Sunday, March 31, 2013

QUEEN BEE 1955

In the overheated melodrama Queen Bee, the Joan Crawford we’re given is one so seemingly tailor-made for the post-Mommie Dearest crowd; I find myself hard-pressed to even imagine how this film was received before Crawford became a camp punchline. What was its intended audience? Certainly, its dominant female lead and soap-opera histrionics qualify it as a late entry in the “woman’s film” genre so popular in the '40s,  but the camp factor is pitched so high in Queen Bee, at times the entire enterprise feels like a well-financed drag act pandering to Crawford’s legion gay fan base. Like All About Eve (1950), Queen Bee seems to be operating on two levels at all times: 1) The straightforward southern-fried potboiler (the least interesting level); 2) The gay-friendly parade of camp-diva posturing, elaborate costuming, and bitchy dialogue.
But whether self-aware or inadvertent, the ever-present gay sensibilities that make Queen Bee such a rip-snorter of an entertainment are thanks solely to Joan Crawford ruling the roost in full female drag queen mode. Always in charge, always fascinating to watch, in Queen Bee Crawford rolls out the entire arsenal of her patented, crowd-pleasing shtick: mannered delivery, mannish countenance, slaps to the faces of co-stars, pointed barbs delivered with haughty disdain, menacing eyebrows, teary-eyed close-ups…the works! And all presented forth as reliably and on cue as though she were taking requests from the audience.
Joan Crawford as Eva Phillips
Barry Sullivan as Avery Phillips
Betsy Palmer as Carol Lee Phillips
John Ireland as Judson Prentiss
Lucy Marlow as Jennifer Stewart
Based on the 1949 novel The Queen Bee by Edna Lee, Queen Bee is a curiosity in that its plot, upon reflection, seems to have no real point to it. It's like a monster movie in which an unprovoked evilembodied by a beast of single-minded malevolenceis introduced purely for the fun of watching the havoc it can wreak, then quickly dispatched so that normalcy can be regained. Eva Phillips is the monster in question (Joan Crawford, surprise!), a character whose sole defining character trait is Bitch on Wheels, with little to no variance or shading. Eva is a southern socialite who tricked her way into the moneyed Phillips clan (true to Joan Crawford movie tradition, Eva comes from humble beginnings) and is hell-bent on making everyone pay for their part in having made her feel like an outsider.
This manifests itself in her pathologically keeping a mean-spirited, ankle-strapped heel on the necks of anyone foolish enough to stay under her roof. In spite of the fact that her behavior seems to gain her very little, Eva gives herself over to it with a spontaneity and enthusiasm. Something her victims seem to mind a great deal, but not so much that it ever occurs to any of them to leave the comfy confines of the Phillips mansion/plantation.
Eva Phillips, spreading joy wherever she goes 
It's gently alluded to that Eva's contemptibility stems from a frustration born of her embittered, guilt-ridden husband Avery (Sullivan) having emotionally and sexually abandoned their marriage to retreat into the bottle. You see, in order to wed Eva, Avery jilted his-then fiancé, Sue McKinnon (the lovely Fay Wray in a small role); one-time southern belle, now local Ruby Red Dress. it's nice Eva's one-note biliousness has been given a backstory by way of explanation, but considering Eva dumped Avery's best friend, Jud (Ireland), for the bigger fish that was Avery (by way of a faked pregnancy), it's clear she was quite a piece of work to begin with.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
People I know who are unfamiliar with Queen Bee are always surprised when I set about summarizing the plot, for it truly boils down to merely 95 minutes of Joan Crawford behaving badly. That's it. For the average moviegoer, that's a mighty slim entertainment prospect. For a guy like me, a man capable of simultaneously appreciating Crawford as both a talented, underrated actress and a laugh-a-minute camp-fest, Queen Bee is the gold-standard. In earlier essays on the films Harriet Craig and Mommie Dearest, I've explained a bit what it is about Joan Crawford that so appeals to me. Suffice it to say that there has never been anyone quite like her before or since, and a true original is hard to resist. I love her when she's really on her game and delivering a solid, serious performance (she's terrific in A Woman's Face), but I'm just as gaga when she succumbs to excess and self-parody, as she does here. She's Joan Crawford, she doesn't have to be anything else!
A slap in a Joan Crawford movie is as sure and anticipated as a back-lit close-up in a Barbra Streisand movie.

