Directed by Jean Negulesco, Woman’s World is a corporate drama featuring Clifford Webb as automobile tycoon Ernest Gifford, who is searching for a new second-in-command after the recent death of his company’s general manager. In order to fill the role he brings three of the best men in the company to Gifford Motors’ New York headquarters, with a plan to select his successor after close observation of not only the men, but also their wives. The cast includes June Allyson and Cornel Wilde as Katie and Bill Baxter, Arlene Dahl and Van Heflin as Carol and Jerry Talbot, and Lauren Bacall and Fred MacMurray and Elizabeth and Sidney Burns.
Woman’s World began life as a magazine story named May The Best Wife Win by Mona Williams, which appeared in McCall’s magazine. 20th Century Fox acquired the screen rights to it in 1951, and the film went through several iterations before finally making it into production. Mooted cast members included Marilyn Monroe, Gloria Grahame and Charlton Heston, alongside a rotating selection of directors and producers. The cameras started rolling in New York City in mid-February 1954, with Jean Negulesco in the director’s chair. Claude Binyon had originally been slated to direct, but Darryl F. Zanuck – head of production at Fox – opted to replace him with Negulesco after the decision was made to shoot the film using the new Cinemascope widescreen format. Negulesco had been working steadily in Hollywood since the early 1940s, and had collaborated with Lauren Bacall just prior to Woman’s World on the immensely successful How To Marry A Millionaire (1953).
How To Marry A Millionaire definitively cemented the star status Bacall had been cultivating since the waning years of the previous decade, earning her some of the best reviews of her career. It had given audiences the opportunity to see a different side to Bacall; best known as one of the most dangerous femme fatales in all film noir (a reputation which endures to this day), her role as the quick-witted Schatze Page allowed her to demonstrate her comedic skills too. The romantic comedy was a runaway hit, and created the possibility for filmgoers to see Bacall as a different kind of wife – one who isn’t trying to have her husband murdered. Woman’s World continued this trend of subverted expectations by casting her as a wife plagued by fears for the wellbeing of her family.
The three couples in Woman’s World are all very different from one another; the Baxters have a happy marriage, but Allyson’s Katie frequently finds herself with her foot in her mouth, making the social obligations of being a potential general manger’s wife something of a gauntlet for her. This isn’t an issue faced by the vivacious Carol Talbot, an ambitious woman who bewitches the men of any room she enters – so much so, in fact, that she often seems to eclipse her husband Jerry entirely. Rounding out the trio are Bacall and MacMurray as Elizabeth and Sidney Burns, an estranged couple on the edge of divorce – a schism driven largely by Jerry’s workaholism, which Elizabeth fears will drive him into an early grave, especially if he gets the big promotion to general manager.
Whilst Elizabeth is as poised and charming as Katie is clumsy and socially inept, the two women soon begin building a friendship. Katie’s husband has given her some money to spend on a fancy new wardrobe, but she spends most of it on a gift for her husband – a new barbecue she knows Bill would love, but would never buy for himself. It conjures up a wholesome All-American image straight out of an advertisement, of a father grilling in the backyard surrounded by his children and adoring wife. This is Katie’s character in a nutshell – despite her lack of winning charm with her husband’s boss, she is in many ways a model of 1950s wifeliness. She actually doesn’t want Bill to get the job, as it would mean upheaving the family and moving to New York City, and she’s fond of her life in Kansas. She doesn’t crave the bright lights and excitement of the city, and is flustered by the idea of buying expensive new clothes for an unexpected visit to the stately home of Ernest Gifford’s sister, Evelyn. Elizabeth comes to the rescue, helping her pick out an outfit without breaking the bank, and despite their apparent differences they have one major thing in common – Elizabeth doesn’t want her husband to be general manager either.
It’s quickly revealed at the beginning of the film that Elizabeth and Sidney have in fact separated, but will be putting on the pretence of marital bliss for the duration of their stay in New York. Their relationship was eroded by years of Sidney being more devoted to his job than to his family, and the final straw for Elizabeth was Sidney’s refusal to scale back his work commitments even when faced with growing health problems. She’s certain that the stress of his demanding career will be fatal – and sooner rather than later – and, although (and in fact because) she loves him, she cannot stand to be witness to it any longer.
Arlene Dahl’s Carol Talbot is an altogether more complicated affair. Flirtatious and brazen, she is presented as almost villainous in her wanton pursuit of a higher rung of the social ladder. Indeed, her machinations almost cost her husband Jerry the top job, and his eventual success isn’t secured until she’s been thoroughly dispatched with a promise of impending divorce, after it’s revealed she ensured his career ascent by ‘charming’ the right men. Gifford’s distaste for her is palpable, and once he learns of their separation, his decision is made: Jerry will become the new general manager of Gifford Motors. Aside from the fact that Sidney and Bill had both decided they didn’t want the job, having each reached a realisation of the importance of family over career, Gifford deemed them both to be altogether too preoccupied with their own lives. He wants someone who will dedicate their entire life to their job, and with his wife gone, it seems Jerry is the man for the job.
The film is very of its time, in more ways than one. Corporate America was fast taking shape in the early fifties, driven by the profits of the wartime manufacturing boom. The corporate drama film was born out of this new generation of companies and workers, who were quickly restructuring the economic landscape of the country. The contemporary gender politics are obviously also very pronounced, with a strong emphasis on the importance of maintaining the nuclear family. The film’s philosophy is perhaps most clearly expressed in this excerpt from an exchange between Bacall’s Elizabeth and Carol Talbot:
“You know, I think if you and Mr Talbot had children, you might realise that a man like your husband would be working more for his children than for you, and you wouldn’t mind that because they’d be your children too – and you’d know you gave them to him. That’s why Mrs Talbot, it isn’t a man’s world; it’s a woman’s world.”
In a film which weighs the importance of women only in terms of their suitability as a wife – an accessory to be deemed either desirable or undesirable – this is a flimsy attempt to depict power as being in the hands of the housewife. Here, the ideal family is obvious; it’s comprised of a husband who works hard to bolster the fortunes of his family, and a wife who is wholly supportive of and devoted to her spouse and children. In the end, although it’s Jerry who gains the general manager position, within this framework it’s Sidney, Elizabeth, Bill and Katie who seem to truly win.