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.
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.
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.
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.
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