Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Joan Crawford IS ‘Harriet Craig’ 1950

 

In 1950's "Harriet Craig," that Ming vase moves around more than a planchette
on a Ouija board, much to her consternation! Joan Crawford calls it a 'vah-z.'


Harriet Craig is a 1950 remake of George Kelly's Pulitzer Prize winning play Craig's Wife. It had been filmed as a 1928 silent with Irene Rich and again in '36 with Rosalind Russell as the house-proud witch of a wife. Columbia borrowed WB director Vincent Sherman and star Joan Crawford for this version. Sherman had just directed Joan Crawford to good effect in 1950’s The Damned Don't Cry. They would also team for Goodbye, My Fancy directly after Harriet Craig.

My take on "Harriet Craig" is part of this blogathon May 15-17!

Wendell Corey plays Walter Craig, whipped hubby of "Harriet Craig."
Two guesses as what he'd like to do with his wife's prized Ming!

I'm not sure why Kelly's play won the Pulitzer, especially from today's standpoint. The story of a warped woman who cares for her home like a museum, with a husband that she treats like a pet, is watchable, doesn't offer much back story in the '36 version. Craig’s Wife is only one hour and 15 minutes, as well as the silent version, so I can only assume the play was the same. Harriet Craig is 95 minutes, but feels more in-depth as the film focuses solely on her. The ’36 version’s supporting characters are so truncated that they barely get more than one scene. Rosalind Russell was considered too young for Harriet Craig. Why I don't know, because the character is supposed to be newly married and whose husband wants children. The stage actresses who played Harriet were older and so was Joan Crawford. Russell and John Boles do well as the ‘30s Craigs, and Roz gives a controlled performance, not going over the top as she could do later in her career.

Rosalind Russell, a year younger than Crawford,
played "Craig's Wife" in 1936.

Along with Joan Crawford as Harriet Craig, Wendell Corey is affable Walter Craig, K.T. Stevens plays Harriet’s cousin Clare, Ellen Corby is nervous maid Lottie, Viola Roache is housekeeper Mrs. Harold, Allyn Joslyn is Billy Birkmire, William Bishop is Clare’s beau Wes, and Lucile Watson is the boss’ wife. Vincent Sherman, an underrated WB director, does a smooth and stylish job here. Sheila O’Brien (intentionally?) gives Crawford’s costumes a severe uniform-type look.

Tempest in a tea cup: "Harriet Craig" berates maid Lottie for breaking a cup,
then the housekeeper for defending her. No surprise that Harriet can't keep help!

Some film fans and critics think that the book and film version of Mommie Dearest borrowed from Joan's latter day films such as Harriet Craig. I can see that, but the fact is studios often blurred their stars' images with reality. MGM divas especially seemed to star in vehicles that mirrored their own lives: Joan, Judy, Lana, and Liz come to mind.

Joan Crawford as "Harriet Craig."  In this scene, I half expected her to sprout fangs!

And though Harriet Craig follows the basic structure as Craig's Wife, Joan Crawford’s she-devil is in the details. Harriet Craig opens with her household in a dither, because she is making an unexpected trip. Joan's Harriet has a younger woman as her girl Friday to do her bidding. Here, it's not a loyal servant, but her cousin Clare. Joan’s “MGM English” is on full display when she calls her Clar-uh. Everything is not going Harriet’s way, so she is brittle and bossy. Mrs. Craig must have her make-up kit and cousin along for a week's visit. No, Harriet’s not promoting a film or Pepsi, but visiting her mother at a mental institution. Hubby Walter comes home early, despite an important project, yet Harriet gives him her patented passive/aggressive browbeating about how she must make do for herself, asking where he’s bean. This is the couple's first separation in nearly four years of marriage. Can Mr. Craig survive a week on his own? He's almost 40, with his childhood housekeeper to help, plus a maid. Most importantly, there’s Harriet to check up on him.

Joan as "Harriet Craig," bringing gifts to her mother in an institution.
Neurotic Harriet could use a visit there, herself!

At the asylum, the mother is sweet but unresponsive to Harriet's fervid attentions. Though it seems like Harriet just arrived, supposedly a week has gone by before Harriet talks to the director. Harriet seems uncomfortable talking about her family's dysfunction. In a speech that seems lifted from Crawford’s own life, Harriet bitterly recounts the father that left them and how she had to quit school and work in a laundry. Afterward, Harriet finds out from Clare that nobody seems to be at the Craig abode, and immediately decides to leave. On the train, Clare confides of her crush on Walter’s work pal, Wes. Harriet explains to her niece about her way of married life: men are to be “trained,” not trusted. Crawford and K.T. Stevens, who clearly look their age at age 44 and 31, are at odds with their characters’ situations in life. Harriet took her cousin Clare in when her parents died. So, when did she take her in? Stevens, mature in style, seems foolish as the naïve young thing. Joan’s Harriet, talking about her four year marriage with Walter makes one wonder what she did with the other two decades of her life!

