Friday, April 27, 2012

HARRIET CRAIG 1950

 “When she was good she was very very good, but when she was bad she was better.”

If ever there was an actress about whom the above quote applies (wholeheartedly and in all its transmutations) — it’s Joan Crawford: one of the few actresses I find equally fascinating whether she’s delivering a good performance or gnawing at the scenery. An actress capable of sometimes astonishing emotional subtlety, what with the quicksilver flashes of tenderness or wounded vulnerability those fabulously expressive eyes of hers could convey; she was equally enjoyable as an over-the-top, tough-as-nails, slightly mannish, bitch-goddesses. 
Harriet Craig, the story of a woman who takes the role of housewife to its literal and tragic extremes, is a film that had been on my “must see” list since the early 80s when someone told me that Crawford’s daughter Christina (she of the incendiary Mommie Dearest) recommended it along with Queen Bee as the two films to view if you wanted to get a glimpse of what the real Joan Crawford was like. Already acquainted with the extravagant camp of Queen Bee, I finally got to see Harriet Craig back in 2007 when TCM hosted a Joan Crawford marathon.
The verdict? Well, as a representative page carved out of the post-Mommie Dearest Joan Crawford mythos, Harriet Craig doesn't disappoint. On the contrary. The film is full of so much melodrama and overheated emotion that for long stretches of time it feels as if you’re watching Joan Crawford as Faye Dunaway portraying Joan Crawford.  Harriet Craig (the third screen incarnation of George Kelly’s 1925 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Craig’s Wife) is in many ways the quintessential Joan Crawford vehicle. Drawing upon little more than the same standard-issue icy imperiousness she brought to almost all of her post-MGM roles (regrettably, she doesn't slap anyone here, but that’s about the only thing missing from her usual arsenal), Joan Crawford and her grande dame of the screen image are so perfectly suited to Harriet Craig that it feels as if the role were written expressly for her.
Joan Crawford as Harriet Craig
Wendell Corey as Walter Craig
K.T. Stevens as Clare Raymond
In all matters practical, Harriet Craig is the perfect wife. Beautiful and poised as a hostess, attentive and spuriously deferential to her adoring husband, Walter; Harriet runs their tastefully elegant upper middle-class home with the efficiency and warmth of a science lab. In that curious definition of “housewife” indigenous to the moneyed set, Harriet neither cooks nor cleans, raises no children, and has no job—she merely spends every waking hour running roughshod over the harried staff of housekeepers (servants, as she likes to call them), even going so far as to engage her grateful poor-relation cousin Clare as free labor. All in the service of creating the perfectly clean, perfectly orderly, perfect home. Trouble arises when Harriet, fearful that a job promotion for her husband might loosen the short tether she has kept him on for the entirety of their marriage, attempts to broaden the scope of her manipulation.
Harriet Craig's cousin Clare, pretty much where Harriet likes to keep her at all times
The possessive title of Craig’s Wife, which both the 1928 silent (now considered lost) and the 1936 Rosalind Russell film adaptations kept, hints not only at the original play’s dated mindset, but subtly of its narrative thrust. In both versions Harriet is obsessed with her image and social position and goes to extreme lengths to prevent her name (that of being Craig’s wife) from being involved in any scandal.
Much in the manner that the title of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler suggests the emotional remove of its protagonist from her married identity of Hedda Tesman, the revamped Harriet Craig, is less about a woman’s fear of losing her social status as it is about her full and complete fixation on the marriage state as a means of obtaining emotional and financial security for herself. The husband is merely a means to an end.
Craig's Law
"Marriage is a practical matter. A man wants a wife and a home, a woman wants security."
As updated for the 50s, Harriet Craig wisely jettisons a distracting murder/suicide subplot figured significantly in Craig’s Wife and instead settles itself firmly in traditional Crawford territory: a domineering woman attempting to manipulate the lives of those around her. Though melodramatic in structure, this suburban domestic cautionary tale is directed with an appealingly light touch by Vincent Sherman (who also directed Crawford in The Damned Don’t Cry and Goodbye My Fancy) who gets lively performances from a cast that stylistically contrasts to good effect with Crawford’s appropriately starchy overemphasis.
Mr. Craig, feeling amorous; Mrs.Craig, sizing up the matrimonial checks and balances
  
