Thursday, August 11, 2011

Harriet Craig (1950)

A while back, the New York Times published an article in their home section, focused on adjusting your fabulous child-free home decor to the presence of kids. One woman’s solution was to forbid her two children from bringing more than a single toy into the living area, or leaving a toy there. She didn’t want Matchbox cars and Legos in her sightlines.

Harriet Craig, thou livest still.

It’s easy to mock the premise of George Kelly’s 1926 play Craig’s Wife, the source for Vincent Sherman’s 1950 Harriet Craig as well as a 1936 Dorothy Arzner version with Rosalind Russell as the title character (and a 1928 silent that the Siren hasn't seen). The wintry selfishness of Walter Craig's wife drives away everyone, until she is left utterly alone. In Kelly’s vision, Harriet is a housewife obsessed with having a perfect house, and that’s wrong, you see. It’s wrong because a housewife should be focused on...on...well, having a perfect house and just being nicer about it, all right? She needs to let her husband have some fun, and then let him come home to a bunch of little feet doing the time-step, and she should be greeting the man with devotion, not spot-cleaning the drawing room and having conniptions if anyone gets too close to the antique vase.

The Siren has read the play on which Harriet Craig is based, and has seen the more faithful '36 version, and from time to time the Siren has encountered arguments that Harriet’s devotion to her house is a sub rosa feminist statement. The Siren flat doesn't see it, nor does she see much evidence that it was taken that way at the time. Craig’s Wife is a salvo against raw materialism, not an ironic statement on the condition of housewives. But the 1950 version breaks with precedent in several ways, all of which work in its favor. It's a rare case where, although the Arzner is very good (by all means see it) the Siren (gasp) prefers the remake.

The most important reason for that is the presence of Joan Crawford in the title role. Director Vincent Sherman (who was having an affair with Crawford at the time of filming) was known as an expert helmsman for the movie vehicles of female superstars, and he lets Crawford dominate. She probably would have anyway, given she was playing opposite Wendell Corey, but the effect was to undermine the original material in a way that made it more interesting.

That’s because Crawford makes the story about sublimation — not merely sexual sublimation, as is blatantly implied in the 1936 version, but sublimation of intelligence and ambition. Harriet tells her niece (K.T. Stevens, the daughter of Sam Wood) that marriage is a cold-eyed bargain: household skills in return for material security. You’d assume Joan’s body would be part of the bargain, too, Wendell Corey’s body not being much of a factor. The script spells out that Harriet has been evading at least part of that department because she doesn’t want to have kids.

But the Siren says that in this version, it is clear Harriet's engaging in, let’s say, non-procreative activities to keep her husband Walter in line. Look at the way her face alters at times when she’s talking to him, and the way Corey (who is perfectly cast for once) looks back, like a boy who’s plowing through the broccoli to get to the ice cream. Not to mention Walter acknowledging that wives are “mighty handy gadgets to have around the house.”

The most beautiful part of the set is the central staircase that Harriet swoops up and down as she makes Walter cringe and the maids cry. It’s the focus of several memorable shots, including a wised-up Walter splayed on the sofa — with his shoes on, no less — as he prepares to tell off his wife. The staircase also reminds us of what Harriet wants, which is to climb to high society in the only way that’s open to her.

Screenwriters Anne Froelich and James Gunn work to explain why Harriet is so fiercely materialistic and shallow. They added a mid-movie scene where Harriet visits her mentally ill mother in an asylum, no doubt in order to give Harriet a human dimension. Crawford’s playing, more subtle than in any other part of the film, shows that this mad old lady is the one person for whom Harriet feels real love, and the one person from whom she will never get it.

But a better explanation for Harriet comes later. Walter is about to be offered a promotion that will take him to Japan, without Harriet, and she can’t bear to have him out of her clutches — he goes so well with her Ming vase, after all. Harriet goes to Walter’s boss and persuades him, with diabolical efficiency, that her husband has a gambling problem and can’t be trusted. Crawford underlines the cold manipulation, but she also demonstrates her character’s misused intelligence, wielded now to push the paternalistic boss along the road to the conclusion she wants. This sort of negotiating skill had no outlet at home. Harriet is at last in her element. She was never meant to be organizing dull dinner parties and ruining her niece’s life in her spare time. Harriet should have been across a conference table, barking, “Don’t fuck with me, fellas. This ain't my first time at the rodeo.”

That last Mommie Dearest line is an irresistible recollection to most modern viewers of Harriet Craig, as is “I’m not mad at you. I’m mad at the dirt." We know Christina and Christopher Crawford saw their mother as a real-life Harriet Craig, only with children to abuse and manipulate rather than  just servants, a niece and a husband. We also know that a number of loyal friends, and Crawford’s two youngest children, have always claimed they saw no Harriet Craig-type side to her.

The Siren would like to add an endnote. If Joan was bringing herself to Harriet, she was also bringing her sense of what a life without a career might have been like. Stardom offers, if nothing else, plenty of opportunity to negotiate and manipulate. Seen that way, Crawford as Harriet is a cautionary tale of what happens when a smart, calculating, highly ambitious woman has nothing but her home decor to occupy her mind.

Because, as far as the Siren is concerned, if you’re flipping out over one extra toy next to the Philippe Starck sofa, you need to get out of the house.

(To the Siren's New York City readers who wish to get out of the house: Harriet Craig, which is not on DVD, is playing tonight only, 7:00 pm and 9:30 pm, at the Clearview Chelsea, 260 West 23rd Street.)


Raquelle said...

Wonderful post. The timing of this post was quite perfect for me because I'm dealing with domestic issues. Very light in comparison with Harriet Craig but similar nonetheless. I particularly like what you said about misused intelligence. And that line about this being "a cautionary tale of what happens when a smart, calculating, highly ambitious woman has nothing but her home’s decor to occupy her mind." really got me thinking. Now I really want to see this movie but alas it's not on DVD!

Eddie Selover said...

Nice! You made me want to watch this... no small feat since it comes from the part of her career I like least: that early-50s period when she was increasingly rigid and fierce.

I don't know if you saw my little tribute to her at Edward Copeland's place last month, but I've really come to admire and feel some affection and sympathy for Crawford. Maybe growing older has something to do with it; I see through the discipline and hardness to the vulnerable person underneath. She doesn't make it easy, but in a way I like that.

The Siren said...

Raquelle, honestly, I believe all women deal with the issues in this movie, even if your SO is a woman, too. How much are you going to put into your surroundings? It's a decision everyone has to make. I admire people who put effort into making a home clean and beautiful and see that part of life as an art and not a chore. Harriet Craig, for normal people, is a little bulletin saying "it's okay, life goes on even if your coffee table's a bit smudged."

Eddie, I agree; Crawford had a hardscrabble childhood without much stability or affection, and her performances show time and again that she understood all the subtle ways that people from such backgrounds learn to cope.

Eddie Selover said...

I read somewhere that she was once spotted in a booth at the Brown Derby having lunch with Doug Fairbanks, Franchot Tone and Philip Terry... all three of her ex husbands. What a woman.

In a movie book I have, there's a little thumbnail sized picture of her taken during the war; she has a box camera around her neck, her hair is pinned up, and she is laughing a huge, relaxed laugh. She looks like a million bucks and a lot of fun besides. That's the Joan Crawford I'd have liked to have known.

Ned said...

It sounds like Harriet needs to get herself a job. You know, like running Pepsi-Cola.