PERFORMANCES
If it's a Joan Crawford movie, it's a pretty safe bet that the only star one is apt to walk away from the film singing the praises of is Joan Crawford. In Queen Bee, Crawford dominates the movie screen with the same iron will she dominates the lives of the Phillips household. And I couldn't be happier about it. When playing bad, both Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis are more adept at delivering performances that are dimensional and based in a recognizable reality. But Crawford's appeal for me is how she so often plays everything (her character's high and lows) in such boldface type. She's unsubtle and frequently full-tilt over the top, but I find her to be SO magnetic a screen personality. I love watching her. I just wish I knew whether my adoration was ironic or not.
A scene where we get to watch the tears well up in her eyes is always a favored part of any Joan Crawford movie.

Ingenue Lucy Marlow (is that a great name for an actress, or what?), considerably deglamorized from the first time I saw her in A Star is Born (1954), does fine with a purposely colorless role (Eva: "Jen you really must learn to join in conversations. Otherwise you give such a mousy impression!"), and while not being a particular favorite of mine, should be credited with not simply fading into the woodwork. Toothsome Betsy Palmer, whom I barely recognized without a game show panelist podium in front of her, is rather appealing and wins camp points for playing her role as Avery's sister Carol with so much misdirected ponderousness.
Taking the proceedings all-too-seriously, Palmer actually comes close to achieving the impossible ...overacting opposite Crawford! When not trying to wise up the wide-eyed Phillips house newbie to the pernicious ways of the Queen Bee, her character is otherwise a walking bullseye target for Eva's frequent scorn (Eva:"My, Carol, you look sweet! Even in those tacky old riding clothes!").
King Kong's inamorata, Fay Wray, makes a brief but welcome appearance as Sue McKinnon, a left-standing-at-the-altar, Blanche Dubois type. Although the film is set in Atlanta, GA., Wray is the only actor considerate enough to supply us with a southern accent.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
When Christina Crawford gave Crawford fans and detractors the heads-up about Harriet Craig and Queen Bee supplying the closest (not to mention safest) glimpses into what real life was like inside the Crawford household, both films rose to the top of my must-see list. No one will ever know the truth of all that Christina disclosed in her book, but I tell you this, these films make a hell of a double feature. Based exclusively on what Joan Crawford's image has become of late, both films bear that indelible stamp of re-enacted documentary. You can't watch either without your mind going to some bit of nightmarish lore attached to the whole Mommie Dearest legend. Depending on your taste for celebrity self-exposure, this can come off as either highly entertaining or uncomfortably squirm-inducing.
In this scene where Eva lays waste the bedroom of a particularly disliked in-law, it doesn't take much imagination to picture one of those "night raids" so vividly evoked in Christina Crawford's memoir, Mommie Dearest.

And for those who are most familiar with Joan through Faye Dunaway's portrayal of the actress in the legendary Mommie Dearest, there's still plenty of déjà vu cross-referencing to call your grip on truth and illusion into question.
A criticism consistently leveled at Mommie Dearest on its release was how many scenes appeared to have been culled from Crawford's films, and not her life. I have no idea what Crawford's real-life home looked like, but these staircase scenes definitely suggest that someone on the Mommie Dearest production team did a little of their research by way of The Late, Late Show. 
The Jean Louis costumes for Queen Bee were one of two Oscar nominations the film received (the other, Best Cinematography). Here in the center image you see Faye Dunaway sporting a Jean Louis-inspired creation (and a  Joan Crawford-inspired expression) in Mommie Dearest

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Perhaps it's a sign of age, but the soporific blandness of  so many contemporary "movie stars" is one of the reasons Joan Crawfordconsidered by many to be more a defined screen personality than an actressis starting to look better to me with each film. The dull beigeness of actors like Channing Tatum, Jennifer Aniston and Ryan Reynolds, makes me long for Crawford's brand of imposed-personality intensity.
Although John Ireland brings a kind of  perpetually peeved severity to his role, and I'm fascinated with Barry Sullivan's ability to deliver most of his dialogue through clenched teeth; true to form for movies with strong female leads, the males are an oddly bland an wooden bunch.