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
A common criticism leveled at the film adaptation of Mommie Dearest was that its screenplay appeared to have been cobbled together from old Joan Crawford movies. Looking at Harriet Craig it’s hard to argue that point. The fictional Harriet Craig is every bit the neat-freak obsessive that Crawford was made out to be in real life, complete with a poverty-motivated backstory not dissimilar to Crawford’s own. So closely does Harriet Craig hew to our common perception of Joan Crawford as an anal-compulsive nightmare, that entire scenes of Harriet going ballistic over some bit of overlooked housecleaning could be excised, colorized, and inserted into that 1981 biographical film with disconcerting ease.
The Help
Housekeepers Mrs. Harold (Viola Roche) and Lotite (Ellen Corby) in a rare moment of peace
Mrs. Harold- She is particular.
Lottie- Particular? She's peculiar! I bet if she had her way she'd wrap up this whole place in cellophane.
And therein lies one of the essential guilty pleasures of Harriet Craig (and to the same degree, Crawford’s Queen Bee): it’s like watching Mommie Dearest with the genuine article. I like Crawford very much when she’s good, but she is untouchable playing bad. She is such a raving monster in Harriet Craig that, were the film available on DVD*, it would be found in the horror section. (In October of 2012, Harriet Craig became available as part of a 3-DVD box set titled: Joan Crawford in the 50's.)
  
PERFORMANCES:
The much-maligned Joan Crawford is one of my favorite actresses. Even taking into account her mannered acting style and the severe, exaggerated appearance she adopted as she matured, to me she remains the most consistently interesting of the classic leading ladies of the silver screen. Truth in fact, I think I like her to a great extent because of her stylistic excesses. It’s often said of Crawford that she was more a movie star than an actress, but I’ve never found her to be any more one-note than respected studio-system stars like Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn or Humphrey Bogart. I just think it’s a matter of taste. Personally, I never had much of a stomach for Cary Grant and find him to be one of the more arch and artificial stars (to borrow a line from Singin’ in the Rain) in the Hollywood firmament. Crawford, for all her studied emoting is a fascinating screen presence, and while only occasionally genuine, is always interesting.
Harriet is made somewhat sympathetic by having the motives for her compulsions rooted in being abandoned by her father at a young age and seeing her mother (Virginia Brissac) deteriorate into dementia

Like most that have achieved and sustained movie star status, Crawford’s screen persona and perceived private personality were so intrinsically intertwined that, intentionally or not, her roles came to be imbued with a voyeuristically autobiographical essence. A phenomenon with Crawford’s work that has oddly increased not lessened, over the years. There’s no way to watch Harriet Craig today without being continually hit in the face with the Crawford mystique. When scenes are not suggesting some passage from the Mommie Dearest canon of obsessive perfectionist, they’re recalling the haughty shrew characterization familiar to many “Joan Crawford vehicles.”
It must have been a Crawford contractual stipulation to have at least one shot where a band of light illuminates her eyes while the rest of her features remain in shadow. I seriously can't think of a Joan Crawford film I've seen without it.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
Were I writing about Harriet Craig in the 60s or 70s, I would be declaring the film outdated and its heroine hopelessly out of touch with the ways men and women interact. Here we are in 2012 and Harriet Craig’s rather cold-blooded philosophies seem to be right in step with the times. In a comment to my previous post on The Bad Seed, a reader observed how the confidence and sense of entitlement of Patty McCormack’s Rhoda would make her a likely CEO candidate in today’s world. Similarly, I think Harriet Craig’s calculating pragmatism when it comes to love and marriage would today land her a bestselling book deal and make her the darling of the post-feminist set.
The Rules meet The Bachelor: 1950s style
Harriet- Oh, stop yelling! What are you complaining about? You've had your share of the bargain.
Walter- Bargain? I never thought of our marriage as a bargain.
Harriet- Every marriage is. You wanted a wife to run your house and make you comfortable. Well haven't I done that? Have I ever neglected you? I've kept myself attractive and seen to it that you were never bored. Whatever you wanted...no matter how foolish and inconvenient it was for me...I've always seen to it that you were satisfied. What more do you want?

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
In appraising Joan Crawford’s Harriet Craig side by side with Rosalind Russell’s Craig’s Wife, I’d say that Russell’s is unquestionably the better performance (Russell’s performance actually gave me waterworks at the end), but Harriet Craig is the better film. The changes made to the original plot result in a tighter narrative and clearer central focus: Harriet’s pledge to herself never to wind up like her mother.