Never seen this version but I've seen the Dorothy Arzner. I saw it with a bunch of friends in Vermont where we went for a week of skiing. In the event, it rained for three days and we found ourselves watching Craig's Wife at 8:00 in the morning. Only one of these guys had much interest in film so it was fun to hear their commentary. The best line? As John Boles realizes his wife's true nature, he looks at the cigarette he's holding. One of the guys came out with "That cigarette has floor written all over it."

And so it did.

There were some other pretty funny lines but none for family consumption.

I was thinking, looking at the still of Crawford on that staircase, of how many films (and stage plays) have used staircases to great effect. The stairs in Little Foxes should almost receive cast billing. Stairs take us places in Psycho, Kiss of Death, Gone With the Wind, The Heiress (great moment for Olivia De Haviland), Yankee Doodle Dandy, Vertigo, the more eponymous Dark at the Top of the Stairs, The Spiral Staircase, etc, plenty more, especially musicals.

I wonder if a remake of Craig's Wife could be done today with Martha Stewart? Her husband could shatter one of her Faberge eggs.

The Siren said...

Ned, a friend of mine was complaining about David Mamet's On Directing, which was used in a film class she took. And one statement of Mamet's she recalled was that he said you shouldn't just show a character going up or down a staircase. And she thought of all the scenes you just mentioned. Her prof thought the book was great; she did not.

I'd add Lana Turner's final descent down the staircase in Ziegfeld Girl, one of the best things she ever put on film. Magnificent. Makes the whole damn movie. And of course there's David Ehrenstein's true love Elaine Stewart slinking along the top of the stairs in the Bad and the Beautiful...

Ned said...

Siren, The Bad and the Beautiful! Yes. How could I forget that scene? And that brings to mind La Stanwyck showing off her ankle bracelet coming down the stairs in Double Indemnity. Also, (before other Welles fans mention it) those fantastically creepy gothic stairs in Ambersons.

And speaking of Welles, was there a staircase part of the way up to the tower in The Stranger or was it a ladder all the way?

As for Mamet, I'm a fan of his films, but personally, he seems to be pretty rigid. And he, of all people, should know rules are meant to be broken. If you know how to do it.

The Siren said...

Ned, I didn't like Mamet's directorial efforts enough to read the book. But I believe Mamet's philosophy is pretty much that every shot should move the action along. (If that's incorrect, or needs refinement, jumpp in people.) Some of those stair scenes do that, and how, and others are really character development. And in Ambersons (ah, now there's a staircase!) it's part of the film's poetic visual vocabulary. Tim Holt's last climb...god I love that movie.

Ned said...

Tim Holt and Agnes Moorehead hissing at each other up and down that staircase is one of the more brilliant directions in a film awash with brilliance.

The production designer of Ambersons, Albert D'Agostino was involved in the design of another film with a great staircase: Notorious.

As for Mamet, I do like his scripts for Ronin and Heist, and I haven't read anything about his directorial rulebook, but thinking back on his films, I'd say the idea of each shot propelling the narrative is pretty accurate. But that's not an earth shattering discovery by Mamet either.

Certainly in a film like Ambersons, the staircase, and the characters moving up and down it, prefigures the shifting fortunes of the family in a way that simply moving the storyline along couldn't accomplish.

So there, Mr. Mamet.

Karen said...

Wow. Like Eddie, you have made me want to watch a Crawford film from my least favorite segment of her career.

I've seen--and loved, trembling--the Rosalind Russell version. Now you have me wondering if Jeanine Basinger talks about either (or, better, both) in her book, "A Woman's View." It sounds absolutely like the Crawford remake is "a cautionary tale of what happens when a smart, calculating, highly ambitious woman has nothing but her home’s decor to occupy her mind" --or, in other words, a smart woman's doomed life in the absence of a career.

Wouldn't it be great to see this on a double bill with, say, Ruth Chatterton in Female?

And, geez, wouldn't you want to have been a fly on the wall at that Brown Derby luncheon? Holy CAMOLY.

WV: "sublu" -- looks like there's some subtextual sublimation in the air...

Shamus said...


I too immediately was drawn to that still: Staircases are generally strange creatures: they can be the proscenium, double as the proscenium arch, or just someplace where the action is launched from or something for the characters to retreat behind. Sirk made great use of the stairs in most of his films, especially There's Always Tomorrow and Written on the Wind and Ophuls has some scene of the stairs in Caught, Madame de... (Darrieux exiting on the top, Boyer entering from behind it), Letter from.. and particularly, Reckless Moment. The final scene where the banisters become Bennett's trap.

Ned, Re, Stanwyck and her (unforgettable) descent from the stairs in Indemnity (twice), I saw The Strange Love of Martha Ivers recently (in pristine non-public domain print for a change): the HC still reminds me a lot of the stairs in that film.

DavidEhrenstein said...

My favorte staricase is the one Henry Fonda carries up the dead Lucille ball at the end of The Big Street.

Joan Crawford WAS Harriet Craig. Still I prefer the Arzner as she makes claer that Harriet's decision to become the "house rpoud" monster she is was her "deal" for making her way in the world. Being Harriet Craig -- obsessive-compulsive-disorder maven -- is her career. Roz is defintiely more sympathetic than Joan -- even at her worst. Plus she has Billie Burke (with whom Arzner was carrying on at the time) to feel sorry for her.

Harriet's closest contemporary equivalent woudl be Sarah Palin. The ever-intrepid Nick Broomfield is hard at work on film about her -- You Betcha. There's a clip of him beign thrown out of a Palin event already up on You Tube.

Rachel said...

This was a great post about a film I had previously no desire to see. But you've intrigued me.

I have seen the '36 Arzner/Russell version and liked it quite a bit in spite of the source material's...problems. Russell's Harriet ends up being quite sympathetic, especially when she's talking of her mother ("She was one of those 'I will follow thee, my husband,' women"). And her relative youth made Harriet's obsessions seem even stranger; we don't expect a young, attractive woman to be so house-obsessed.

Of course, at certain points in the film, I had to wonder whether the subversiveness I saw in the film was really more my reaction against John Boles, as Walter Craig. God, he's like a puffer fish when he gets indignant. And this line, that made my jaw drop open: "The brass of you-and the presumption...what have you ever done or a million others like you that you dare assume such superiority over your husbands!"

I think I'll check out the remake.

And for staircase moments, my mind immediately jumps to Teresa Wright in Shadow of the Doubt, slinking downstairs with the crucial ring on her finger. From the look in her eye, she might as well be pointing a gun.

Yojimboen said...

Portrait of an acting ensemble… acting.

X. Trapnel said...

Siren, you deserve commendation for discussing H Craig/'s Wife without resorting to the term "houseproud," a word I've never seen anywhere except in discussions of these movies and the play.

Staircases: My somewhat hazy recollections of Bigger Than Life include a number of staircase shots to underscore division between characters, a characteristic Nicholas Ray trope.

I believe the Amberson staircase turns up in The Seventh Victim and (maybe?) The Fallen Sparrow (there's a restaurant booth in They Won't Believe Me that appears in On Dangerous Ground. Irrelevant, I know, but I've been longing to go public with this for years).

Isn't there a staircase in Sunset Blvd.?

Shamus said...


RKO reused Ambersons set for many of Lewton's production: so yes, definitely, Seventh Victim and Cat People, possibly others. But as to On Dangerous Ground, I have no idea.

And the stairs Bigger than Life of course...

I recall Ophuls using a long crane shot of Fontaine slowly, elegantly descending the stairs: hopelessly lovely and utterly pointless so far the plot is concerned (when did that stop Ophuls?) but ALL his films have some parallel scene: his heroines ascending or descending staircases, which serves as premonition of disaster of some kind.

