so Rosalind makes sure she knows. It doesn't change anything, because Crawford's "Crystal Allen" has no conscience, thinking only of herself and her feelings. Any man is fair game. Norma Shearer shouldn't have fallen asleep at the wheel. Rosalind and her friend comment on the fact that Mr. Haines must have been in the store, because Mrs. Haines owns a new bottle of Summer Rain. They would very much like to smell it, they say, so Crawford sprays some in their faces.
Perfume is secondary to the plot and ultimately has nothing really to do with anything in any specific way, no more than the fashion show which occurs smack in the middle of The Women, a sudden burst of technicolor in an otherwise black and white film. But seeing perfume at all in the story made me realize how much I'd like to see that kind of content in other movies, and how rarely I do. It also made me realize, when it comes to perfume, how many different things there are to explore thematically. Perfume weaves in and out of our lives in ways most of us don't even think about. Smells attach to memory and become an essential part of who we are. In The Women, Summer Rain defines a version of womanhood. If your husband gives it to you, you're loved. Owning it, women become charter members of a fantasy lifestyle, where maids prepare fancy meals in the kitchen, children are on their best behavior, a dress fits in such a way that the woman wearing it looks like no one else who owns it, and kisses don't feel rushed or perfunctory. In real life, perfume has been working the same way ever since.
Does anyone else know of a movie (besides Perfume) which features perfume in some way?