It’s all a fascinating look at the somewhat superhuman expectations placed upon women in the achievement of the suburban ideal (add a couple of kids, a nicer disposition, and some genuine feeling for her husband, and she’s basically the perfect wife), and in a way, shows what happened to the role of the film noir femme fatale after the war—she became queen of the house.
A House is Not a Home

Copyright © Ken Anderson

17 comments:

  1. Ken, a great post on a film that made a big impression on me and to which I reacted in pretty much the same way as you. You said this isn't available on DVD, so I must also have seen it on TCM, probably when you did. I recall being stunned when Harriet describes her origins at how similar they were to Crawford's own. As an involved viewer, I found it a bit creepy. In a more detached mode, I found it unsettling to think what Crawford must have felt while playing an unflattering character so close to herself. I loved your entertaining descriptions of her behavior, particularly her shabby treatment of her doormat of a husband and meek poor relation. Glad you also mentioned "Queen Bee," a movie in a similar vein that in its outlandish (but in its own way entertaining) campiness makes this one look like "Citizen Kane"!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks, R.D.
    It's nice to hear that you had a similar viewing experience.
    I'm forever intrigued by actors who take on roles that on some level must be uncomfortably close to real-life. Rock Hudson, Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner,Elizabeth Taylor,Bette Davis and even that bundle of subterfuge, Tom Cruise, have taken on roles that seem to intentionally tease the audience with glimpses of what we perceive to be their real lives or personalities.
    Although it's the kind of role she could play in her sleep, Crawford is pretty engaging here and the film does indeed fare better than "Queen Bee."
    You've been so nice to read and post comments here. I'm long overdue a visit to your site, The Movie Projector
    http://themovieprojector.blogspot.com/
    I'm curious to see if there are any films you write about that might be favorites of mine.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Ken, I love Joan, love this movie and agree with everything you said about her and it. I don't even have anything to add except I just wanted to touch base and thank you for another interesting read. I was lucky enough to finally catch Craig's Wife about a year ago and greatly enjoyed seeing the same story told in a different way (and directed by a woman! - Dorothy Arzner.) Thanks again.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Poseidon. Terrific to hear from you. Glad you liked the post. Joan is almost always fun to watch ("Susan and God" is about the only film of hers I can't really stand). You really DID find something to contribute, though. I forgot that "Craig's Wife" was directed by Dorothy Azner! Perhaps that accounts for why Russell is so affecting (or maybe she's just the better actress...)

      Delete
  4. I've never heard of this film (hangs head down in shame) or it's originsl Roz Russell version and after reading your review I have to get my hands on it!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Seriously, as big a fan of Crawford as I am, I only saw it 5 years ago, and it's not on DVD. It's a terrific film but you sort of have to scour the TCM schedule to see it. By the way, PTF, I finally got around to seeing Julie Christie "Petulia" and OMG...how did that movie get past me all these years? So thanks for making me feel ashamed enough to seek it out. :-)

      Delete
  5. I will be scouring the TCM schedule to catch this one. Glad you finally got to see PETULIA! You need to write that one up soon!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Has the argument yet been made for Joan Crawford as auteur? Seriously - her films reflect so many facets of herself and of her actual life; and their whole overheated, overwrought style reflect the lady's projection of herself. And then the 'Joan' look - did the fad for shoulder pads come into fashion because of her bone structure? I saw 'Harriet Craig' a long time ago, as well as 'Queen Bee,' and both are amazing displays, as you note, of the Joan persona and facade. I don't suppose any other actress has done so much for the image of the female star as Crawford, or has DEFINED for us what stardom is.

    I'm fascinated by the first photo of Joan in your post, where she's wearing the severe black dress and the scraped-down hair style, yet there are those 2 stylized appliques on the lapels: they look like 2 flames bursting out on her chest. They seem to sum up her character in this movie, the proper, repressed exterior and the passion and ambition contained within. They seem also to capture the essence of Joan herself!

    ReplyDelete
  7. You really make a lot of fascinating points! The line between Joan the movie star and Joan the woman has always been tissue-thin. One wonders how aware she was of it and how much of a conscious choice was the fashioning her image: physical appearance, roles, personality, etc.
    I especially like what you said about the ensemble she wears in that first image! So true!
    I find it ironic that the more vehemently a star tries to control their image, the more they wind up actually revealing about themselves. Thanks for a very interesting comment, and should you ever write an essay on Joan as auteur, you MUST inform me. It's a fascinating theory!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Good news and bad news - there IS a dvd version now, thanks to TCM, but you have to buy it as part of a set called Joan Crawford in the 1950s (Harriet Craig / Queen Bee / Autumn Leaves / The Story of Esther Costello). I like them all, except for the Esther klunker, but Harriet is the real masterpiece in the group.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi 66!
      Thanks for reminding me to make an annotation about the DVD to the text of this post. I actually purchased the set and, like you, I found "The Story of Esther Costello" to be the bummer in the bunch. I'm glad to have finally seen it, but it's kind of lacking, isn't it? (Once more, I think it's so great you are reading so many posts! Much appreciated!)