Ned, Ambersons has that extremely lovely vertical pan but that framing (and staging) is also there (but to slightly less effect) in Lady from Shanghai, when Welles meets Hayworth and his head appears in the open flap above her in the carriage. The park ride which is conducted in a very long take and Welles' poor DP (but who?) and cameraman had to follow for nearly a mile before that shot ended.

That vertical tilt of the two characters on separate landings is also present in, of all places, Chaplin's Gold Rush (could they even move the camera back then, let alone tilt it like Chaplin does?): the effect is equally unsettling and brilliant.

Shamus said...

But the staircase in Harriet Craig (and Martha Ivers) seems so pointlessly long and occupies so much space: it seems to convert a large lavish drawing room into an antechamber of sorts: set designer would have made a hopeless architect.

Could it be that Norma Desmond floats down on the strength of her own delusions or is there really a staircase which supports her: not sure which is the more plausible.

Vanwall said...

M. X, most certainly a staircase in "Sunset Boulevard", possibly the best use of one ever.

Saw "Harriet Craig" as a kid, and it was eerily like some mothers I knew then - thank God not mine, tho. Kelly wrote it when there was still the Victorian mandates in a lot of homes, but Harriet didn't "have the vapors" to release tension, she got as big an extender bar as she could find, and ratcheted up the control factor. A somewhat minor example of this impulse for quietly insane control is "Sign of the Ram" starring the tragically truly wheelchair-bound Susan Peters in a similar role. Crawford projects the finality of this process much more than Roz, you can see the desperation and walling-off of emotion at the same time in a lot of her facial expressions.

X. Trapnel said...

Shamus, I didn't mean that the Amberson staircase was in the largely horizontal On Dangerous Ground, which is bigger on doors, tables, and non-curving, modestly sized staircases as markers of division.

Yojimboen said...

(To the Siren's New York City readers who wish to get out of the house: Harriet Craig, which is not on DVD, is playing tonight only, 7:00 pm and 9:30 pm, at the Clearview Chelsea, 260 West 23rd Street.)

A word to the wise: don’t be tardy, because at exactly 3:02 in, Joan turns to face camera for the first time and we get the full impact. Roz Russell’s pointy lapels ([see my previous post] which would cheerfully take somebody’s eye out) are as naught compared to JC’s shoulder pads, which could stroll unattached and unfazed through the entire Notre Dame front line.

To top the shoulder-pads, JC sports a do which shouts “Dorothy WHO?”. Now THIS is a haircut calculated to turn Ms Arzner into a moist-ish doe-eyed peony.

Mea Culpa - I’ve stupidly been avoiding Ms Crawford all these years – for the childishly paltry reason that I couldn’t stop laughing whenever she was on screen; more fool me! Goddamn woman is a force of nature! She brings everything she owns to every picnic – looks the world in the eye and says quietly (with her uniquely chilling charm), “Stand back, son, you’re crowding me.”

X. Trapnel said...

Force of un-nature, Y, and no less forceful for it. For me the fascination is that in her time she was utterly mainstream and so much of the phenomenon played out at MGM.

DavidEhrenstein said...

And who can forget the staircase on which an exasperated Bette Davis finally plugs snarky/suave Claude Rains in Deception ?

Rachel said...

Have to hand it to you, X. "Force of un-nature" is exactly right.

X. Trapnel said...

I toyed with anti-nature and non-nature, the one too aggressive the other too neutral. "Un" seemed just right.

Ned said...


Teresa Wright's descent of that staircase wearing the damning ring is just one of many exceptional moments in one of Hitchcock's true masterpieces. From the opening shot of Joseph Cotton lying prone on his bier overlooking scenes of urban decay and decrepitude it never lets up. My only complaint in SOAD is Dmitri Tiomkin's over the top score. Something either more subtle or more...I don't know, Bernard Hermann, would have been more suitable.

But now that you mention that staircase, it brings to mind other Hitchcock staircases: the one Cary Grant climbs carrying the fatal glass of milk in Suspicion.

I guess Hitchcock missed that class where David Mamet warned against the use of stairs.

Rozsaphile said...

A Matter of Life and Death -- now there's a truly titanic stairway to heaven. (Come to think of it, Titanic makes good use of a stairway as well.) And don't forget Vicki Lester's gorgeous, gowned ascent in Monte Carlo.

Ned said...


The Ambersons staircase set was used in Cat People? I'll have to go back and watch that again. I haven't seen it in years.

That tilt up shot in Ambersons (I don't recall a similar shot in The Gold Rush, but there again, years have gone by since my last viewing) is an especially effective one. It's the type of camera move that calls much more attention to itself than a pan or even a tracking shot like the one you referred to in Lady from Shanghai. And speaking of tracking shots, recall that long tracking shot in Ambersons that follows Tim Holt and Anne Baxter. At one point, the camera tracks across itself and for a second you can see the tracks laid down for the dolly.

Ned said...

There's quite an impressive staircase in American in Paris in the (of all places) Stairway to Paradise number.

Goose said...

Another Hitchcock staircase - -

North by Northwest, with Cary Grant observing J Mason learnibng the truth from M Landau and describing his plan to kill Eva M Saint. And he walked down theses steps with his reflection in the TV screen.

William Wyler was a master of the staircase. besides Little Foxes, Best Years, The Desperate Hours, Come and Get It, Dead End, even Ben-Hur have key scenes built around them.

Rachel said...

Ned: I love a good staircase stalk. The "good girls" so rarely get them, unless they're playing a Cinderella-at-the-ball scene.

Hey, if we're counting up Hitchcock staircases, we can't forget about Cary Grant carrying Ingrid Bergman in the final moments of Notorious. The staircase so impressive it can break the laws of mathematics!

Looking back, I find it an interesting touch in Vertigo that Hitchcock avoids ever having Kim Novak walk down a staircase to meet Stewart. She's always be climbing up away from him.

Vanwall said...

For my money, the greatest stair shots are in "The Cranes are Flying", they are scary, exquisite, romantic, and redeeming.

Ned said...


Interesting point about the direction in which people are traveling on stairs. There seems to be some kind of energy flow depending on who is climbing or descending staircases and why.

In many thrillers or chase scenes, people are pursued up stairs, attempting to elude forces coming after them (it wouldn't be very suspenseful if they could just run down the stairs and out the door; the scene you mention in Notorious being a very distinct departure, but in that case the stairs serve as more of a gauntlet, for everyone: Grant, Bergman AND Claude Rains and Leopoldine Konstantin).

The upstairs route typically has a finality to it, a nowhere to go but down sort of thing, as in Vertigo, but also in Saboteur. Bob Cummings chases Norman Lloyd up the stairs to the top of the Statue of Liberty where there really is nowhere for him to go but down. And how.

Coming down the stairs often has more of a performance element to it, serving as a vehicle for the attraction of an audience, even an audience of one, as in Double Indemnity or the small audience that turns into a fantasy film set for Norma Desmond.

Vanwall, you mentioned The Cranes are Flying. If we're going to move to Russian cinema, I realize I've forgotten one of the most famous staircases in film history: the Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin. Also, closer to home, another runaway baby carriage bouncing down a flight of stairs in The Untouchables.

Hey, wait. Didn't David Mamet write that script? I guess he's not completely averse to stairs after all (unless that sequence was all DePalma).

Shamus said...


I hadn't noticed the tracks but it is a very fine scene (Baxter is saying goodbye Holt, pretending) and Welles' mise-en-scene is so expressive that I couldn't notice anything else.