Joan Crawford is first and foremost a star. And a movie like Queen Bee needs a true star at the helm. Obviously relishing every moment, Crawford isn't stretching very far with her performance here, but in tapping into the character's narcissism and malicious manipulativeness with such fiery gusto, one can't help but admire her style and commitment even as you're giggling at her mannered excesses (hell, this is the actress who approached even her role in Trog with straight-faced earnestness). Although I would truly love it were I to detect a note of knowing self parody in Crawford's Eva Phillips, I nevertheless enjoy her performance here very much. It has command, humor, touches of pathos, and there's a scene or two where she borders on the terrifying. I only recently discovered Queen Bee through TCM, but I have since placed it at the top of my list of all-time favorite Joan Crawford films.
The Queen Bee...who stings all her rivals to death.

Bonus Materials
Hear Barbra Streisand sing the unofficial theme song to "Queen Bee." For Joan Crawford screening parties, may I suggest playing this over the film's closing credits for full camp diva effect. Begin music immediately after Barry Sullivan says the line: "The sun is shining. I didn't expect the sun to be shining." Click Here.

Hey Pepsi fans! Joan Crawford appears in and narrates this 1969 Pepsi-Cola sponsored video. A kinder and gentler Joan (who, oddly enough, comes off as even more terrifying) visits a supermarket...complete with hat, gloves, and a really obnoxious kid! The fact that she doesn't wallop the just-asking-to-be-slapped child is a testament to Mommie Dearest's control. (At least when a camera is around.) Click Here!
The Queen of Showmanship herself. (Image courtesy of Joancrawfordbest.com)
Copyright © Ken Anderson

24 comments:

  1. Thanks for this post. Queen Bee has been a favroite of mine for years (I discovered it when a DVD was released some time ago). I completely sign what you say about the film and the Crawford aura, this inexpicable attraction of hers (as a personnality, as an actress and as a character). What I also love about Queee Bee is that it is so loaded with quotable lines : "I'm ready for people!" or "Dr Pearsons, he's so absurd! You'think he'd never seen a beautiful woman before!" (now, this one is a little difficult to pull off, but...). Oh, Joan...

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    1. hello Tom
      HA! So true about the dialog. ("I hate to insist...but I insist.") This movie is loaded with great lines. Quotability seems to be a big factor in movies that develop a camp following. A lot of skilled actors can't handle bad dialog, but Crawford put over the most amazingly silly dialog with so much conviction. Plus she had great comedy timing and a way with a wry line. I like her a great deal, but never really know why. I don't take her very seriously, but she's marvelous.
      I'm glad to hear "Queen Bee" is a favorite of yours and that you too appreciate that odd mix of mixing of Crawford myth and fiction. Good to hear from you again, Tom!

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  2. This film was a documentary.

    "Flamingo Road" was supposed to be Ida Lupino's film - but not with Joan on the lot!

    Miss Crawford likely ran over scores of people to keep working, and likely backed the car up to remind them she's got one eye in the rear view mirror. Though, isn't that why we like her?

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    1. Hi Testosterone
      I didn't know that about "Flamingo Road"! I just knew she seemed too old to be a harem girl in a carnival.

      But what is odd about both this film and "Harriet Craig" is that they do indeed feel documentary when it comes to Crawford's image. Most actresses with images like hers (Streisand comes to mind) cast themselves in roles that try to contradict the public perception of them as steamrollers. Crawford seemed to go out of her way to take roles that not only fed her image, but exploit it.
      And yes, that's why we love her!

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  3. Ken,

    I watched this not long ago probably for the first time and wondered two things. One you mention in your post - what the point was beyond Joan chewing scenery as a relentless, full-on bitch. The second was this question: what man would be seen with, let alone fall in love with or desire, a woman whose hair looked so - grotesque (even if she weren't a bitch 24/7)?!? I believe she wore this style in other films around that time - never to good effect. Hopefully this was a wig and not Joan's own hair because it looked like a creature with a life all its own - and not a happy one.