      Delete
  9. Saw Harriet Craig on non-cable too early in the morning viewing, could not stop watching although I needed the sleep. After my 41 years as a wife she was a scary image.

    This portrait appears to be the trade-off some men and women take today for future security, or what they think of as secure. Harriet's status at the end of the movie may not be considered as awful as it did when the film was made. Too bad, I liked marriage, for the most part, may do it again. Let's think on this film before the I do's - all of us.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi
      Yes, last night I had that channel on too, and even though I own the film on DVD, I found myself caught up in watching "Harriet Craig" in the wee-small hours of the morning!
      It is a scary image of "wife" and, and as you point out, a dramatization of a trade-off many couples make today. You make two very good points: 1. Harriet's status at the end may not look so bad to some folks today; 2. Think on this film before the "I do's."
      Points well taken! Thank you so much for commenting and visiting this site!

      Delete
  10. Hi Ken,
    Enjoyed reading your insights into the film as usual. Don't know how I missed this hard-assed hootinanny of a movie when I was looking through your reviews at first. I stumbled across it about a week and a half ago but decided to wait to comment on it until I had a chance to rewatch it during the current blitz of Crawford's films this month on TCM, she's STAR of the month, as I'm sure she's insist it be written!!

    As I said this was a rewatch so I was able to take in more of the layers of the film knowing what was coming down the pike. I've seen the Rosalind Russell version and agree that Joan's is the better film even if Roz gave the more modulated performance. Of course Rosalind's talent was more varied, she was able to play comedy as well as drama, with the exception of The Guilt of Janet Ames. Have you ever seen that? It's like an hour and a half of dental surgery without novocaine! Whereas Joan even when young was never really at home in lighter fare. As well as the sharper focus of the newer version there was also the adjustment of the character's innate make-up, in Craig's Wife she really cared what people thought but in Harriet Craig it was all about possession and security. Crawford's Harriet had no friends and doesn't want any, you actually only see her interact with people in a pleasant manner once-during the dinner party, that's for show and even then she's frostily stiff, although it is a small break from her usual coruscating bitch personality.

    To depart from the film proper for a moment in an odd coincidence Joan's next film after Harriet Craig was Goodbye, My Fancy which she stepped into at the last minute as a replacement for its planned star Rosalind Russell for whom the film had been tailored. Knowing that when you watch the film it's obvious the part wasn't a perfect fit for Joanie but she gave it an interesting interpretation and it's probably the last time on screen when she was anything approaching a softly feminine presence although there's a good deal of grit too.

    Back to Harriet Craig, a few things I found interesting about this version that both Sherman and Joan contributed to were the different ways they used to convey Harriet's inner being through exteriors. Sherman shoots the film in a detached, chilly manner, a perfect fit for the material. Joan's mannish bob conveys the immobility of her character although it certainly does her no favors. Then there's her rigid posture, a Crawford trademark but here even more unyielding if possible. There is that one scene with the thinly veiled reference to taking a rest which obviously alludes to their sex life which considering the censorship restrictions and 50's repression is unambiguously presented. Harriet's wardrobe doesn't seems to be worn so much as to encase her, even her frilly peignoir is so crisply new it barely seems to move least it crease or wrinkle. A really nice touch is the jacket she wears in the office scene with Walter's boss that has lapels like wings on a bird of prey, perhaps not the subtlest way to point out the vulture that she is but fitting for the film.

    In hindsight it does seem like the writers used Crawford's backstory with the mention of being a laundress and such, you almost expect her to spew out how Anna LeSueur beat her with a broom handle, from what I've read her preferred method of discipline. It's doubtful though during those days when such things weren't discussed that she would have shared such stories or allowed them to be used so baldly. However her backstory surely informed her being able to inject so much venom into the scene.

    ReplyDelete
  11. The one misstep that the script makes in relation to her character is her weeping at the end after Walter realizes at last what a pit viper she is and leaves, it feels wrong. Harriet as presented is more than a control freak, she's actually a very cruel control fiend who doesn't love anyone; she's married to her house so her final ascension up the stairway seems right since she's now left with the only thing that truly matters to her.