But since we're on the subject of tracking shots, how about the ball scene: one of the most beautifully staged tracking shots in cinema (though it was a crane not a dolly shot).

Shamus said...

"The upstairs route typically has a finality to it..."

Absolutely. And the music usually cues us in to this aspect.

"Coming down the stairs often has more of a performance element to it..."

But if someone is slowly descending the stairs: One. Step. At. A. Time. then you know that something bad is going to happen very soon, usually to someone who is standing transfixed at the bottom of said stairs.

Ned said...


Right you are about that wonderful ballroom scene in Ambersons. It has a brio and a buoyant, hopeful quality, a devil may care-ness to it that turns elegiac in the hallway at the end of the party, as Welles puts all the principles in the dark, letting us know that this will be pretty much the last good night for everyone concerned. I suppose the kiss off is the circle wipe that follows the group on their auto-mobile outing, closing off that part of the film.

But to return very briefly to that ballroom sequence, my favorite moment is George Amberson Minafer's declaration of his life's ambition. As he waltzes Lucy around the floor blithely states his intention to do something useful with his life, to be a yachtsman.

We all know how that turned out.

Shamus said...

But stairs also are places of congregation: want to smoke? preferably accompanied by some light banter? head for the stairs. Silly but see All About Eve and It Happened One Night.

But I suppose there is a casual intimacy to the scene and the director will be able to pack in quite a few actors into a single shot.

Shamus said...


The automobile outing which closes with the beautiful iris shot: tremendously moving and that is my favorite scene in the movie. That and, Welles' shots of empty and decrepit buildings as George returns home, having at last received his comeuppance (which is how it turned out).

Like On Dangerous Ground (Nick Ray' most delicate and lovely film), a good deal of Ambersons' exquisite beauty is drawn from Herrmann's score: the score is inseparable from our memory of those movies, particularly of Ambersons and they are among the effective in cinema.

gmoke said...

Forgive me, Siren, but I will mention the empty stairway shot in Frenzy, tracking down from the room where the murderer has just done in the ex-wife of the man who will now be on the run for the rest of the film. It took my breath away the first time I saw it.

And for Ophuls, it's not a stairway but the swooping all around Madame Tellier's house of ill repute but never entering it in the center section of Le Plaisir, looking in at all the windows and glimpsing the bar and the dancing and Madame's private room.

As for housewives and houses, I think of the modern monstrosity in Mon Oncle.

X. Trapnel said...


We actually hear very little of Herrmann's original score, indeed one of his most beautiful (it's been recorded more or less complete. It has frequent solo violin passages that give some idea of what a Herrmann violin concerto might have been like). Herrmann more or less disowned his participation in the film ("There's none of my music in it"). Listening to it gives aggravates one's sense of loss while giving a precious hint of what might have been. I can't quite abandon the thought there's a complete print languishing in the storeroom of a persimmon drying factory in eastern Moldova. In the meantime, a special place in hell for chuckling preview audiences.

Shamus said...

X., everything about Ambersons is brimming with irony: one of the great movies of loss made by a 26year old. And it is a movie which seems at least partly mourning for the loss of itself.

Ambersons' sensibility is effected by sound mostly: Welles' superlative voiceover and the exquisite violin score that is mixing along with it. Ah...

And I can't think of another director who owed as much to his composer as Hitch did to Herrmann. Imagine North by Northwest and Vertigo, without Bernard's score.

As much as I love Kane, I think Ambersons is greater, oh so much greater (and more BEAUTIFUL).

But just imagine that a complete gleaming nitrate print of that movie is discovered, and is released with Herrmann's restored score. How many years of your life would you trade for that?

Shamus said...


Didn't Welles also have some trouble with the score for Lady from Shanghai? And wasn't there some controversy over the score for Othello in the "restored" version?

Ned said...

Since RKO cut almost an hour of Welles' original version of Ambersons, and the fact that they burned the negatives of the additional footage (not enough room in the closets, you see), and the fact that they then, based on the review cards of drunken teenagers in the first preview, reshot the ending, completely eviscerating what Welles considered the best scene in the film, I'd say many years of one's life would be the charge for a complete restoration.

I hope that persimmon factory in Moldova hasn't been razed. Or maybe there's an extant print sitting on a shelf in some deserted Pasadena movie theater.

Welles' ending, from what I've read, was a scene showing a final meeting between Eugene and Fanny. Eugene, we all know, becomes a successful and wealthy producer of horseless carriages, an early 20th century industrialist. George has nearly been killed in an industrial accident (explosion, wasn't it?) and broke both his legs. Fanny is now poverty stricken and lives in destitution in a boarding house. Eugene tells her about his visit to George in the hospital. He speculates that George and Lucy will, at long last, marry and that he felt Isabel's presence in the room (some of that speech is used as a voiceover in the ending some RKO hack shot).

Welles was trying to convey the way people change over the years and how a difference in financial status will exacerbate those changes. George is blind to Fanny's drastically reduced state and she has turned in on herself and no longer cares about much of anything, she who once cared too much about everything.

Such an ending!

But too sad for RKO and those drunken kids. Of course it didn't help that RKO started the preview with a screening of The Fleet's In, a musical laugh-fest. Sort of like giving the class a homework assignment of first reading a Robert Benchley short story then ordering them to read War and Peace. WTF did they expect the reaction would be?

In any event, Welles deserves some of the blame for not getting his ass back to Hollywood once he heard that his baby was being sliced in two by Robert Wise and RKO's other hired gun editors. They killed the Brazil project so it wouldn't have mattered anyway. Welles himself says he would have done anything to save the picture but photos of him having way too much fun at carnaval say otherwise.

Oh well, at least we have SOME of it. The ballroom scene, the scenes depicting the deterioration of the George and Lucy relationship with that very odd setting in which Lucy tells the story of the Indian chief who walks on people's faces with iron boots (George), the dinner scene in which George sets his cap against Eugene, the George/Fanny conversations, the wonderful presence of Ray Collins ("I'm gonna move to a hotel!"), Major Amberson's speech about the sun...

Still, a masterpiece, but a huge What If?

By the way, Shamus on that tracking shot, there's another neat little bit of trivia visible. George and Lucy pass a movie theater showing a film starring Tim Holt's dad, Jack. A nice touch.

There aren't many directors then or now who could have their work so scarred but still end up with one of the greatest American films ever made.

Ned said...

Gmoke, your mention of a stairway tracking shot down a set of stairs reminds me of another film that features a crane shot down a stairwell, this one not quite empty: Taxi Driver.

Shamus said...


I had no idea Welles considered the ending scene to be the best in the film. But what is most curious and asinine about the reshot ending is simply that the entire movie is laden with sadness: did they really think that one scene, (even an ending), could alter the powerful and depressing emotion of the previous 90 minutes? Just the height of fucking stupidity.

The story that Welles spent his time in Brazil partying was mostly some cock and bull the studio themselves fed the press: the disagreement over Its All True was about politics not parties (or so I've heard). Although, Lady from Shanghai AND Touch of Evil were similarly mauled, also when Welles wasn't close by. Welles gets screwed over and each new generation of film-goers get to experience it: lovely.

Kubrick was lucky that way: he did what he wanted, and studios didn't or couldn't interfere but were only left funding his crazy interminable projects. Because Malick enjoys the same status, he is the "new Kubrick". I wonder who wants to be the "new Welles" or the "the Stroheim of our times".

The Siren said...

All I'm going to say about the terrible fate of Ambersons, almost as great a film as Kane even in its mutilated form, is that there is a reason I did not write an In Memoriam for Robert Wise. The Siren does not forgive easily.

