A while back, the New York Times published an article in their home section that was 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 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 seen the more faithful '36 version, and from time to time 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 that 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. And 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's 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 something like Walter acknowledging that wives are “mighty handy gadgets to have around the house.”
The most beautiful part of the set is the central staircase, Harriet swooping 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. The screenplay works on explaining why Harriet is so fiercely materialistic and shallow; there’s a mid-movie scene where Harriet visits her mentally ill mother in an asylum, a scene put there no doubt to give a human dimension to the title character. Crawford’s playing, more subtle than in any other part of the film, shows Harriet’s mother is the one person she feels real love for, and the one person from whom she will never get it.
But there’s a better explanation later on. 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. And it’s obvious that this sort of negotiating skill had no outlet at home; here, 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 irresistible to most modern viewers of Harriet Craig, as are a number of others (“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 and not just servants, a niece and a husband. We also know that a number of loyal friends, and Crawford’s two youngest children, 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’s 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.)