    I've always thought Joan's "Johnny Guitar" (Nicholas Ray) and Marlene's "Rancho Notorious" (Fritz Lang) would make a great double bill.

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    1. Hi Eve
      Your twin queries about this movie made me laugh. Indeed, what is "Queen Bee" supposed to signify, plot wise? The film doesn't even a have a moral. And your observations on Joan's very unflattering hairdo are spot on. I'd swear it inspired Gary Oldman's camel-hump coiffure in Coppola's "Dracula." I love "johnny Guitar" but have never seen "Rancho Notorious." Perhaps I'm missing something?

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    2. I think you might enjoy Marlene as a former saloon singer named 'Altar' who ends up owning a notorious ranch on the Mexican border called 'Chuck-a-Luck.' Gunfights, brawls plus Marlene sings and, as I recall, occasionally flashes her famous legs.

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    3. I'm going to check it out. I've seen very few Dietrich movies, and I'm long overdue for a new one. Thanks, Eve!

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  4. Hmmm... I don't know. I think the moral of the story was that if you scheme and manipulate people like pawns on a chess board, you'll come to an ugly end. Thing is, and sadly if you ask me, that is too often a fable-like fantasy rather than reality.

    It's my belief that the creators of Mommie Dearest (the movie and even part of the book!) used "Queen Bee" and other similar types of JC films as a launching pad for their own given project. As you point out, the film "Mommie Dearest" plays like a Joan Crawford movie rather than a movie about Joan Crawford and her child(ren.) But that's a whole 'nother story.

    So true about the stiff (and craggy!) men that these women are fighting over... I sort of liked the guy Lucy Marlow dated briefly, but Sullivan and Ireland are kinda ick! Ireland allegedly made up for his face with a party in his pants and he and Joan carried on a wild affair during the filming of this!

    I love the way Joan comes out and says the most obscenely insulting things to people, right to their faces! She runs herd over everybody. I love when she steps on Betsy Palmer's house blueprints with her patented F-M shoes and await that slap of Lucy Marlow every time with slobbering anticipation.

    Her hair is wretched, but the clothes are often wonderful. Had she opted for a less alien-looking, praying mantis-ish hairstyle (maybe they were going for an insect-like look?!), stills of her in these clothes would probably be all-time classics instead of strange curios.

    Incidentally, I read Fay Wray's autobiography (cleverly titled "On the Other Hand", as a play on her being carried around by King Kong) and she remarked how welcoming and kind Joan was to her during this movie in contrast to the way JC's character treated hers. Of course, Joan was no pushover, but I think she played hardcore bitches so well that people found it easy to apply that persona to her real life. I think the real Joan put up a tough front in order to hide and protect an inner vulnerability and she so easily drew upon this wellspring in scenes like the mirror/cold cream scene and other crying sequences. She could bring up convincing tears so readily that she was able to control which eye would trickle first. (She once actually asked director Vincent Sherman on set which eye he wanted a tear to drip from in a scene!)

    Beyond any of all this, I just revel in watching her do her thing, chewing on bits of the scenery until only the frames of the flats are left (and even they are waffling and ready to fall! Ha!)

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  5. Hi Poseidon
    You’re right about what is essentially the surface moral of "Queen Bee," and indeed, it's too bad that real-life monsters never seem to get ever get their just desserts (For example: I wish somebody would take that Westboro Baptist guy for a ride some rainy night).
    But for me, "Queen Bee," spends so much time showing us a monster behaving exclusively like a monster; her coming to a bad end feels a bit like punishing a snake for being a snake.(Curiously ,Godzilla movies have always struck me this way. He's a big and clumsy lizard who just steps on Tokyo every now and then...he can't help it.)

    By the way, your description of Crawford's hair as being praying mantis-ish is perfect! I've struggled to think what that double bump effect has reminded me of. And yes, the costumes really are spectacular, just not very well set-off by that hair and that severe makeup Crawford tended to favor during this period.

    That duality of tough and soft you speak of I think is one of Crawford's greatest assets and why i think she still captivates after all these years. She's compelling when she's vulnerable, but she is electric when she's playing bad.

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  6. Your reviews are so smart, so funny, and always spot on!