Karen, over on FB Kim Morgan was saying she also prefers the remake. If/when you see Harriet Craig it will be interesting to see which side you come down on, ours or the esteemed David E. Russell's performance simply couldn't be more different. She was at her most beautiful in Craig's Wife and it's a great job she does as a woman who's been beating down her emotions so long they can no longer rise up...until the end. You'll notice a LOT of plot differences too.

Rachel, I didn't re-view Harriet Craig right before writing this (my usual procedure) so I can't absolutely confirm my memory, which is that the Boles line you cite isn't in the Sherman. Grisly, wasn't it?

Vanwall, what an interesting comparison with Sign of the Ram, which I wrote up a while back and liked very much, particularly poor Susan Peters, whose performance was marvelous.

Yojimboen, you made me laugh so hard. I'll defend Joan the actress all day long but not that hairstyle. You summarize late-period Joan's appeal with admirable precision. But I do find Harriet sympathetic; she wasn't born this way, she was made.

The Siren said...

Gmoke, Le Plaisir is one of Ophuls' best and I don't see it discussed as much around the blogosphere, a fact that I attribute purely to the fact that it's harder to see in the States. Hope that is remedied soon. Bless you for remembering my loathing of Frenzy, you made me laugh. But I still wouldn't call it an altogether bad movie and that tracking shot and the sequence in the truck are the main reasons why.

Goose, North by Northwest! Yes, it's wonderful. Now I want to track down On Directing Film (forgot the noun when I typed the title) and figure out what the hell Mamet was on about, since surely he couldn't argue against the list we're coming up with here. I suppose many of the staircase scenes do advance the action; but by no means all.

Ned said...

Siren, apparently in On Directing Film, Mamet declares a great admiration for Eisenstein. I suppose all except the Odessa steps sequence. But since he wrote the script for The Untouchables, he must have recalled how effective that scene was because the train station sequence is a direct quote right down to the baby carriage, although as I said before, that could have been DePalma and his incessant love of quoting other directors.

As for Robert Wise, I'd trade his entire body of work for that missing fifty minutes of Ambersons. It seems the height of absurdity that Wise has two Best Director Oscars and Welles none.

Shamus, the stories circulated by RKO to undermine Welles were slimy but it was pretty well known that Welles was a party animal and those stories wouldn't have stuck if he hadn't had that reputation, plus do you doubt that he did have fun in Brazil while Wise, et al were defacing Ambersons?

RKO used the Brazil debacle to get out of its contract with Welles and that was pretty much it for him. Finished at 27. He scrounged for jobs the rest of his life while mediocrities like Wise went on to honor and glory.

To quote Hattie McDaniels' character, "T'aint fittin'. Just ain't fittin."

Shamus said...


I don't know. I think you and the Siren are too hard on Wise: not for mauling Ambersons, not for that - I hope he is able to partake in all the hospitalities hell has to offer - but he did undoubtedly have some talent. He edited Kane of course and it is an integral part of the scheme of things, every bit as much as Toland's deep focus. Also, he made the definitive boxing film in The Set-Up which is far far better than anything else in that genre you can think of: pure, unadulterated noir.

Welles was not finished at 27: he still made a good deal of films that are scarcely remembered now but which, such as they are and will remain, indisputably great.

And by Success and Glory, I hope you don't mean Sound of Music, though that is fitting isn't it?

Vanwall said...

"Children of Men" has a marvelous stairway scene, whether it was a tribute to Kalatozov and Urusevsky or not, it had the hallmarks of fluid motion and long takes they had, and is another example of Russian influence that refuses to go away, it's so damned good.

Joan Crawford played desperate obsessives better than just about anybody. Her film career was filled with 'em.

Ned said...


I realize that Wise made some decent films, and I own a copy of The Set-Up, so forfeiting his entire body of work would have some cost, but I think a complete Ambersons might be worth it.

And I'm thinking that a Best Director for the Sound of Money would an appropriate remembrance for Wise. I'm not sure you can really count the Oscar for West Side Story. Jerry Robbins directed the dance sequences (the DP was Daniel Fapp who also shot The Big Clock).

And certainly Welles went on to do other great things after RKO, but he spent so much time acting in third rate dreck in order to make money to fund his own projects. It's a shame.

Lady From Shanghai is still fun even though it's a bit uneven in spots, and although many people feel The Stranger is a throwaway film, I've always had a soft spot for it. Think of what his Othello could have been like if he had had the money to shoot it with sync sound. Chimes at Midnight is still an amazing film as is Touch of Evil. But without the gypsy existence he might have been able to do more things and/or finish some of the other projects he had to cast aside.

So a pox on RKO and Wise and all begrudgers of genius.

Ned said...

Vanwall, great call on the Children of Men stairway scene. Some spectacular camera work in that film, long takes running through bombed out buildings that look less like subjective camera than first person shooter video game POV. Very effective stuff.

By the way, Shamus, earlier you mentioned Terrence Malick as being the "new Kubrick". He's apparently working on a project with the DP from Children of Men, Emmanuel Lubezki. They worked together on The New World, another gorgeous film.

X. Trapnel said...


My simple, and if I may say, elegant solution to the question of how many years of your life would you give etc. has always been to exchange years of other people's lives for cultural goods and other life-enhancing things things. I come out ahead that way. So how many years of Robert Wise's life (the Siren is too kind) would I give? The lot, except for the period of making Odds Against Tomorrow.

I too think Ambersons, even as we have it, is Welles' absolute masterpiece.

DavidEhrenstein said...

One of the greatest starcase scenes EVAH!

DavidEhrenstein said...

And here's Bernardo Bertolucci's hommage to the Lewis/Tashlin staricase sceen, lushly scored by the great Ennio Morricone

Shamus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shamus said...

Ned, I surrender. Once again. We're lucky to have after all what is something IN addition to Citizen Kane. I'd somehow managed to blot out Welles' depressing acting career.

X., I love your solution: wish I'd thought of it first. Exchange the lives of hacks like the Zinnemans, the Woods, the (Oliver) Stones, the Coens for a few more years of Welles, Lubitsch, Sturges, Kubrick, Ophuls, Mizoguchi and oh my god, Buster Keaton (how on earth could I have forgotten him?)...

Also, isn't all art like that in a way?: pianists and violinists who labor all their lives to arrive at that perfect rendition of Chopin or Rachmaninoff or Schubert or Debussy. We only get to bask in what amounts to a life work: life-enhancing things granted to us over a couple of hours, where the body is not bruised to pleasure soul.

Yojimboen said...

"...hacks like the Zinnemans..."?

From Here to Eternity; Day of the Jackal; Man for All Seasons; Member of the Wedding; High Noon; The Men; The Search; The Nun's Story

Those Zinnemans?

Oh, dear.

Rachel said...

Ouch! Step away from the computer for a few hours and a bloodbath breaks out. With respect, guys, I don't have the stomach for those kind of trade-offs. Unless maybe if it were Uwe Boll...

I'm going to add my echo to Yojimboen's Zinnemann defense. And I think The Haunting, The Body Snatcher, The Curse of the Cat People, Born to Kill and yes, his part in Citizen Kane should earn Wise a reprieve.

X. Trapnel said...

No fear Rachel; there won't be blood, which ironically brings to mind Act of Violence, a terrific Zinnemann film.

If people get a little heated about the fate of artworks it's because the fight for cultural turf (in all the arts) is so fierce that masterpieces or just very good things are lost, mutilated, or most often, screened from view by critical bigotry or economic interest. Music and film are particularly vulnerable here.

Rachel said...

