Friday, November 21, 2014

Harriet Craig (1950)

Joan Crawford made Harriet Craig at Columbia in 1950 at a time when she was really at the top of her game. Crawford’s 1940s output tended to inhabit the borderland between film noir and melodrama with some movies tending more towards one than the other. Harriet Craig is more or less pure melodrama but with some interest for film noir fans.

Walter Craig (Wendell Corey) and his wife Harriet (Crawford) have the perfect marriage. As Harriet explains to her cousin Clare (K.T. Stevens) this is no accident. Harriet works hard to make sure the marriage stays perfect. Any woman who thinks that a happy marriage just happens is a fool. Marriages have to be managed, just like businesses. Naturally that requires one person to do the managing. That person of course is Harriet. As Harriet remarks, “No man's born ready for marriage; he has to be trained.”

Harriet doesn’t just manage her marriage. She does so to an obsessive degree. Everything has its place - furniture, servants, husbands - and it had better stay in its place if it knows what’s good for it. Walter doesn’t mind all this, for the very good reason that he has no idea it is happening.

The problem with Harriet’s style of perfect marriage is that if just one thing deviates from its proper place the whole structure is likely to collapse like a house of cards. That collapse begins in a small way when Harriet is away for a week visiting her sick mother. On her return she discovers that Walter has been engaging in unauthorised activities. He has had friends over for an evening of poker, without first gaining Harriet’s permission (which she would naturally have refused for his own good). Harriet is not pleased and she makes her displeasure known. She does not lose her temper or anything like that. She is not such a fool as that. She knows how to make a husband see he has done the wrong thing, in the smoothest and silkiest way. By now the audience has started to realise that there’s an iron fist hidden beneath the velvet glove but poor Walter still has no idea. 

Harriet is also facing possible rebellion on the part of her cousin Clare. Clare lives in with the Craigs, acting as a sort of general-purpose assistant, secretary and companion to Harriet. Clare is in fact a servant, although she doesn’t know it. Now Clare has fallen in love and is thinking seriously about marriage. This does not suit Harriet at all. Where is she going to find another unpaid servant as useful as Clare? The marriage must of course be stopped.

There are bigger problems in store, when Walter is offered a promotion which will entail spending three months in Japan without Harriet. Harriet does not even want to think about what might happen were Walter to be left unsupervised for three months. This is another potential rebellion that must be nipped in the bud.

Inevitably Harriet’s control starts to slip. Or rather it remains as tight as ever but she is having more and more trouble in exercising her control without those she is controlling becoming uncomfortably aware that they are merely puppets dancing to her tune. If they realise they are being controlled disaster must follow.

This is melodrama, but leavened by a considerable amount of humour. The humour is perhaps of the black comedy variety but it is certainly there. 

Harriet is a monster but there’s some subtlety to Crawford’s performance. Bette Davis could play monsters but they were usually inhuman monsters. Crawford gives us a very human monster. Harriet is still a monster but while we find it difficult to feel sympathy for her Crawford does at least make us understand where she’s coming from. And where she’s coming from is fear. Harriet must maintain her iron grip because she believes the alternative is chaos, the chaos she witnessed in her parents’ marriage. There is no in-between for Harriet. A woman either has total control or she faces chaos, dissolution, oblivion. This gives the movie a touch of tragedy. It also gives Harriet a certain dignity, albeit a monstrous dignity, that prevents the movie from collapsing entirely into high camp excess. There is high camp excess here, but there’s a little more than that. Crawford is in fine form.

Walter might seem superficially to be the innocent victim but he has contributed to the mess in his own way. Fears of the emasculation of American men were rife in this period (see Rebel Without a Cause) and that’s certainly the issue here. Walter has abandoned his masculinity and has voluntarily turned himself into a doormat. In doing so he has not only lost control of his life he has also forfeited any chance of winning Harriet’s respect. Wendell Corey is impressive - an actor who has never received the recognition he deserves.

Crawford wrote some of her own dialogue, including a speech late in the picture which will provide plenty of fuel for those who like to interpret her movies in terms of her own life.

Those who like to view the movies of the past through the distorting lens of 21st century ideologies will find a great deal to enrage them in this movie. The movie certainly comes down on the side of traditional views of marriage and sex roles.

Director Vincent Sherman demonstrates a sure touch with melodrama and manages to avoid excessive staginess (Anne Froelich and James Gunn based their screenplay on George Kelly’s stage play). 

Sony has released this film as part of their Choice Collection. The DVD is barebones with not even a trailer - in fact not even a menu! The transfer is however extremely good.

Harriet Craig is quality melodrama. It’s a must for Crawford fans. Highly recommended

No comments:

Post a Comment