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    1. Aw, Thom
      From someone as talented, witty, and discerning as yourself, I must say...that is huge praise, indeed. I'm very happy you enjoyed it!

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  7. GREAT post on essential late Crawford - the comparisons to monster movies are so apt! Joan rampages over this film like, in reference to your earlier comment, Godzilla trampling on Tokyo. But the other characters are so bland, you HAVE to root for her. The entire household comes across as a strange, hilariously dysfunctional family, as everyone bows to the Queen Bee and lets her have her way. I suspect part of Joan's appeal is how she gets away with her bad behavior - it plays out like the hidden fantasy of Nerds Anonymous. Who wouldn't want to swank about in great fashions while dropping the nastiest, wittiest insults and yet remain the whirling center of attention?

    Unlike the other commenters, I'm not bothered by Joan's hair in this film, but by Lucy Marlow's eyes (BTW, her name sounds like it could have come straight out of All About Eve). They're too small and have no eyelashes, and when I watch I find myself wishing she would do something with them - put on fake lashes, eyeliner, SOMEthing. They give her face a peculiar lack of focus, particularly in comparison with Joan's (which is ALL focus). It's just another oddity about the film that makes it such a unique viewing experience.

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    1. Hi GOM
      I'm so GLAD you said something about Lucy Marlow's eyes! I wanted to but thought it would be too mean-spirited since I had so little good to say about her performance. But happily you opened that door... Her eyes recede into her head so much I'm stunned that a call for major lashes wasn't made. They fixed this problem in "A Star s Born" but in here it has exactly the effect you say; it gives her face a lack of focus. Weird as it seems, those chickpea eyes of hers bothered me throughout the film.

      I also appreciate your casting a "pro" vote for her hairdo. It's only fair after the bashing it has received here at my encouragement. :-)
      I like your Nerds Anonymous explanation for Crawford's horror appeal. It's like when i watch Daffy Duck or Boris Badenov...the IS a big thrill to watching people being horrid and getting away with it (at least when stylish and scathing in a Addison DeWitt kind of way).
      Good or bad, I love that Crawford inspires so much dialog about her sometimes peculiar appeal. When I talk with friends about the current crop of movie "talent", we run out of things to say in a couple of sentences!

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    2. As God is my witness, I was watching this with a friend a couple of weeks ago and in some of the medium shots, Lucy Marlow strongly resembled the little banjo playing kid from "Deliverance!" I wanted to get the team that worked on Esther Blodgett (or the people of Oz) to burst into the movie and do something with her! I guess she's meant to be plain and naive, but lord...... And Barry Sullivan actually refers to her (good!) looks at various points!!

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    3. I'm laughing as I write this (and thoroughly ashamed of myself for it) but you both are so spot on. The comment about Joan's face being ALL focus, and then your comment about "Deliverance" creates too vividly accurate an image. Joan's face literally upstages Marlow's.
      I've seen many glamour shots of Marlow online with lashes, bigger brows and such, she somewhat resembles Anne Blythe. I'm certain what you say about them wanting her to look plain is the only explanation for how poorly she is served in the makeup department.
      Still, Poseidon, you have a way of putting things that always tickle me.

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    4. I could make a Deliverance joke, but I won't ... but you're right, Marlow's eyes seem to recede into her forehead. It's surprising because the other actresses do look attractive in the film, so it doesn't seem a case of Joan demanding eyeliner only for herself. You'd think the director would have noticed the effect in the rushes.

      I love the shot of that painting of Joan, which looks as if done in the early 30s, during a blonde phase. Did Joan lend images of herself to be displayed in movies? I recall that Humoresque had a spectacular painting of herself that appeared in the beach house scenes; I'm pretty sure I saw it (or a good copy) years ago in the lobby of the old NYC revival house, Theater 80 St. Marks (I think the owner had been a friend of Crawford's, so maybe it was a gift).