Very true, X. I can only dream of a better world in which people riot in the streets over the lack of a DVD for Alias Nick Beal or over the Region 1 availability of the Apu Trilogy. Let us unite in our hatred for those who hold hostage our cinematic heritage.

I do hate to throw all the "hacks" in Hell's handbasket. All but the worst of them usually have at least one film I hold dear. For one good film...

X. Trapnel said...

"All but the worst of them usually have at least one film I hold dear. For one good film..."

Very, VERY true, Rachel. Whenever I get into a lather over some Mank talkfest my conscience sternly recalls to me The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and I am grateful.

Yojimboen said...

Subject change:
The 2011 Proms are on!

If you don’t know what the Proms are, hang your head (or get thee to Wiki).

Current Program(me) 38 boasts Film Music by Herrmann, Walton and Morricone.

Now you have no excuses.

Shamus said...

Rachel, Body Snatcher and The Curse of the Cat People was produced (and written) by Lewton of course and he was every bit the auteur of those films as Wise or Robson or even Jacques Tourneur, the greatest of the directors he worked with (who should be on my list), but point taken. Not so much a reprieve for Wise as pinning a small medal on his lapel before leading him off to the firing squad.

Yojimboen: I'm sorry if I've offended you but I'm not backing down. High Noon, Man for All Season, Day of the Jackal and (though you haven't mentioned it) Oklahoma actually prove my point rather than detract from it. Zinnemann won the awards, worked with great stars and went on the success and glory: Tourneur, by contrast, languished in the B-unit relegated to small projects with very little prestige, yet managed to direct astonishing movies, subtle and lyrical beyond anything in the Zinnemann oeuvre. Compare Wichita and High Noon and there is really no contest.

X. Trapnel said...

Prithee, sir, no more talk of firing squads real or metaphoric.

When T.S. Eliot went around petitioning for the postwar release of Ezra Pound (whom I loathe) he was turned down by Robert Graves (whom I love) who suggested instead a firing squad for Old Ez (adding that the latter had a wet handshake). TSE, for once, was right about something and we should desist even from brutal language (an Ez specialty) as Geo. Orwell recommends.

Shamus said...


When we could talk about eternal damnation and the Hell Fires roaring in hand baskets...but you may be right: firing squads after all have very real and tragic associations. I'll desist.

Ezra had significant influence on Yeats (to state the obvious) so maybe that would be sufficient for granting HIS reprieve.

Rachel brings up an interesting point, though: any other filmmakers who had only one great film somehow mingled in the whirlpool of crap that was their oeuvre? (Not those who made only one film obviously.)

X. Trapnel said...


I've always been a little skeptical regarding Pound's influence on Yeats (though there are many instances of inferior artists influencing their betters. In any case, Yeats had Pound's number: "For all his violence, he's still the sexless American professor." I hope that one got back to old EZZZZZ.

Glad you've set the elephant gun aside. I have fantasies though of EP getting a pie in the face at the point of declaiming "Put down thy vanity..." Pow! (and Virginia Woolf archly intoning "On or about December 1910 human nature changed." Smack!). Perhaps Zinnemann (or somebody) should get the same for Julia. Nothing worse though.

cgeye said...

Ms. SSS, Antenna TV (a Sony digital broadcast bandwidth sop for product) plays HARRIET CRAIG in tandem with CRAIG'S WIFE, every so often.... wall-to-wall HAZEL, save for those late night bits o'brill with a Karloff quickie or a Crawford bit....

As for me and my house, we prefer the B- and C-plots left standing in Miss Russell's version; Miss Crawford's flick is suffocating in its focus on her, and Corey, as often seen, is a sap, even if a sexually-satisfied one. The murder subplot heightens Harriet's ease at lying for her house, even as the expense of her husband.

But Boles' Craig? There's a reason a man gets a short leash, and being that particular type of liquid feminine hygiene product is one of them....

As for the Welles-Wise throwdown, I think back to the indignity of Welles doing VO work for the ST:TMP trailer, and stumbling again and again, over Wise's name. If that movie had to suck in order to lower Wise's rep, well, my foolish, fannish heart can take the pain, in the service of art.

Seamus, I started reading your praise of Miss Stanwyck in another item, and had to stop, lest I get the vapors. HUAC-enabler though she was, I can't stop loving her work. So, a thought: Stanwyck, fearless, in a Lewton potboiler (and Miss Moorehead, in her rightful place in the bed of SORRY, WRONG NUMBER). Makes one tear up, don't it?

Shamus said...

X.T., You approve of hell for Wise but only a pie in the face of Zinnemann: oh, well.

For me, Zinnemann’s name is synonymous with “hack” (a George Lucas of the 40’s and 50’s if you will), he is one I turn to punch on the nose whenever I want to prove the worthlessness of the Oscars (how many times did he win it?).

Now, possibly I’m exaggerating but my viewing of Man for All Seasons was unforgettable (in all the wrong ways obviously). I was in my teens and, wanting to experience all the great films, what do I turn to but the Oscar winners? (I was younger then than I had any right to be). I enjoyed Robert Shaw (an excellent underrated actor) as Henry VIII, and there was also poor Orson Welles in the cast, but the more I watched, the more I found the character of Thomas Moore obnoxious. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it then, the man was a fanatic and by rights, he oughtn’t be a martyr in anyone’s eyes but his own eyes: him with his greedy, narcissistic grasping at self-destruction, which is only exacerbated by Paul Scofield’s ritualistic posturing, his faultlessly awful hamming: “when a man swears an oath, he holds his very soul in his very hands…” (this while cupping his hands melodramatically, just in case we don’t get the message).

I don’t know how an actor SHOULD play a martyr, but Scofield’s boundless energy to impose a sort of “nobility” to Moore disgusted me. (Only later did I read about Moore’s persecution of the heretics, the Protestant reformers and the singular efficiency with which he dispatched Puritans to their death.)

And as for the trial scene: every time Moore made a joke (of sorts) the camera panned backwards and showed the crowd laughing. I laughed also, nervously at first, but why did this camera have to pan backwards, EVERY SINGLE TIME Moore made a joke. Of course, the pan (and the movie itself) stands as an elegant example of Zinnemann’s hackery, along with the shrill hysteria of High Noon and the stultifying boredom of Day of the Jackal.

I’ve generally kept far away from Zinnemann’s (and Scofield’s) movies since then, and so I’ve not seen Julia, but I can imagine just how dreary and dull and sincere it might be.

Shamus said...


If I get started on Stanwyck, I'll have to talk of nothing else for this whole thread, so please don't give me that chance. Whatever her politics, she had absolutely mastered both comedy and tragedy not to mention every shade of villainy.

Since we're on the subject, she always injected a note of ambiguity in her character, whether she played the good, or played the femme fatale, and for richness and complexity of characters, she is absolutely without any peer in American Cinema.

Shamus said...

Cgeye, Ah, hell, you talked me into it (assuming it was me you were talking to). I like Moorehead, in Ambersons and Heaven Allows, so that's that. Sorry, Wrong Number I've avoided so far, for the same reasons you've mentioned: bedridden, hysterical Stanwyck I can get to eventually but not yet.

Personally I wish Stanwyck had played less murderers but appeared in more screwball comedies, with McCarey or Leisen: Easy Living, for instance(its not perfect, I know, but...) Her strippers and con-artists were just as dangerous as her Martha Ivers, her Phyllis Dietrichsons and her Mae Doyles.

Incidentally, Remember the Night references Easy Living in many ways: the song, played at the night club, of course, but also, (in my favorite scene in the film), where Stanwyck and MacMurray get arrested and brought before the rural justice of peace.