    Joan rolls right over K.T. Stevens and for the most part Wendell Corey but it's creditable that against the juggernaut that is Crawford at her most uncompromising some of the other perfomers manage to make any impression at all. The two who stood out for me were the marvelous Viola Roache as housekeeper Mrs. Harold, her blunt dressing down of Joan when she had enough was actually my favorite scene in the entire film. Then there is the divine Lucile Watson, a favorite supporting actress of mine who had a strong onscreen energy herself, she's a breath of fresh air in her two small scenes.

    A couple words about Wendell Corey. Firstly did any golden age star have a more pedestrian, uninspiring name? Even Corey Wendell would have been better. Anyway he fits in with bland 50's leading men but was a bit edgier. He still could be rolled over by the Crawfords or Stanwycks but perhaps because of his eyes which I'm guessing were blue but photographed in a startling way in black and white he registered more strikingly than the John Ireland types and definitely more so than Barry Sullivan. His schlubby Walter Craig is quite good in its quiet way, let's face it he doesn't have a great deal to work with.

    Another brief, or perhaps not so brief, aside to the film. As I had mentioned it's Joan Crawford month on TCM and I've been trying to complete my viewing of her filmography as much as possible because of it.

    It's been a fascinating journey; not so much because of the films, some of which have been godawful, but to watch her evolution through the decades. I had seen the lion's share of her catalogue but it gave me a chance to finally catch the interesting failure Susan and God and the overheated but enjoyable, mostly because of Margaret Sullavan, The Shining Hour. By the end of this week I'll have seen all her sound films when I finally break down and watch Trog which I've delayed for years because it looks so horrendous.

    They have shown the films chronologically which was helpful in observing the changes she went through. I will admit having a limited patience for silents so I only did a small sampling of hers: The Unknown with Lon Chaney was a trippy, bizarre mind bender but The Boob in which she had a small role as a treasury agent! was dreadful. Unfortunately two that I was really intrigued by, Four Walls co-starring John Gilbert and The Law of the Range which I thought would be worth a chuckle, a cheapie western she was forced by Mayer to do as a punishment for complaining about the quality of her films and on which she told co-star Tim McCoy during the first day of shooting " I'm going to have a good time on this picture if it kills me" to spite Louie B. are either unavailable or lost.

    ReplyDelete
  12. In those early films she really is unformed, at certain angles you can see the Crawford we know in nascent form but her appearance is really in flux and the makeup people were trying to make her resemble Gloria Swanson. In almost every film her hair and makeup underwent some type of change until about the time of Our Dancing Daughters where she settled into the look that she stuck with more or less throughout the 30's-razor blade cheekbones, those bat wing eyebrows over her huge eyes, for the most part loose flowing light brown hair and an amazing Adrian supplied wardrobe. Her performances are also less stylized and relaxed, although there's always that burning ambition and hunger behind her eyes.

    Surely that was her most complimentary and feminine look but even as she matured somewhat in the 40's with slightly thicker eyebrows, darker hair, a more business like wardrobe and attitude she was still alluring and attractive up until about the time of Daisy Kenyon and The Damned Don't Cry!. It was actually with Harriet Craig, with a brief return to a type of softness in Goodbye, My Fancy, that the mannish phase began in earnest with mink stole eyebrows, a huge slash of a mouth and frequently extremely unflattering hairdos culminating in the ironically titled Female on the Beach. Part of that falls to the general ugliness of 50's hairstyles with their flat crowns and tight curls worn close to the head which in particular hardened maturing women. They had a similar effect on Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and several other actresses who seemed to age about half to almost a decade between their last film with longer hair and the new look took over, their faces becoming more painted and hard. As time went on most of those women shed that enameled look but Crawford while remaining glamorous calcified finally arriving at the gargoyle phase with shellacked hair, significant jewerly and a granite visage. None of this is meant to be a knock on her, almost without exception I find her entertaining.

    One last note in what has turned out to be a far longer critique than I had planned. You mentioned that she must have had written into her contract that she have a scene with a band of light illuminating her eyes, I watched Autumn Leaves during this marathon and that particular shot was practically one of the motifs of the film.
    Sorry I ran on for so long I guess I was inspired by your post and our mutual admiration for that strange creature that was Joan Crawford.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Hi Joel
    I'll use this as the replay for your three pots. I'm very pleased you were so inspired by the Joan Crawford TCM schedule of films to share your thoughts about this film and Crawford in general. I've been enjoying it as well.
    Your knowledgeable and comments reveal your passion for films and are always a pleasure for me to read. I know a great many visitors to this blog appreciate both your insights and how informative you are. A great contribution to this post! Thanks!

    ReplyDelete