Many, many years ago, the friend who introduced me to one of the great films of 1939, The Women, told me "Later they made it into a terrible musical called The Opposite Sex. They ruined it by bringing in all the men characters!" Now, thanks the miracle of Yewtybbe, I've been able to see it for myself. And . . . well, it's not terrible, but it's definitely Good Campy Fun Of Its Era.
To justify all those musical numbers, Hollywood moved Clare Boothe Luce's play and George Cukor's brilliant film up Park Avenue to the intersection of Park and 42nd Street, where Society and Theatre meet. Sweet Kay Hilliard, née Sweet Mary Haines, gave up her career as a radio singer to marry Broadway producer Stephen Hilliard (so much for "Stephen Haines the engineer.") Crystal Allen works as a showgirl in Stephen's latest show. Adrian's fashion show has been transformed into a theatre charity benefit performance. Best of all, Nancy Blake the author has become Amanda Penrose, successful Broadway playwright and narrator of the story. To echo the pertness of the 1950s, Mary, Little Mary, and Jane have become Kay, Debbie, and Lexy. Miriam "Vanities" Aarons is now Gloria "Copacabana" Dahl.
As Kay Hilliard, terminally sweet June Allyson spends most of the movie giving her best impression of a worried kitten. Her sweetness is made even flatter with Helen Rose's decision to costume her in self-effacing pastels or dark neutrals throughout until her "stripped for action" arrival at the Skylight Room in body-hugging, eye-popping red satin (see photo below). The one exception is an impregnable blue chiffon jumpsuit for her "Now, Baby, Now!" number. Her lyrics say "Take me!" but her costume says "Can't touch this." It's no wonder Young Joan Collins stole her man! Conniving Joan makes the screen crackle in her exchanges with June and with Dolores Gray.
Forgotten today by all but Lypsinka and her fans, Dolores Gray follows in the footsteps of Rosalind Russell as Sylvia Fowler. The actress who launched a thousand drag queens, Dolores's makeup almost makes her look carved from a Barbie Doll. Sylvia's ridiculousness is enhanced by Helen Rose's costumes, especially her mermaid-looking dress at the anniversary party and her triple-flounced black lace extravaganza, each with a silly fascinator. When she appears in a cowl, which is often, she might be E.T.'s human grandmother. Dolores had a great figure, and in her skintight pink satin sheath (with lampshade-ruffle bodice) and blonde pageboy, she gives off a bit of Marilyn Monroe excitement, tinged with a hunger to make trouble.
A galaxy of supporting performances fill in the fun: Carolyn Jones, always ready with a perky wisecrack as Crystal's backstage gal pal Pat, well before her Morticia Addams days; Bill Goodwin, making a shutterbug out of Howard Fowler (I was delighted to recognize him as the hotel detective in Hitchcock's Spellbound); everyone's favorite loose-limbed comedienne Charlotte Greenwood, sporting a ponytail and spurs as Lucy; Joan Blondell as perpetually pregnant Edith Potter, back when maternity style deemphasized the contours of la femme enciente; Juanita Moore from Imitation of Life, underused as a powder room attendant at Sydney's; Barbara Jo Allen as Dolly De Haven, blatantly based on Hedda Hopper with all those feathered hats; Bess Flowers, "Queen of the Extras," happily spotted in a couple scenes (you'll recognize her from a LOT of movies, but especially from All About Eve; she's sitting at the head table at the Sarah Siddons Awards, and later brings Eve something and says "I'm so happy for you, Eve"), and your Gladys Kravitz and mine, Alice Pearce, as Olga, the fatally gossipy manicurist as Sydney's.
One of the great surprises of this movie is seeing Agnes Moorehead assay light comedy as the Countess. What a delight! Between her early dramatic successes in Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Dark Passage, and the Years of "Derwood!" in the 1960s, her performance as the Countess is just sheer fun. Watch for her leaving the "class reunion" with her champagne glass.
The future of television is in this movie. Carolyn Jones went on to The Addams Family, Agnes Moorehead and Alice Pearce to Bewitched!, and of course Joan Collins to Dynasty.
Now for the men, who really shouldn't even be here in the first place. In The Opposite Sex, instead of the Countess, Sylvia falls for Buck Winston to make her look even sillier. It totally works. And Jeff Richards as Buck has enough aw-shucks pulchritude to make anyone silly in the knees. See also slim beautiful brunette Jerry Antes, the uncredited singer/dancer who leads the "Yellow Gold" musical number from Stephen Hilliard's Broadway show, all about bananas. Just enough eyeliner to know it's there . . . And another surprise is young, dark-haired Leslie Nielsen, a long time before all those Naked Gun movies. He's the perfect Stephen: handsome, sincere, conflicted, and - just like the ladies said, not really interested in marrying Crystal.
But for me, Ann Sheridan takes the honors over all the cast for her authoritative portrayal of Amanda Penrose. Mrs. Morehead got written out of The Opposite Sex, and Amanda transforms a mother's guidance into the genuine concern of a best friend. Sheridan looks every inch the successful career woman in her two-piece suits with simple hats and her form-fitting evening gowns. With a voice that could cut steel, she can also dish with the best of them, and she and Sylvia make the best of frenemies. Just watch what she does with that stick of celery at 21 . . .
The musical numbers really don't do much to further the story, with the exception of Buck Winston's "Rock and Roll Tumbleweed" at the Skylight Roof. June Allyson gets three: 'Young Man with a Horn" (featuring guest star Harry James), "Perfect Love" (a pretty ballad), and "Now, Baby, Now!" "Yellow Gold," aside from displaying the considerable talents of Jerry Antes, show us chorus girls Crystal and Pat on stage and the brings us back to their dressing room. As part of the Footlights Home Benefit performance, Dick Shawn and Jim Backus do what's perhaps their usual schtick with a comic version of the title song "The Opposite Sex." Out of synch with the rest of the film, I much prefer Ann Sheridan's rendition of it over the opening credits. (It must be Ann Sheridan singing it. I hope it is anyway. 'Cause damn . . . ) It was criminal of them to cast Ann Miller in this musical without giving her any singing or dancing! One wonders if it was part of June Allyson's contract . . .
Devotees of the 1939 film will find themselves frustrated at the slower pace of The Opposite Sex. You could drive a bus through some of the pauses between lines here, and George Cukor kept his cast snapping at lightning-fast speed. Most of your favorite lines remain, e.g. "You ought to go to someone," "On the train for Reno," etc., and there are some wonderful new ones: "A jar of face cream doesn't snore," "One woman's poise is another woman's poison," a very special reference to steamed clam, and lots more. But the best is this:
Pat: "I think you're playin' this thing all wrong. Smart girls take what they can get."
Crystal: "Smart girls get what they can take!"