It’s 1933 and eight young women, the very best of friends, are about to graduate from Vassar. It may be the height of the depression, but in their strata of society making a living is seldom a concern but making the right marriage is. We first meet them on their college campus, in a montage that finds each intensely involved in some activity—directing a play, doing a chemistry experiment, writing the great American news story—but the ironic counterpoint of a silly song performed by a female choir signals that they’re only girls (the opening credit sequence identifies them “the girls” while the male characters are listed as “the men”), after all, bound by the accident of their birth gender to be relegated to the sidelines so far as the great business of the world goes.
Yes, it’s the original gal pal movie, The Group, directed by Sidney Lumet from a script adapted from Mary McCarthy’s novel of the same name. The novel was considered quite shocking when first published in 1963 (it was banned in several countries), which certainly doesn’t seem to have damaged sales where it was legal, including the United States (it was on the New York Times bestseller list for almost two years). I didn’t get far with McCarthy’s novel (too dated), but I suspect the movie is considerably toned down (the MPAA code was still serious business in 1966 when this film was released) because there’s really not much that is intentionally shocking in the film, even by the standards of the mid-1960s. By modern standards, however, the persistently shocking aspect of this film is the horrid treatment of most of the female characters by a remarkable proportion of the male characters, and the fact that such behavior passes largely without notice, let alone reproach.
The main action of The Group is bookended by a clip from the valedictory address, which reads pretty much the way most such speeches do: “And we, the class of ’33, go forth, in a time of economic crisis, a time that asks the women of America to play a role in every sphere of a nation’s life. In the arts, in the sciences, in industry, and in the making of our laws. And we believe, as we take up our separate roles, that it is only in achieving the highest personal fulfillment, the goal of our education, that each will make the greatest contribution to our emergent America.” This reprise acts as an extended Kuleshov Effect, as the first time the words are meant to be inspirational, while upon repetition and in light of all that has transpired during the film, they can only be taken as bitterly ironic.
There’s a lot of action crammed into The Group‘s 150 minute running time, and not surprisingly some of the women’s stories get more attention than others. The most interesting of the lot, Candice Bergen’s Lakey, gets the shortest shrift, probably because lesbians were just too much for the American film business of the day to handle. We spend much more time with Kay (Joanna Pettet), who is the first to be married and immediately sets aside her own ambitions to work at Macy’s and support her husband’s (Larry Hagman) theatrical dreams. Other characters include Pris (Elizabeth Hartman), who gives up her dreams of social justice to marry a bullying physician, Dottie (Joan Hackett), who learns about birth control, Libby (Jessica Walter) who finds success in the publishing world, Pokey (Mary-Robin Redd), who has twins, and Polly (Shirley Knight), who gives up her dream of becoming a physician to work in a hospital lab.
There are a lot of famous names in the cast (besides those mentioned above, Richard Mulligan and Hal Holbrook also play key roles), but some were virtual unknowns at the time they were cast. Lumet and cinematographer Boris Kaufman do a great job creating the specific milieu in which each woman lives, and in creating a true ensemble film while also differentiating among eight characters of the same race, gender, and age. | Sarah Boslaugh
The Group is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino-Lorber. The only extras on the disc are the trailers for this and four other films.