Monday, July 07, 2008


Both of these films are based on a 1920's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "Craig's Wife" by George Kelly. The basic situation is the same in both, but there some plot differences. I saw the 1950 film first, so I'll use that as the basis for my summary. Joan Crawford is Harriet Craig, a woman who seems to have it all: a gorgeous house, servants, and a loving and successful husband, Walter (Wendell Corey). Childless, she has invested all her time and energy into taking care of her large, spotless house, with the help of servants whom she treats badly. While Harriet is out of town with her cousin Clare (K.T. Stevens) visiting her sick mother, she explains to Clare that a woman needs to carefully train and control her man. When they return unexpectedly early, Harriet is shocked to see the house in disarray from a party that Walter threw, and we discover that Harriet's meticulous ways have alienated most of Walter's old pals. She treats the house like a museum, and when an expensive Ming vase on the mantle is pointed out to us, we know it will wind up broken before the end of the movie. Clare takes a shine to a co-worker of Walter's, but Harriet does not approve and tries to subvert their relationship. We find out that Harriet has told people that Walter doesn't want kids, but in reality she has lied to him, telling him she can't have children--we also see her blatantly use sex as a bargaining tool. She's jealous of a widow neighbor whom Walter occasionally visits. The last straw occurs when Walter winds up in line for a promotion and Harriet, upset at the changes to her lifestyle that the new job might entail, lies to his boss, saying that Walter is an irresponsible gambler. Soon, Harriet's web of lies collapses and she is left alone, no husband, no relatives, no servants, and no friends, just the house. The icy, hard persona that Crawford had developed in her movie roles of the late 40's makes her the perfect match for the role. Corey is a washout as the husband, and the rest of the cast is overshadowed by Crawford, though Lucile Watson is quite good in a small but crucial role as Walter's boss' wife, and Allyn Joslyn is effective as a friend of Walter's.

The earlier film stars Rosalind Russell and, though the trajectory of the plot is the same, certain details are different (though I assume closer to the original play). There are still friends, neighbors, relatives, and servants to be abused by Harriet, and the Ming vase is still teetering on the mantle. But instead of a job promotion, a melodramatic crime plot is Harriet's downfall--because of Harriet's unfounded jealousy, Walter becomes a suspect in the death of a friend of his. In this version, an aunt and a female housekeeper, driven away by Harriet, leave together to travel the world--a quiet nod to lesbianism, perhaps, thanks to the director Dorothy Arzner? It is also stated directly here that Harriet believes that a woman can only achieve "emancipation" through a good marriage, and she has done so, with her house as the proof. Russell is different from Crawford but almost as good; she makes the character a bit more sympathetic and just a smidge less cold. John Boles as the husband is only marginally better than Wendell Corey; Billie Burke is the neighbor, and Jane Darwell and Raymond Walton are familiar faces in the cast. Both versions are well worth catching, though the Russell one is hard to find, not being on DVD yet. [DVD/VHS]

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