Judge to Lee Leander: "What's your name?" Lee (promptly, the bare-faced liar): Mary Smith (which is the name of Jean Arthur's character in EL).

Lee also tells the Judge that she is a “bubble dancer” and when the Judge does not understand, she demonstrates, but that’s beside the point. Or is it?

DavidEhrenstein said...

I wouldn't call Zinneman a hack. He's far too tasteful for that. He's simply a remarkably dull direcot. Sometimes the material he has towork with is so strong as to come through anyway. His film of Oklahoma is quite good, likewise From Here To Eternity still holds up because of the cast. His lastFive Days One Summer is dishwater dull despite the presence of the lovely Lambert Wilson as the romantic lead.

That A Man For All Seasons one the Best Picture Oscar in 1966 tells you everything you need to know about the Academy and its calcified "taste." For in 1966 the film that was setting the cinematic world on fire was Blow-Up.

Shamus said...

In which case, I must apologize. And retire.

The Siren said...

I'll grant you could justifiably point at the Siren and blare, "YOU started it," with regard to my admission about Robert Wise. But all I meant was that if I had written a memorial post about Wise and the handful of excellent movies he edited and directed, honesty would have forced me to include Ambersons. And I always thought Wise's latter-day Ambersons comments (such as "since it has come down through the years as a classic in its own right, that means we didn’t destroy it") were…unconvincing, we'll stick with that.

And the bitter remarks I would probably have made have no place in a memorial tribute, when the man has just died and there's the possibility, however remote, that someone who knew and loved him might be reading the post. That would be what Southerners call tacky, tacky being 3/4 of the way to trashy. My attitude toward post-death tributes, whether writing them here or commenting somewhere else, is that if I can't say something nice, or at least sympathetic, I shut the hell up.

As XT gently reminded us, I certainly didn't mean I wanted to hand Wise a blindfold and a cigarette. That would be tacky as well.

I have six years' worth of brilliantly ADD threads to testify to the fact that I don't mind comments wandering off topic. I'm perturbed, however, when they wander off to clobber some unrelated someone from behind, like a railroad detective clubbing unsuspecting hobos in a pre-code movie. I agree with Yojimboen; Zinnemann made good movies and mediocre ones, but he is not a hack. I'd add that if High Noon is so bad, it's odd that it's quoted so much by everyone from Kurosawa to Leone to Spielberg. That's probably a bigger compliment to Zinnemann than any I could pay here. And as for Oliver Stone (a director whose work doesn't always please me, I admit) the mighty James Wolcott once "went pedagogical on someone's ass" regarding Stone's CV. It's worth choosing epithets carefully; if Sam Wood, whom I once defended here, and (heaven help us) the Coens are hacks, I have to wonder which word we'll drag out for the likes of Michael Bay.

The larger point is made by Rachel: "All but the worst of them usually have at least one film I hold dear." That's precisely why Erich von Stroheim's poignant remark has resided on my sidebar for such a long time, and why I may never replace it. Filmmaking is hard, incredibly hard, and I write from an attitude where even if I dislike the results, I respect people who have managed to do it well, even just once.

Rozsaphile said...

Auteurism lives! It's funny, though. The two great whipping boys of Andrew Sarris and most other American high auteurists were William Wyler and Fred Zinnemann. I've been struck by the many sympathetic and perceptive comments I've seen about Wyler in this forum. So I'm quite surprised at all the FZ negativity here. They both made some great films, in my opinion. I'd call The Nun's Story the greatest of them all.

Rachel said...

Shamus: I was thinking of Val Lewton when I listed Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher; I'll give Wise his share of the credit, even though I agree with you that Tourneur was Lewton's finest director. If I squint, I can see a lingering Lewton influence in a few of Wise's later films, most blatantly in The Haunting.

And if you want to steer this thread into a discussion of the peerless Barbara Stanwyck, I'm not complaining. Oddly enough, my first Stanwyck film was Sorry, Wrong Number and I didn't care much for it. Then I saw Double Indemnity soon after and thus, began my road to Stanwyck worship.

Rozsaphile: If Wyler is a hack, we should all just give up right now.

The Siren said...

Much as I adore Stanwyck, I didn't like Sorry, Wrong Number at all. That may have been my intro to her as well, come to think of it. But it isn't her fault, it's the play/script.

X. Trapnel said...

Granted, Sorry Wrong Number is no masterpiece, pure contraption in fact, but it does have that eerily beautiful (subway-ferry-seashore/train in there somewhere, looks like Harrison, NJ)flashback narrated by Ann Richards (who she?). On the other hand it also has Wendell Corey. He did get around.

Anatol Litvak is often accused of hackery, not least by Truffaut, but I find a lot to admire.

Vanwall said...

Louise Brooks was of the opinion every scrap of film was important to someone and should be saved, regardless of hackery or not, if for nothing other than histoy's sake.

I'm not for whacking out unfavored directors or actors, I just don't watch them. They might be the best thing since sliced bread to someone else, tho - the idea of film is to be part of someone's life experiences, and like a Chinese curse, my life in film has been an interesting life. I'm sure I love stuff that turns other's stomachs, but it's my little wide world, pal.

Paul Scofield is a good example - he was awesome on "The Train", subtly portraying perhaps the most vile, monstrous Nazi ever on screen - his Von Waldheim would've chewed up and spit out anyone on the "Inglorious Basterds", but his work was much less engaging of the viewer on AMFAS, which was less a film per se, than a stage play thrown up against the hanging canvas in a rather disinterested manner - there the direction fails, and it goes down in my dance card as "clumsy and ineffectual" for both star and helmer, who were easily upstaged by the supporting cast.

I'm always intrigued by really excellent remakes, "Harriet Craig", being one of the more voracious attempts - note the title change from "Craig's Wife" a possessive, to "Harriet Craig" an independent, the change in emphasis in the film is already started in the title. Frankly, it's possibly more subtle to read the original as a deliberate inversion, but Joan Crawford on the credits would've been un-subtle in any connection that way. I don't think it's ever been remade since then, either, Crawford being the definitive version it seems. I also find it interesting that Wendell Corey has survived on his anti- reputation; just plug in any protagonist adjective above, and it'll be in a description of his work, it seems. I think he was a comfort actor for a lot of people, they were comfortable knowing his limits.

I do own up to a number of current directors being assigned to various levels of hell, but it's my hell, after all.

C.D. Thomas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
gmoke said...

I second Scofield in The Train.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Should have mentioned it earlier but seeing Humoresque again last week was reminful of how incredble Crawford could be when she was acting a role -- not playing Joan Crawford. As a rich dissolute and nearsighted socilaite -- given to taking up "promising young artists," having her way them them, and then tossing them aside like a stale cruller -- she conveys upper-crust self-loathing in a manner that's truly compelling. Needless to say she had plenty of help from a Jerry Wald prodcution, a Clifford Odents script, and lush Jean Negulesco direction. And that's not to mention that the objec of her tortured affetion is John Garfield at his most devestatingl;y tough/gorgeous.

All this and Oscar Levant do. The REALLY "don't make 'em like that anymore."

Ned said...


And how. They sure don't make 'em like that anymore.

Probably for good reason.

Humoresque is a melodrama in the best sense of the word. It's operatic and, at times, a bit baroque, but never so over the top so that it veers into self-parody.

Two huge talents slugging it out toe to toe. (From what I've read, Crawford was instructing Garfield offscreen as well as on.) Crawford has declared in interviews that Garfield was, after Gable, the most electric personality she appeared with onscreen.

