Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Review of Craig's Wife (1936)

“Craig’s Wife” (1936) is a little-known film by director Dorothy Arzner, an adaptation of a George Kelly play that had made its way to the screen before and would do so again. The film was a breakout role for Rosalind Russell, and featured two of the era’s greatest character actors: Thomas Mitchell and Jane Darwell. Sadly, without either a DVD release or television rotation it has drifted into obscurity. I pseudo-randomly rented it on a tattered VHS from a local library and almost returned it unwatched. Observing that it had only 75 imdb votes piqued my curiosity. The film walrus’s psychology towards film can be compared to the little child who wants to take home and nurse back to health every injured animal he comes across.

Craig’s Wife (played by Russell in the mold of Joan Crawford) is a cold tyrannical manipulator who has married for money and spends much of her time obsessively adjusting the twigs in her nest. Her sense of interior decoration is rather uninviting, and can broach neither flowers brought in friendship (the petals despoil the sterile tabletops) nor her husband’s cigarettes. Craig, who remains inexplicably madly in love with his wife, fails at first to notice that she chokes out every glimmer of happiness in his life and has gradually repelled all of his friends.

For someone who is so possessive and perfectionist about her property, Mrs. Craig’s home is surprisingly bustling. Two servants, a neighbor, a niece and a step-parent all tromp through the abode for the majority of the run-time (revealing its roots as a play), though gradually Mrs. Craig’s snarkiness poisons the party. Things go too far for even Mr. Craig when he learns that his wife tried to implicate him in a double homicide just to get him out of her hair. Arzner does a crafty job orchestrating a series of events through which Craig’s wife gets her secret wish and final retribution: utter abandonment. The film’s tearful conclusion is deliciously prepared, though vengeance gets served in several more courses than is strictly necessary.

Watching this so soon after “Swept Away” (1974) drew my attention to some odd similarities. Though this 1930’s film is far milder, there seemed to be a certain misogynistic streak that ran through it. Once again, the presence of a woman in the director’s chair compelled me to look deeper. Certainly a female director is under no obligation to spend her career resisting gender stereotypes and fighting for feminism, but Arzner was THE female director of the classical Hollywood era (there were virtually no rivals in terms of fame or financial success) and she has a reputation for lacing her films with feminist undertones. “Dance, Girl, Dance” (1940), for instance, is quite explicit in the way that it challenges the male gaze and directly indicts female objectification.

Craig’s wife is hardly a sympathetic character, but there are aspects of Russell’s performance that manage to evoke pity. We learn in her back-story that her faithful mother was left in the lurch by her father. She has been driven since then to achieve independence, even in the paradoxical act of marriage. The script notes that she pays her servants generously and, though she treats them abominably, this might show a tinge of conscience for those women who like her former self, lack financial means.

Mrs. Craig isolation really begins far before her literal abandonment, which itself is pushed to a dramatic extreme. She is psychologically withdrawn from the world, even her estranged family. Though Arzner could have portrayed her as a femme fatale who cheats on Mr. Craig, she plays out as a hard-bitten woman incapable of emotional or physical love. Much in her behavior looks like obsessive-compulsive disorder or Asperger’s Syndrome. Meanwhile, Craig may be hen-pecked, but life isn’t really so bad for him. He is away much of the time, talks cheerfully and appears to make friends easily. Seen today, he has his own share of flaws and occasionally comes off as entitled and petty.

Under the surface a slight tug-of-war wages between Mrs. Craig’s role as a witchy villain and as a nuanced protagonist. We are given enough latitude to understand her character, even as the script roundly condemns her. There are even implications that her failure to connect with others is not entirely her fault and that the marriage itself may have flaws, especially in the way that 1930’s conventions discouraged female ambition and kept couples in such separate spheres. Note that the film draws frequent attention to Mr. Craig’s love of travel and career compared to his wife’s fanatical nest building. In the throes of the Hays Code it is not surprising that Arzner would have to soft-peddle her explorations of such themes lest they “throw sympathy against marriage as an institution.”

As an overall film, “Craig’s Wife” is really quite classy and entertaining. The structural purity of Mrs. Craig’s downfall keeps it more pleasurable than preachy. Each character has a role to play; they perform it with grace and balance, finish it with an eloquent and appropriate speech and, one by one, exit the story. Thomas Mitchell’s cameo as a drunken friend is all too short, though his abrupt off-screen murder-suicide provides the films most sensational and implausible jolt. Jane Darwell is excellent as the only servant with the stamina to weather Hurricane Craig. Russell provides a powerful anchor, giving way to bouts of bitchiness in a convincing manner, but still implying other dimensions to her character.

Fans of well-written, subdued 1930’s dramas in the vein of “Dodsworth” or “Camille” (both also from 1936) will enjoy “Craig’s Wife.” It occasionally feels hampered by the inevitability of its trajectory and gagged in its revelations about married life, but the acting, staging and timing have the sharp honed edge of a well-practiced play.

Walrus Rating: 7.0


Molly said...

Well, I'm certainly intrigued. Sadly, my own library only has a copy of George Kelly's play. I wonder if it's worth a read?

FilmWalrus said...

Your free-time permitting, I'd say go for it. The traditional play qualities (writing, structure, characters) in the film were quite strong. Plus, it's bound to be short. I'd love to hear if you found it progressive or not, as I'm curious how much Arzner changed.

Anonymous said...

There was a quote at the end of the movie...something like "those who live in themselves, generally are left to themselves." or something close to that.

Do you know if that quotation is just from that movie or from something else as well?

Anonymous said...

Since this predates Harriet Craig (the remake), I think Russell's performance is her own rather than an imitation of Crawford. Interesting though, the earlier version came at a time when careers for women were still limited. Women were expected to marry.

FilmWalrus said...

Interestingly, I didn't even know Joan Crawford starred in a remake, I just thought the performance reminded me of a stereotypical Crawford's role. In some ways though, I think Russell is better casting sense she has a more pronounced sweetness to her demeanor.

Anonymous said...

You can see this movie on YouTube. Just search it.

Anonymous said...

Loved Walrus' review. I saw most of the (excellent) movie this morning on Turner, and was really baffled because at first I thought I was seeing Joan Crawford, who then morphed into Roz Russell. I wonder why the film was re-made after just 14 years....This is like Madame Bovary without the sex!

Anonymous said...

Detailed review - great job, as always! The sentence, "In the throws of the Hays Code..." should be "In the throes of the Hays Code..." Please correct this when you update your terrific site. Thanks for letting us all know of these forgotten gems!

Rachel said...

Bump into your reviews and I became curious about this movie "Craigs Wife". Your review lured me in to watch the movie. You are amazing on your reviews which allowed me to have a sample of a visual.
I am looking forward in exploring your blog.