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    5. I'm pretty sure I read somewhere that it was pretty common for Crawford to loan (for a price) items from her personal collection to be used in movies. On TCM they said this in reference to a bust of herself Joan allowed to be used in "Strait-Jacket" that was supposed to represent sculpting the work of her daughter in the film, Diane Baker.
      Below is a link to a portrait of Joan by Margaret Keane (y'know...the lady who painted those HUGE eyes). I can't imagine there were too many requests to use this one.

      http://guyfarris.tumblr.com/post/46523854954/movie-stars-and-their-portraits-joan-crawford

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  8. Hello Ken, thanks for the great review! I must see this film. Very interesting how you point out that Joan Crawford's role in this film inspiring the Joan Crawford role in "Mommie Dearest". I find you are the only one that writes seriously about "Mommie Dearest". Everybody else just wants to tear it apart.

    Oh, how I wish I could attend a "Joan Crawford screening party"! It's hard to find peolpe in Sweden who would appreciate such an evening. Everyone here is so down-to-earth, sigh!

    -Wille

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    1. Thank you!
      I really think you'd enjoy this movie. If you've seen Mommie Dearest, flashes of Dunaway keep coming at you.
      As for a Joan Crawford screening party, it can be a lot of fun. Everything that's remotely funny about ol' Joan becomes absolutely riotous when you're watching her with a group.
      By the way, it's very difficult for me to imagine that the land that gave the world ABBA can be so down to earth!
      Thanks, Wille

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  9. For me evil Joan equals solid entertainment. With her red slash of a mouth and latter day intensity she digs her claws into this part relishing the chance to mow down every person who is unfortunate enough to cross her path. Once the fifties began Crawford's whole look and screen persona took on a much tougher sheen than the ambitious but feminine career woman on the make of the thirties and forties but nowhere would she be as reptilian as she is here and no one else has a chance to make much of an impression. It's always a bit disconcerting after watching one of these uber butch roles, Female on the Beach is another good example of Joan drained of all but the most glancing whiff of femininity, to revisit one of her 30's roles where her looks are distinctive and there is always an underlying desperation and burning ambition in her eyes but she is soft and often very beautiful.

    John Ireland has a certain brooding attractiveness but Barry Sullivan as Joan's cuckold of a husband is one actor I'll never get, he is so similar to a cigar store Indian it's always a shock that his lips move. There were many bland leading men in the 50's, Ireland, David Brian, John Lund etc., whose job it seemed was not to get in the way of the female star of the picture-just bask in her glow but of all of them none was duller than the lump of nothing Sullivan.

    I think Betsy Palmer comes across with the best performance possible under the circumstances though all fall away under the steely gaze and are no match for the dragon lady. One more thing I love your reference to Fay Wray's character as the local Ruby Red Dress! I got quite a chuckle out of that.

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    1. Ha! Love that you got the Ruby Red Dress reference!
      You really nail Joan Crawford's off transformation in the 50s. Her earlier screen persona (hell, her whole physicality) fails to resemble what she became in the 50s. Did straight men find her alluring?
      Happily, these years produced a great many of her most evil roles, "Queen Bee" being a fave. As I've come to note in your posts, you have a great way of delineating certain aspects of a film in ways that perfectly capture how much you enjoy movies and what you get out of them. Reading your statements on "Queen Bee' reveal a keen eye. I especially like (and concur) with all you say about Barry Sullivan and that certain brand of bland leading men the 50s seemed to produce. Thank you again for sharing your thoughts. A pleasure to hear form you!

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  10. Hello Ken, many apologies for this comment in honour of this film being so late but as a long time visitor to your site I wanted to say a belated thank you for all your wonderful essays. I've never dared to comment before as I never seem to have anything extra to contribute, but your write ups and others comments are always so much fun to read that your site has become compulsive for me, near obsessive compulsive in fact aptly enough Crawford-wise! I've never seen this film but am going to seek it out now as you make it sound joyous. I always relish anything with JC no matter how dubious it's reputation. Long may your blog continue, forever in fact!
    Kindest regards Nick here in Blackpool England.

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    1. Hello, Nick
      Just beginning my workday and I see you very kind comment! Thank you for the flattering words! We share a fondness for Joan Crawford (I was recently gifted with a whole Crawford collection for my birthday, so I hope to write more about our favorite obsessive compulsive).
      Hope when you track this film down, you enjoy it as much as I do. It really is a hoot.
      And once again, I think you for reading my blog and I'm gratified that you have found the posts enjoyable.
      Such a kick to think of someone reading my ramblings in England! All my best!

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