When Cousin Clare can't reach anybody at the Craig house, Harriet decides to bail
on visiting Mother, and high-tail it back home. From 1950's "Harriet Craig."

Why any actress would want to play this unrelenting shrew, in an ultimately pointless story, is beyond me. That Joan Crawford sought this role out is strange. Even by 1950, her demand for perfection and order was well-known and part of her persona. Did she think Harriet Craig was just a juicy role? Or was Joan Crawford drawn to the role because it spoke to her own experience?

When Mr. & Mrs. Craig finally have it out, wife Harriet's rationale hardly rates
any sympathy for her hard-bitten character. Joan Crawford as "Harriet Craig."

Once director Sherman and star Joan were on board, some Crawford-isms were added to the mix. When everyone’s flying around in a tizz to get Harriet off to the train station, you half expect to see Joan’s real maid Mamacita run in with the tissue paper for packing clothes. Perfectly packed and on schedule made me think of Crawford’s late-life book, My Way of Life. Once she’s gone, beleaguered maid Lottie comments that Harriet’s not particular, she’s peculiar. The maid says that Harriet would wrap up her entire house in cellophane, which made me think of Joan’s later plastic covered furniture, curtains, and plastic flowers!

When Hurricane "Harriet Craig" is out of the help's hair, they can let down their hair!

Harriet Craig is officially the film where Joan began to look hard. While a little of it creeps up in Flamingo Road and The Damned Don’t Cry (looking good, but too old for these roles), Harriet Craig finds Joan looking quite forbidding. The make-up mask is pronounced and would become even more exaggerated throughout the ‘50s. Shoulder pads and severe tailored clothes were on their way out, but not for Crawford. Joan had many unflattering short hairdos through the ensuing decade, but Harriet Craig had the worst hair: short, slicked, with tiny little waves that made her like Bob’s Big Boy. A shame, since Joan sported a trim figure and superb bone structure here.

You'd make this face, if you had this hair do! As the title character in 1950's
"Harriet Craig," this is possibly the worst hair do of Joan Crawford's film career.

Who wore the hair best? Bob's "Big Boy" or "Harriet Craig?"

Crawford’s Harriet smiles maybe twice, both times to cajole her husband. The rest of the time Joan’s unhappy housewife gives everyone the deep freeze with her grim mask of disapproval. Allan Joslyn as playboy pal of Harriet’s hubby gets to react hilariously to her disdain. You want to stand up and applaud when the housekeeper finally tells her off. And the big moment is when Harriet’s husband finally has had it with Harriet’s lies and manipulations.

Joan Crawford as "Harriet Craig." Here, the housewife from hell makes hubby's pal
 feel sooo welcome! 

In a rare moment of levity, Allyn Joslyn comically melts under the withering gaze
of Joan Crawford's "Harriet Craig."

With Joan’s other ‘50s bitch roles, they are campy enough where you can enjoy them on several levels, amused when nobody gets the better of Joan at her bitchiest, like Torch Song, Queen Bee, or Female on the Beach. But there’s not humor here, just exhaustion, from that piece of work, Harriet Craig.

The hard makeup, severe hair style, and uniform-style costumes suggest many things,
 but not an upper middle class housewife! Joan Crawford as "Harriet Craig."

Your sympathies are toward the servants as they are sent packing. Even the naïve cousin cannot avoid seeing Harriet’s lies and packs it in. And finally, Walter Craig finds out one manipulative lie too many and their marriage is as beyond repair as Harriet’s priceless Ming vase—sorry—vah-z. By the way, Crawford’s longtime pal, actor turned designer Billy Haines designed Harriet’s home, which is why it looks like a mid-century movie star temple!

Joan Crawford as "Harriet Craig." Here, she cooks up one of her most manipulative
 schemes. That's K.T. Stevens as Cousin Clare, foot servant to Harriet!

Aside from the drill sergeant precision with which Harriet runs her home, neither she nor its occupants are ever at ease. Harriet also makes time to manipulate other people’s lives, if it helps her maintain the status quo in hers. She brands the widow neighbor as a flirty schemer. When Walter gets a work-related stint in Japan, Harriet throws her hubby under the bus to get his boss to have him stay home. Harriet also lies about Walter’s co-worker, who is serious about Clare. As the housekeeper wryly says to the maid, if Clare left, Harriet would only have two servants! This movie could have been called All About Harriet.