The term melodrama has come in for a beating over the years. For some it refers to a less refined, more outrageous art form, but no less a master of the theater than Verdi himself called a number of his greatest works, not operas, but melodramas. And like a great opera, fans hope to see leads that can take the full measure of the score and run with it. Crawford and Garfied don't disappoint. Like Melchior and Flagstad, they know how to rip it up.

Speaking of Crawford's acting, I heard in an interview with her, that she had once seen Tallulah Bankhead at a party put a cigarette into her mouth prompting every male within reach to offer her a light. She loved that idea and used it to add to her creation of Helen Wright, as finely crafted a characterization as you'll see in film.

She has said that her entire education originated in Hollywood. Clearly she was an apt pupil and soon became a great teacher as well.

Yojimboen said...

Speaking of Negulesco; while cruising Agee the other day (a highly recommended recreation) I came upon a nugget I’d forgotten in which Agee felt that Negulesco was best described as ‘Curtiz on toast’.

(In the next sentence Curtiz is described as ‘Murnau under onions’. )

X. Trapnel said...

The best of Agee's culinary metaphors is to be found in his review of Till the Clouds Roll By. Less concise (this IS Agee) than those Y cites. You could look it up.

Yojimboen said...

For a moment there I was afraid we’d get into a “I’m not gonna type it, you type it…! Hey, let’s get Mikey to type it!” situation, but by the unwitting grace of a Johns Hopkins U site (thanks Johns) here is Mr. James Agee a la mode:

Till the Clouds Roll By is a little like sitting down to a soda-fountain de luxe atomic special of maple walnut on vanilla on burnt almond on strawberry on butter pecan on coffee on raspberry sherbet pistachios, shredded pineapple, and rainbow sprills on top, go double on the whipped cream. Some of the nuts, it turns out, are a little stale, and wandering throughout the confection is a long bleached-golden hair, probably all right in its place but, here, just a little more than you can swallow. This hair, in the difficult technical language of certain members of the Screen Writers’ Guild who exult in my non-professionalism – political as well as cinematic – would, I suppose, be called the “story-line”.

I suppose it’s fitting that TTCRB is the only MGM studio film which accidentally was let slip into Public Domain – reportedly the officer in charge of copyright renewals missed it by one day – or, was it accidental…?

Pardon me while I go brush my teeth.

X. Trapnel said...

Y, you are clairvoyant. I was too lazy to go upstairs and fetch down Agee.
The line of genius here is "probably all right in its place."

Rob said...

LOVE Harriet Craig and I've never really gotten why the title character is seen as a villian--she's a bit of a mess, sure, but she always remains human (it's not like she kills anyone).
If anything, Harriet's an earlier version of Beth Jarrett in Ordinary People; both are unhappy, insecure and feeling that their best efforts aren't ever going to be judged "good enough" by those around them. AND both have to deal with "well-meaning" (of course) family members/neighbors who try to peer past both ladies' carefully constructed facades, which actually has the effect of stripping both Harriet and Beth of their dignity. I wonder how they would have gotten along if they were next-door neighbors?!
HC may not be a great film, but I completely love it--heck, it was one of my "First Crawford's"!
And-no thanks to dir. Sherman-she completely NAILS it.

cgeye said...

Antenna TV shows both CRAIG'S WIFE and HARRIET CRAIG in tandem occasionally; very instructive.

I still prefer Russell, and the B- and C-stories CW retains from the play. Less claustrophobic, and Mrs. Craig has a smidge of a life behind her eyes that suggested how loving she could be, if she weren't so afraid....

DavidEhrenstein said...

Negulesco also directed Jerry Wald's swan song The Best of Everything. The last of the DeLuxe "women's pictures" it starred Hope Lange, Diane Baker and Suzy Parker as "career girls" working for a publishing house. Their men: Stephen Boyd, Louis Jourdan, Briane Aherne and (wait for it) Robert Evans. Their boss?

Joan Crawford.

It wasn't the lead, but it was an "A" picture and she took it. In it sheplayed Joan Crawford. Harder than nails, with no soft inner core whatsoever.

Johnny Mathis sang the title song over the opening credits -- Park Ave at dawn. A real "petit madeleine" for me of New York in the good old days, to place right next to THIS!

DavidEhrenstein said...

Couldn't find the opening credits but Here's Johnny!

The Siren said...

Oh, I have to disagree David; I think Joan is extremely layered in The Best of Everything. The character could be straight-up harridan but she refuses to play it that way.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Point taken, Siren. But it's the Joan Crawford Joan Crawford on view here. In Humoresque she's really playing someone else.

The Siren said...

I think we are, oddly, on the same track in different ways. Yes, it's Joan at her Joan-iest, but she's showing that there were always a great many dimensions to being La Crawford, yes? Love the theme song, too. Wonder why they don't use it in the trailer, in favor of playing music that sounds like it should be a Roman epic or something?

DavidEhrenstein said...

Gay Jeopady Bonus Points: The Best of Everything was shot during the period when Hope Lange was having an affair with everyone's favorite naughty bisexual John Cheever

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

It's a bit late for me to add my contribution, but ...

Husband#2 gave me a copy of Donald Spoto's Joan Crawford bio, POSSESSED, for Christmas. I looked up HARRIET CRAIG in an idle moment yesterday, and came up with a couple of items of note.

First of all, Crawford saw *both* of the previous movie versions and went on record as identifying with the central character. There's a quote from a letter to a friend in 1938, where she says "The part of me that is 'Craig's Wife' often comes out, and I wander around my heavenly home [looking for cleaning to do]."

More crucially, it seems that Crawford *herself* wrote the climactic speech in HARRIET CRAIG that begins with "I wouldn't trust the love of any man after the things I've seen" and ends "So don't talk to me about protection. Don't try to tell me about love."

(Me, when I watched it recently, I wasn't much drawn to HARRIET CRAIG. The Joan Crawford I was used to seeing in Anton Grot beach houses or in carny tents with the likes of Sydney Greenstreet somehow seemed weirdly out-of-place in this film's LEAVE IT TO BEAVER-land.)

cgeye said...

Mr E: GOOD GOD, Miss Lange sure got around? She went from him to Glenn Ford (I faintly recall that's why she was cast against type in A POCKEFUL OF MIRACLES, which created a slumming issue in triphonic sound....)

Mrs. HWV: I'm not surprised -- I bet in each 50s monument to her steel spine, she had a hand in shaping the script so her apologia got air. It's like listening to "My Way" every show, but hey, if it's a hit....

verification: dodia, Mrs. Craig's new downstairs maid in charge of silk flower washing and drying....

Tom Block said...

Don't know if you've seen "David Holzman's Diary", Siren--Jim McBride's great faux documentary from '67 that nailed the pop-culture geek 30 years before he reached full flowering. In one scene David is reduced to filming what he's watching on TV, one frame for each cut on the screen. Things start whizzing by pretty fast at that rate, but at one point I was sure I'd seen some Crawford movie in there. Sure enough, when played in slow-slow-SLOW motion, it turns out to be "Harriet Craig", playing on The Late Show.

Rachel said...

Thank you very much for writing this post! Actually, I think it is because of this post that I found out about this movie. That was a few weeks ago, and by now I've written my own post about Harriet Craig and her home. I wanted to let you know about this, because I mentioned your blogpost as one of the sources.

However, there's one thing I can't seem to figure out (well, probably more), and that is why Harriet has such an orientalist decor, I thought that stopped being trendy in the 1930's. Should you have any theories about this, I would really love to hear them!

Thanks once more!

John Clarke said...