Saturday, July 12, 2008

Roz vs. Joan Smackdown!

One evening this week I was flipping channels and I came across the 1936 movie, "Craig's Wife," which is based on the play by George Kelly and stars Rosalind Russell and John Boles. The movie is probably more well known in its 1950 incarnation, "Harriet Craig," starring Joan Crawford. Yes, that movie about which people say, "oh, it was so much like Joan in real life, with the obsession with material things and general craziness and all that!" And by "people" you know I mean "Christina Crawford."

I like comparing version of classic films; see my earlier entry on "Red Dust" vs. "Mogambo." Maybe I should make that a more regular feature. Yeah, like Character Actors I Love, which I haven't done in forever. Although my virtual cemetery on the subject continues to grow.

So, HC vs. CW. I came into CW about 15 minutes late; Harriet and her niece (I think it's her cousin in HC) are on their way home on the train, having been visiting Harriet's sick sister. I came in right in the middle of a juicy speech in which Harriet explains to her mildly horrified niece her views on marriage: Harriet married so she could be "completely independent" and have her own house, basically. She doesn't love her husband "in that silly, romantic way you mean." So right off we get the character exposition and find out almost all we need to know about Harriet (note I say almost; more on that later).

The story progresses as expected: everyone but Harriet's husband Walter realizes that she's a scheming, manipulative bitch. He just acts like a goofball in love, and while I get the point of that (it makes it all the more shocking later when he does come to see Harriet as she really is), John Boles takes it a little overboard, what with the gushing and turtledove cooing and whatnot. Gradually, people start to withdraw from the home, and especially from Harriet: she herself fires Maisie, the maid; Walter's Aunt Ellen moves out (after giving him a lecture on the subject of his wife), Mrs. Landford, the long-time housekeeper, quits. Ethel, the niece, leaves with her fiancee, who has come to retrieve her, apparently having also sensed Harriet's evil from afar.

There's a murder of one of Walter's friends as part of the plot, but I think I missed out on some of that, because it was just background to the story by the time I came into it. It functions mainly as plot device to really drive home Harriet's manipulations: she gets caught by the police inquiring about the deceased's phone number (spying on her husband, to see what he was up to while she was out of town) and when the detective comes to the house, she lies about it. Walter finds out, and they get into an argument, in which Harriet (sort of) inadvertantly reveals that her main concern is keeping their good name out of a scandal, and not so much whether Walter is innocent or not (he is, it turns out to be a murder/suicide). This is what finally lets the scales drop from Walter's eyes, and after he smashes Harriet's prize knick-knack, they argue some more, and he walks out on her. Harriet exposits that she is obsessed with having a home because her father mortgaged her childhood home to support his mistress, and the family ended up on the street. Walter isn't having any, though. She can have the house, he says, since it's what's really important to her.

The exits of the people involved in Harriet's life have a lot of impact, because they all occur in the last 15-20 minutes of the movie, so you get a sense of this mass exodus from the house. Walter is the last to leave. Right after he drives off, Harriet gets a telegram telling her that her sister died at 6:00 that morning. (This is the sister she left at the beginning of the film, dragging her niece away from her mother because "she didn't know she was that ill.") Harriet flops on the divan to have a good cry, when the next door neighbor Mrs. Frazier comes in with roses from her garden (Harriet never liked her and was jealous of any attention her husband paid to her or her little boy). Harriet, slightly incoherent by this time, accepts them. Mrs. Frazier offers sympathy upon learning of the death in the family, but Harriet's too dazed to really respond, so Mrs. Frazier leaves. Harriet starts to say, "I'm alone in the house, so if you wouldn't mind..." but when she turns to Mrs. Frazier, she's long gone. Harriet starts for the door but can't bring herself to go out. The movie ends with a close-up of Harriet's big eyes leaking tears, and the epitaph "Those that live for themselves are usually left to themselves."

Now, this surprised me, because the version of Harriet in HC (which in the version I saw first), is much more unsympathetic. There is no explanation of her nastiness with a childhood trauma. Joan's Harriet only seems angry when she's thwarted, never upset or scared. (Disclaimer: I haven't seen HC in awhile.) I don't think there's an aunt in the house, but there is a long-time housekeeper, devoted to Mr. Craig, who walks out near the end. Ethel the niece is now Claire the cousin, and her story unfolds more or less the same. The last scene of the movie, if I remember correctly, is Joan walking up the magnificent staircase of her house, now completely alone. She doesn't seem all that upset to have the house to herself. There may have been a few tears on her part through out the movie, but my memory is that they were more for effect than out of sincerity.

Overall, the impression I had of the Harriet character in HC is a much colder woman, and more of a one dimensional character. I thought the two versions of the film made an interesting contrast, however, I liked the earlier version better. (Aside: while Roz is more know for her comedy roles, she was great as the cool, sharp Harriet Craig). I would recommend both films, though.

I don't know which version is closer to the play, but I'll find out when my copy of "Three Plays by George Kelly" arrives from Amazon. Stay tuned.