The few times Joan Crawford cracks a smile as "Harriet Craig" is when her character
 is manipulating husband Walter, genially played by Wendell Corey.

Watching Harriet act out every time something goes outside her rigid game plan is cause for drama: hubby’s late night card game in her absence; a broken tea cup; a dinner guest who asks to play cards with her husband; and many other actions that she sees as offenses.

Lucile Watson's a delight as the wife of Walter Craig's boss. Here, she cheats at cards
 and throws off the regimented party plan of "Harriet Craig." With Wendell Corey.

Harriet Craig is worth a watch once. Joan Crawford certainly gives her all, as usual. This Harriet is totally about Joan and she makes the most of it. Sadly, it doesn’t feel like Crawford the film goddess is only acting as the domineering domestic goddess. Wendell Corey, who could play both good and bad guys well, is most genial and likeable here. He also had the most piercing blue eyes, very effective for dramatic scenes. As Walter Craig, he is most adoring and doting toward his wife. The supporting cast is very good, as each of them tangle with Harriet, and flee. Lucile Watson is a delight as usual, as the boss’ wife who has Harriet’s number.

Joan Crawford as "Harriet Craig." In mid-career, Joan seemed to have staircase showdowns with younger actresses. At least K.T. Stevens doesn't get slapped!

While Harriet Craig did modestly at the box office, I can’t imagine why post-WWII audiences would have flocked to see a 40-something star playing a domineering dame in a sterile soap opera. Harriet Craig is more a Crawford curiosity than a camp classic.

Here’s my in-depth look at Crawford’s career best: https://ricksrealreel.blogspot.com/2020/03/how-joan-crawford-became-mildred-pierce.html 

"A chair is still a chair, even when there's no one sitting there." The finale of "Harriet Craig," when she's finally driven everybody out of her house, including her husband.

 

24 comments:

  1. This came with perfect timing. I have only seen Joan in her much later career and about her in film and TV series, so keen to see more of her career. This looks like the perfect introduction. Thanks for joining us in the blogathon with this sterling post. Added you to Day 1 out tonight.

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    1. Hi, glad it came through okay. I need to see the films that made Joan a star at MGM in the '30s, I've only looked at a few. I will post on my FB movie page tonight about the blogathon. Cheers, Rick https://www.facebook.com/groups/178488909366865/

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  2. A movie loving friend noted that Claire, Crawford's niece, might have been played by Marilyn Monroe, then a rising starlet and not yet confined to bombshell parts. Might have been interesting.

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    1. MM would have been more age appropriate as Harriet's naive young niece. And she might have been very good. Cheers, Rick

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  3. This movie is a festival of bad hair. Both Wendell Corey and Allyn Josslyn have awful black dye jobs that make their hair look like Play-Doh (Honestly, it almost makes Joan's giant black brows make sense) I have no idea why they made this either, but at least it makes a little more sense than the original with the murder/suicide that Harriet treats like a clogged drain- inconvenient and messy and she just hopes the plumber doesn't track mud on her Persian rugs. But Joan's fussy, constrained look here is deliberate and works for Mrs Craig. Not too sure what her excuse was for sticking with it except it was the fashion of the time. She's so rigid and clenched in this you half expect her to her to be wheeled in on a dolly like Hannibal Lecter.

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    1. Hey Tom, By 1950, I'm not sure why Columbia bothered to remake a '25 play that was so claustrophobic and so pointless. Was 1950 really so dreary? Thanks for your great comments, Rick

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  4. Hi Rick - great article on a movie I like a lot more than you do--but you are RIGHT ON about Crawford's very severe (lesbian??) persona (and that hair-don't!). But I do think she and the rest of the cast do a great job with the material...and love when Mrs. Harold finally tells Harriet off. (Your reader Tom above made me scream when he compared Harriet to Hannibal Lecter--YES, I think she too is one of the great movie monsters.)

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    1. Great to hear from you! I think all hands did a great job on "Harriet Craig," it's just a movie I don't care to see more than once, I don't understand how this won a Pulitzer back in the day. And yes, I too loved it when Mrs. Harold finally told off Harriet. Harriet=Hannibal is a funny comparison. Cheers, Rick

