9 January 2022

Billing Issues on "The Women"

Norma Shearer's MGM contract stipulated that she would not share star billing with any other actress. When George Cukor's The Women went into production in the spring of 1939, Norma's co-star Joan Crawford, however, demanded to be billed above the title alongside Norma. (After being labelled box-office poison the year before, Joan had lobbied hard to be cast as the bitchy Crystal Allen and wouldn't settle for less than co-star billing.) It was MGM boss Louis B. Mayer who eventually asked Norma to chuck the clause in her contract and to give Joan what she wanted. Norma at first objected but under pressure gave in, signing the following amendment on 3 May 1939.

Source: Bonhams
Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford photographed in 1932

Rosalind Russell, whose role in The Women as the gossipy Sylvia Fowler was actually bigger than Joan's, wanted Norma to do the same thing for her but the "Queen of MGM" refused. Adamant to get above-the-title billing with her two co-stars, Rosalind thought of a plan and —encouraged by what Louis B. Mayer had said to her, "I hear you're going to steal this picture"— called in sick about a month into production. Rosalind's plan worked out when on the fourth day of her strike Norma yielded. On 13 June 1939, Norma signed another amendment:

I now agree that both Miss Joan Crawford and Miss Rosalind Russell may be given co-star credit with my name; provided, however, that in no event shall Miss Russell’s name appear in size of type larger than 50% of the size used to display my name.   
The three actresses credited on screen for The Women with Rosalind's name half the size of her co-stars.
Publicity still for The Women with Joan, Norma and Rosalind. A critical and commercial success, the film was Joan's comeback and turned Rosalind into a big star. For Norma it was one of her last films before she retired from acting in 1942.
Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer as resp. Crystal Allen and Mary Haines in the big confrontation scene from The Women. While the actresses were hardly friends, the feud between them was exaggerated for publicity purposes. To Hedda Hopper Joan reportedly said: "So many people say Norma and I dislike each other — who are we to disagree with the majority opinion?"

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