Thursday Editor’s Pick: Harriet Craig (1950)

by on August 4, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Thurs Aug 11 at 7:00, 9:30 at Chelsea Clearview [Program & Tix]
*7:30 show introduced by Hedda Lettuce


Stephanie Nikolopoulos recounts a 2007 screening of the film at Chelsea Clearview (also hosted by Hedda Lettuce), for the blog Uncool Kids:

“How many people who are gay have not seen this film?” Hedda asks the audience, and then polls people’s favorite scenes. Russell has seen Harriet Craig seven or eight times. His favorite scene is when Harriet is having a “fussy” conversation, and in his best Joan Crawford act recites the lines when she scolds her servants for going up and down the stairs. When Steven begins to speak, Hedda interrups, “Oh, what a lisp. You’re so gay!” Then poses the same question, “how many times have you seen this movie?” to which he responds, “Today?” His favorite scene is “when the maid tells her off.”


Harriet Craig is “Martha Stuart on crack,” according to Hedda. As the black-and-white film begins to play, Hedda’s quip seems an understatement. Harriet Craig doesn’t clean or cook — she has servants and a cousin who does that for her. They must keep her house positively spotless. Of course, Harriet’s insistence on having a house that is perfect is a metaphor for wanting to control her home life. More specifically, Harriet Craig controls her husband. The film is rich with sexual power plays and clever remarks about gender, such as when Harriet says, “No man’s born ready for marriage; he has to be trained.”


Harriet Craig, directed by Vincent Sherman and written by Anne Froelich and James Gunn, is brilliant. A pure cinematic gem. And the audience is delightful. They cheer and clap for Joan Crawford, who plays the domineering housewife. Their robust, over-the-top laughter shows how much they love the film. Seeing Harriet Craig with a bunch of gay men in Chelsea ranks as one of my all-time favorite movie-going experiences.



Margarita Landazuri for TCM:

Harriet Craig was Sherman’s second of three films with Crawford. During their previous collaboration, The Damned Don’t Cry, the married Sherman had begun an affair with his star that would continue through Goodbye, My Fancy (1951). As production on The Damned Don’t Cry was wrapping up, Columbia Pictures asked Crawford to star in a remake of Craig’s Wife, to be called Lady of the House. She asked Sherman’s opinion, and he told her he thought it was dated and wouldn’t work, so she turned it down. Soon after, Warner Bros. loaned out Sherman to Columbia for a film with Margaret Sullavan, which he agreed to, not realizing that the film would be Lady of the House. When he found out, he protested, but Columbia chief Harry Cohn insisted. When Crawford heard about it, she called producer William Dozier and told him that she would do the film after all. Sherman was the first, but not the last, to see the similarities between Harriet Craig and Joan Crawford. As he recalled in his 1996 autobiography, Studio Affairs, “I realized that in many ways, she was the embodiment of Harriet Craig…in her obsessive attitude toward her home; her distrust of men [because she had been abandoned by her father] and her desire to control; her power of manipulation; and her concept of the proper way for a man to behave toward his wife.” Years later, when Crawford’s daughter Christina published her tell-all memoir, Mommie Dearest, it was not difficult to see those same parallels in her daughter’s description of Crawford’s compulsive housekeeping.


Crawford’s performance in Harriet Craig earned her some of her best reviews since Mildred Pierce. “Joan Crawford does a prime job of putting over the selfish title-character, equipping it with enough sock to cloak the obviousness that motivates the dramatics,” according to Variety. Otis Guernsey, Jr. of the New York Herald Tribune agreed. “The film gives authentic movie star Joan Crawford an opportunity to command the camera’s attention through an authentic star role. She remains, as always, a stylish performer in her clear and forceful characterization….Her vehicle may be somewhat laborious but it is steady enough to carry Miss Crawford’s act.”


When Alt Screen editor Paul Brunick was considering this rarity as an Editor’s Pick, he made an open inquiry and received quite the enthusiastic response:


Craig Butler for AMG:

The cult of Joan Crawford will relish Harriet Craig, which features one of the star’s most enduring and indelible performances. Indeed, in some ways Harriet Craig serves as a blueprint for Mommie Dearest, the scandalous biopic that presented Crawford as a real-life monster. Crawford is in high gear here, giving a performance which is certainly not great acting but is just about the last word in great entertainment. Imperious, bitchy, selfish, manipulative and demanding, Crawford’s Harriet is a caricature and by all means should wear out its welcome early on. Instead, one watches total engagement, caught up in the sheer power that the actress brings to the role. And, in fairness to the star, the role as written is fairly one-dimensional anyway; there’s only a cursory nod here and there to adding depth to her. This does cause a problem with the film, of course, for the character is so repellant that it’s quite unbelievable that her husband would not have seen through her earlier or would have stayed with her for so many years. As a result, despite Crawford’s Herculean efforts, this lack of credibility causes the film to sag and dampens its effectiveness. In addition, the story has been restructured to focus on Harriet to such a degree that the rest of the characters are given short shrift. Under the circumstances, the other actors do the best they can, but only Lucille Watson and Viola Roache manage to make much of an impression. While far from a great film, Harriet is worth watching for old fashioned star wattage of a very high order.



Film 4 review (Please note: the views expressed of Crawford’s offscreen personality do not reflect those of Alt Screen):

A sub-Douglas Sirk melodrama, Harriet Craig would be a rather run-of-the-mill movie were it not for Joan Crawford’s formidable presence. Director Vincent Sherman was such a journeymen he wound up shooting episodes of ‘Alias Smith And Jones’ and the ‘M*A*S*H’ spin-off ‘Trapper John’. However, he deserves some credit for daring to work with Crawford in the first place, and a large dollop more for letting her play the part with the brakes off. For while you may think you’ve seen actors have a decent stab at playing mean and spiteful, they haven’t got a thing on Joan Crawford – a woman so malicious in real life that her infamous co-star Bette Davis was moved to say that “the best time I ever had with Joan was when I pushed her down the stairs in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”


For those yet to encounter the wrath of Joan Crawford, get ready to get scared.


Recent Features

Gene Kelly retro at Film Society (thru Jul 26)

July 13, 2012

I'm happy again and like myself: 100 years of Gene.


Erich Von Stroheim retro at Film Forum (thru Jul 30)

May 28, 2012

The decadent realism of Hollywood's favorite sadist.


Migrating Forms Fest at Anthology (thru May 20)

May 11, 2012

Traveling through time and space at NYC's upstart experimental film fest.

View All →