CRAIG’S WIFE (Dorothy Arzner, 1936)

The second of three film versions of George Kelly’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1926 play Craig’s Wife was directed by Dorothy Arzner, who took a feminist tack with the material. Hers is a far more interesting and intelligent film than the other version I have seen, Vincent Sherman’s glossy, more psychoanalytic than socioanalytic Harriet Craig (1950), which is more a vehicle for its vivid, witty star, Joan Crawford, than really about anything. In the spirit of Harriet’s own endless lies, Sherman’s film only pretends to be about things by paying them lip service.
     But Arzner’s film takes to heart what Harriet here tells her niece, Ethel: “I saw to it that my marriage was a way to emancipation. I had no private fortune, no special training—so the only road to independence for me was through the man I married. I married to be independent.” Harriet Craig is a monster who cares more about her house, its appearance and the things in it (like the precious vase on the living room mantle) than she cares about her niece or her husband, Walter (John Boles, very good); but her distorted humanity, Arzner conveys, is the result of the limited range of opportunities for American women who were not born to wealth or status.
     The final screen of script—“Those who keep to themselves are usually left to themselves”—feels tacked-on, as though the studio were insisting that this, and only this, is what the film is about. Indeed, Harriet is all alone at the end—all alone, that is, with her house. Everyone, including Walter, who had doted on her but now sees her as horrible, has abandoned her. Harriet would rather that the police suspect Walter of a double murder than have unpleasant gossip targeting her: this is what turns Walter against her. Also leaving Harriet behind are her niece, who leaves with her fiancé, and her aunt, who leaves with the housekeeper—a lesbian couple right under Harriet’s snobbish nose.
     Arzner also was a lesbian, and there is another gay character about, and gay and lesbian actors are onboard as well. All this reminds us how much of an outsider Harriet feels herself to be in her husband’s family home. In short, Arzner extends compassion and sympathy to Harriet Craig, whose reaching out her hand as the front door shuts behind her next-door neighbor (played wonderfully by Billie Burke), leaving her hand lost in air, compellingly encapsulates all the abandonments suffered in quick succession by the once-cold woman who is now dissolved in tears.
     Rosalind Russell, resembling a demented Wendy Hiller, manages to avoid Crawford’s grandness and obstinacy. She plays Harriet Craig at the last as a shattered vase.

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