Cast & Crew
While Harriet Craig is out of town visiting her sick sister, her husband Walter inadvertantly becomes involved in what seems to be a murder. Meanwhile, strong-willed Harriet has decided that her sister would recover quicker if left alone and she drags her niece Ethel Landsdruth away with her. On the train, when Ethel reveals her engagement, Harriet disparages her notions of romantic love. She has married for security and she manages her husband to ensure that she gets it. At home, Harriet sends Ethel to bed and wanders around the house, checking to see that everything is in order. It soon becomes clear that Harriet allows Walter no freedom. She spies on him and alienates his friends. He can't even smoke in his own home. Through a call from the police, she discovers that Walter is under suspicion for the murder and she does everything she can to thwart the police and avoid scandal, even lying to Walter. Walter's aunt Ellen Austen is fed up with Harriet's ways and decides to leave their house, but before she does, she opens Walter's eyes to the extent of Harriet's duplicity. By the next morning, Walter, cleared of murder charges when the police discover that it was actually a murder-suicide, has decided to leave Harriet. the servants have all left as well, and Ethel's fiancé Gene Fredericks, has taken her back to her mother. Harriet is alone in her pristine house when she receives a telegram informing her that her sister has died. Completely alone, Harriet breaks down and cries.
Rosalind Russell in Craig's Wife
Rosalind Russell proved her ability to carry a picture in the 1936 adaptation of George Kelly's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Craig's Wife, the story of a woman more devoted to her beautiful home than to her husband. Although it was her first starring role on screen and would lead to better assignments at MGM, where she was under contract, Russell rarely spoke of it. In her memoirs, she dismissed the character, one of the strongest women's roles in American theatre, as "a meanie." Throughout her life, she credited The Women (1939) as the film that made her a star. For contemporary audiences, however, Craig's Wife presents a fascinating view of one of the most prevalent dramatic themes of 20th century American literature, the crippling influence of materialism. It also offers a rare chance to see a film with a strong female leading character directed by a woman, the only female director of Hollywood's golden age, Dorothy Arzner.
Craig's Wife had been one of the great hits of the 1925-26 Broadway season, bringing Kelly, the uncle of actress Grace Kelly, his only Pulitzer Prize. The third full-length play Kelly had written since leaving vaudeville, where he had written and starred in comic sketches, it maintained a pattern in his work of holding up to scrutiny the shortcomings of its leading characters. Unlike his earlier two plays, The Torch Bearers and The Show Off, Craig's Wife eschewed comedy to depict its leading character, Harriet Craig, as a melodramatic villainess who lies to the police to protect her husband from a murder charge, not for his own good but to guarantee his ability to continue supporting her and the home they share. Although recent critics have attributed Kelly's harsh depiction of Harriet and other female characters to his homosexuality, which his socially prominent family kept a secret until long after his death, it more likely derives from the influence of his conservative Catholic mother. As such, Harriet is an indictment of both the materialism of the '20s and the rise of independent women who seemed to defy traditional notions of romance and matrimony.
The play had been filmed successfully as a silent feature in 1928, with Cecil B. de Mille's brother William directing Irene Rich and Warner Baxter in the leading roles. When Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn decided to produce a remake in 1936, he decided contract actresses like Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur, Ann Sothern and Faye Wray were not right for the lead (another possible reason was that he wouldn't risk alienating their fans with such an unpleasant role). Instead he arranged to borrow Rosalind Russell from MGM, where she had done impressive work playing supporting roles as society women. Russell tried to get out of the loan, not wanting to play such an unsympathetic character, but had to follow studio orders.
Fortunately for her, Craig's Wife had been assigned to the Hollywood director most likely to humanize its leading character. Dorothy Arzner was Hollywood's only female director of the '30s and early '40s. She had learned filmmaking from the ground up, starting as a secretary before moving into writing, editing and script girl work. By the time she decided to take on directing, she was so valuable to Paramount Pictures that her threat to leave was enough to earn her first assignment, Fashions for Women (1927). That film's success put her in a unique position in Hollywood. Not only was she kept at work directing films, but eventually she negotiated a degree of independence unheard of even for some male directors. When she had signed with Columbia in 1934, it had been with a promise to produce her own pictures. Although that never worked out, she still had control over her own sets and even had a contract clause exempting her from meetings with Cohn on his yacht.
Working with producer Edward Chodorov, himself a successful playwright, she made Craig's Wife very much a writer's film. Screenwriter Mary McCall, Jr. was surprised to find herself more intensely involved in the film's production than had ever been the case at her home studio, Warner Bros. Arzner insisted that McCall be present on the set during shooting and even asked her for advice on how lines and scenes should be played. Moreover, Arzner collaborated with McCall on bringing a woman's point of view to the film. Where Harriet's husband had been presented in the play as a noble man duped by his love for a cold-hearted woman, Arzner's film suggests that he may have actually needed a domineering woman like Harriet in his life. And Harriet's fanatical devotion to her house was less a product of greed than her response to a society that gave women few options for exercising power outside of the home.
The one problem Arzner had during production was with Cohn and the studio's art director. To emphasize the impersonality of Harriet's home as a reflection of her coldness and micro-management, Arzner wanted the house to seem like a theatrical set, a concept Cohn and designer Stephen Goosson couldn't fathom. Finally, she brought in her friend -- interior designer William Haines, a one-time film star whose career had ended because of his refusal to conceal his homosexuality behind a fake marriage -- to help her re-decorate the set at night. Their work, including a clever addition of Greek motifs to the design, helped her transform Kelly's melodrama into a tragedy about a woman whose beloved home becomes the only thing she has left in life.
Craig's Wife received mostly positive reviews upon its release, though, as often would happen with Arzner, the director was praised for her suitability to a film focusing on "feminine" issues. Ironically, some critics complained that Arzner had stuck too close to the play for the film to stand on its own merits (Kelly disagreed; he wasn't happy with the changes from his original). The real winner, however, was Russell, whose performance and rave reviews made MGM's executives look on her in a more positive light. After two years of merely being a second-string Myrna Loy, she got a shot at a more demanding role as Robert Montgomery's leading lady in the psychological thriller Night Must Fall (1937). Craig's Wife even did well enough at the box office to merit a remake twelve years later, as Harriet Craig (1950), with Joan Crawford. In later years, the image of Crawford as a domineering mother and compulsive cleaner dovetailed so neatly with the film's plot, that it has become the best known of the play's screen adaptations.
Producer: Edward Chodorov
Director: Dorothy Arzner
Screenplay: Mary C. McCall, Jr.
Based on the play by George Kelly
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Art Direction: William Haines (uncredited), Stephen Goosson
Music: R.H. Bassett, Emil Gerstenberger, Milan Roder
Principal Cast: Rosalind Russell (Harriet Craig), John Boles (Walter Craig), Billie Burke (Mrs. Frazier), Jane Darwell (Mrs. Harold), Alma Kruger (Miss Austen), Thomas Mitchell (Fergus Passmore), Raymond Walburn (Billy Birkmire), Nydia Westman (Mazie), Elisabeth Risdon (Mrs. Landreth ), Kathleen Burke (Adelaide Passmore).
by Frank Miller
The play Craig's Wife won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928. It was the basis of two other films: a silent version starring Irene Rich and Warner Baxter (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30; F2.1070) and a 1950 version called Harriet Craig, starring Joan Crawford.