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  5. It's interesting that Roz's version was directed by a woman (practically THE woman director of her time, Dorothy Arzner.) Perhaps she tempered the flared nostrils and hysteria a bit. To me, it was easy to see the appeal to JC in playing this part (even though she initially turned it down and Margaret Sullavan had it!) It's always fun to play manipulators, villains, bitches, etc... I did it countless times (well, not bitches exactly! LOL) and it's a great release to be able to say things to people you wouldn't dream of doing most of the time in real life. The play took place over just one evening and the next morning. But that wouldn't afford a parade of costumes, so that had to be extended. And it was Harriet's SISTER who was ill, not her mother. Such a desire to make 1950s actresses who were no longer girls seem like they were. I recall this happening with Stanwyck a time or two as well. I think in 1950, homemakers were still a big part of life in many households. The men of WWII came back and claimed their jobs and many ladies returned, some happily - some less so, to being only wives. It took women's lib, quite a few years later, to really shake that dynamic up again. So there were probably some women who obsessed over the details of their home in order to have purpose (although Harriet was more into status, security and control more than material objects, the vase excepted.) Come to think of it, I see a lot of wives TODAY who are utterly enthralled with having their homes and lives JUST SO and the hapless husbands go along with it, even as they work themselves silly to keep it going. "Happy wife, happy life" anyone? Lucille Watson was almost always wonderful and I LOVED the plainspoken older maid who finally told Harriet how life is. I feel like her hair was "tightly wound" the way her part was. I never liked the hair she had in "Female on the Beach" or "Autumn Leaves." For me, it was always the more, the better! Ha ha! (Like the stills from "Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte!" Thanks.

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    1. I think the '50 Harriet was smart to dump the sidestories, because in the Roz version they were truncated to the point of absurdity. Yes, "What was Harriet Craig's lie?" being choosing not to have kids seemed absurd from mid-40s Joan! And true, the lifestyle over having real life has morphed over the years. As for Crawford's hair, when she wasn't going butch, Joan was going carrot top, like Lucy's mean older sister! Cheers, I always love your comments, Rick

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  6. Interesting! I've never heard of Harriet Craig! While it might not be a camp classic of Joan crawford, your review has definitely made me curious!

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    1. It's worth a watch! Once did it for me. I've written a lot on Joan in my blog here, check it out. Thanks for writing, Rick

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  7. I always wondered if there was a moment in time – or a specific film – where Joan Crawford first looked "hard", and it sounds like this is it. I've not seen this film, but I loved your images, especially the comparison to the burger boy's hair. This movie I've got to see!

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    1. Hi, this movie is free on YouTube and also Tubi. Joan's harder "look" was a bit gradual, but became stark with "Harriet." Her previous Vincent Sherman film, "The Damned Don't Cry," JC still looked closer to her '40s self... Cheers, Rick

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  8. Great review, Rick! This is another movie I saw on TV back in the 60s and 70s and always liked watching it. When I saw it again recently after many years, I still enjoyed it, but it was a heavy experience. So much tension and unhappiness. Like you said, I can't imagine postwar audiences taking this film to their hearts. I must admit I like K.T. Stevens as the niece, and this is one of the best roles Wendell Corey ever had. I'll never understand why Miss Crawford would wear her hair like that. That would scare most husbands away.

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    1. Hey Mike, did you know that KT Stevens was the daughter of director Sam Wood, that surprised me! Yes, Harriet was a heavy movie, with little humor. And I don't think Joan had a flattering hairdo in the '50s... Thanks for your comments, as always! Rick

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  9. Oh boy I have been wanting to see this film for a while. Sounds like her character is meaner in this film than on Queen Bee and she's a doozy in that one. Great post! xox

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    1. Thank you! Harriet is the first of Joan's '50s super bitches! Check it out. Cheers, Rick

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  10. I agree with you about Joan looking hard--no matter what she does she looks as if she's going to murder someone with her eyes. Wow. This still might be an interesting watch, though. Thanks again for joining the blogathon, Rick--this is a great review!

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    1. Thank you, Rebecca! "Harriet Craig" is worth a watch to wonder why Joan Crawford would ever do such a film that hit so close to the bone. Cheers, Rick

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  11. I just rewatched this recently and I was looking so forward to reading your take, because I knew I would love it -- and I did! Great stuff, Rick. Now I want to watch it again!

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    1. The film is an expert product of Hollywood's golden era. And the remake was smart to focus on Joan. Enjoy! Rick

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  12. I wonder if all these changes that made Crawford version different from previous versions were handiwork of Vincent Sherman. After all, he revised the script of Dammed Don't Cry to better showcase Crawford and accomodate her age. Since he was having an affair with her at the time, he might have incorporated his personal observations into the script

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    1. Sherman was certainly aware of the similarities between Harriet and Joan. They made three pictures in a row and were intimate. JC's long time bestie Billy Haines designed the sets, which made Harriet's home look more like a movie queen's. My head scratcher is why Joan would invite comparison by playing such a role? JC was a complicated lady! Cheers, Rick

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