Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5
USA, 1950. Columbia Pictures. Screenplay by James Gunn, Anne Froelich, based on the play Craig’s Wife by George Kelly. Cinematography by Joseph Walker. Produced by William Dozier. Music by George Duning. Production Design by Walter Holscher. Costume Design by Sheila O’Brien. Film Editing by Viola Lawrence.
Harriet Craig (Joan Crawford) keeps up an exemplary home as the housewife to an old-money scientist (Wendell Corey), every item in their showroom parlor is placed to perfection, dinner is served exactly on time and social events are pulled off with classy, elegant ease. She keeps her own self in perfect order as well, not a single hair out of place and her dresses always the last word in tasteful fashion, an enviable and admirable life that all around her wonder at, namely because they don’t live with her: her cook (Ellen Corby), housekeeper (Viola Roache) and the live-in cousin (K.T. Stevens) that she has turned into an indentured servant are subjected to non-stop criticism, micromanagement and sometimes abuse in Harriet’s efforts to keep everything shipshape. The favourable opinion is that she’s just a perfectionist with some redeemable qualities, but the picture gets darker when she begins to interfere in Stevens’ love life, sabotaging a potential relationship which could bring the young woman into her own, then when Corey is offered a three-month business trip to Japan that could advance his career, she does what she can to ruin that as well. Harriet has control issues, and for all her manipulations is given what she deserves in response, but even that is not the entire story, because once we learn about who she really is and where she comes from, the villainous image we have created of her becomes something more complex. Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Craig’s Wife by George Kelly (uncle of Grace), this isn’t a scintillating stage-to-film adaptation, it has the whiff of stale prestige in the way the camera circles the same few locations for lengthy periods of time and only briefly escapes into other spaces, but it also serves up a major slap in the face of suburban conformity just as America is about to enter the pristine hypocrisy of the Eisenhower years. You may hate Harriet for the awful things she does, but you also don’t want her to abandon her Stepford Wife efforts, you just expect her to be nicer about them, and she is here to tell you that it’s not possible to do both; a woman has to be the bad guy to let a husband glide through life so effortlessly, his ability to be kind to others is his privilege, and Crawford, a woman herself constantly misunderstood as a monster because of her ruthless desire to succeed, is the perfect person to deliver this message. The role itself doesn’t have the varying turns of emotional nuance that she pulls off so beautifully in Mildred Pierce or A Woman’s Face, but the reward she offers in the final scene makes the film a must-see. After watching her tell lies and negotiating with people’s desires every time she gets caught, we conclude with her pretense giving way to one monologue in which she tells the truth without dressing any of it up, and it is very clear when this highly skilled actress delivers it that it is coming from a different place than everything she has said before (and reportedly, as much of it pertains to her own real life, she wrote most of it herself). Overall the film is a mixed bag of rewards, the only other character who gives us as much to think about as Harriet does is Roache, whose confrontation with her is the film’s other best moment, but the good definitely outweighs the bad here.