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"She's so excitingly good . . . when she's so wonderfully bad!"
Tagline for Queen Bee
By her own admission, Joan Crawford was rarely as evil on screen as in Queen Bee, a heated 1955 romantic melodrama in which she plays a Southern social dragon with magnolia on her lips and poison in her heart. Even at the character's most outlandish, whether demolishing a rival's bedroom or driving a family member to suicide, she plays the role with a straight-on seriousness that makes the film work both as character study and camp classic. As a sign that, at least in Hollywood, the picture was viewed seriously, it captured Oscar® nominations for Charles Lang's black and white cinematography and Jean Louis's gowns.
Crawford was still in the midst of the career revival triggered by her surprise 1952 hit Sudden Fear (also shot by Lang) when she signed a generous three-picture deal at Columbia Pictures. Her first film under that contract marked a reunion with screenwriter Ranald MacDougall, who had penned two of her biggest Warner Bros. hits, Mildred Pierce (1945) and Possessed (1947), and producer Jerry Wald, who had cast her in Mildred Pierce. This time out they adapted a popular romantic novel by Edna Lee that had been serialized in Women's Home Companion before its 1949 publication. Always a faithful friend, when Crawford learned that MacDougall wanted to move into directing, she insisted he make his debut with Queen Bee.
With Wald producing, Columbia put its greatest behind-the-scenes talents to work on the film, including composer George Duning, who would score Picnic the same year; director Lang and costumer Jean Louis. Ironically, Crawford had turned down a chance to work with Louis a few years earlier. Wald had wanted to cast her as the adulterous military wife in From Here to Eternity (1953), but when Crawford insisted on bringing in her own costumer rather than wear Louis's wardrobe, studio head Harry Cohn cast Deborah Kerr instead.
At a time when it was difficult to find leading men who could hold their own against Crawford, Wald found two strong, masculine actors -- Barry Sullivan, cast against type, as her henpecked husband, and John Ireland as the lover she refuses to give up. Sullivan had played a more conventional leading man opposite Crawford's arch-rival Bette Davis in Payment on Demand (1951), and Ireland would lock horns with the star again in the suspense thriller I Saw What You Did (1965).
Fay Wray, who had retired from acting to marry screenwriter Robert Riskin, had returned to the screen after his death. When she had announced her plans, Crawford had sent her a note saying "Welcome...we need you." Before long, Crawford was welcoming her to the set of Queen Bee, in which she played a supporting role. In her memoirs, Wray would write admiringly of Crawford's devotion to her fans, while also marveling at her near-compulsive cleanliness.
As Crawford's romantic rival, Wald cast a young protégée of director John Ford's, Betsy Palmer, who would work with Ford that year in The Long Gray Line and Mister Roberts. She would go on to greater fame first as a television star, then as a horror-film icon. In Queen Bee she's most recognizable as one of the first female interviewers on The Today Show and a regular guest on I've Got a Secret. To younger fans, however, Palmer is better known as Mrs. Voorhees, the original slasher in the bloody Friday the Thirteenth film series. They may even see something of that murderous character in Crawford's performance.
Queen Bee drew mixed reviews, with most East Coast critics complaining about its creaky plot while also praising Crawford's commitment to her role. Audiences were less judgmental about the former, though they often broke into applause when the star's malevolent character got her comeuppance. Crawford would tell later biographers that she felt much the same way. The film's title would haunt her, as less complimentary members of the press frequently used it to describe her. Daughter Christina, noted for her tell-all memoir Mommy, Dearest, would also state that the character was not that different from her mother's behavior at home.
Director: Ranald MacDougall
Producer: Jerry Wald
Screenplay: Ranald MacDougall
Based on the novel The Queen Bee by Edna L. Lee
Cinematography: Charles Lang
Art Direction: Ross Bellah
Music: George Duning
Cast: Joan Crawford (Eva Phillips), Barry Sullivan (John Avery Phillips), Betsy Palmer (Carol Lee Phillips), John Ireland (Judson Prentice), Lucy Marlow (Jennifer Stewart), William Leslie (Ty McKinnon), Fay Wray (Sue McKinnon), Juanita Moore (Maid). BW-95m.
by Frank Miller