Harriet Craig was the second of three films director Vincent Sherman and Joan Crawford made together while having a rather satisfying affair throughout 1949 and 1950.
Sherman wanted to keep working with Crawford, but he didn’t want to make Harriet Craig. George Kelly’s play Craig’s Wife had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1926, and already had two film adaptations, the second in 1936 with Rosalind Russell and John Boles.
Despite its previous successes, Sherman didn’t think 1950s audiences would be interested in the tale of a manipulative and coldly demanding housewife. Harriet’s rules are never ending and precise—the vase above the fireplace must not be even an inch too close to the edge. Her husband is not to sit on the arm of the sofa. The shutters are to be closed at 11:30 in the morning to prevent the sun from fading the furniture, and the maid is to use the back staircase so as not to wear out the carpet on the main one. Harriet sucks all the life from her home and her marriage, and the film ends with her alone and without redemption—in holding so tightly to her husband, she succeeds only in driving him away.
Sherman also thought the role cut a little too close to the bone for his leading lady. In his autobiography, Sherman writes, that “In many ways, Joan was herself the embodiment of Harriet Craig, in her obsessive attitude toward her home; her distrust of men and her desire to control; and her power of manipulation.”
Even before her Mommie Dearest days, Joan Crawford was well-known as an obsessive house cleaner. She was continually firing her staff for not living up to her exacting standards, and often preferred to do even the most laborious tasks herself.
Joan Crawford was not blind to the similarities. In his biography Possessed, Donald Spoto notes that Crawford wrote in a letter to a friend, “The part of me that is ‘Craig’s Wife’ often comes out, and I wander around my heavenly home [looking for cleaning to do.]”
She wanted the role, and she convinced Sherman to take on the project.
Wendell Corey (most remembered for his role as the detective in Rear Window) plays Walter Craig, and amiable man who fell for Harriet’s beauty and initially brushes off her increasingly neurotic and shrewish behavior.
Harriet has her reasons—she was traumatized by her father’s affairs and abandonment, and is afraid to let her own husband out of her sight—but her need for control propels a level of manipulation so grotesque that the audience cannot sympathize with her. Through a series of escalating lies, she ruins her cousin Clare’s romantic relationship so that Clare will not marry and quit her job as Harriet’s private secretary.
She crosses the final line when she sabotages Walter’s chances at a promotion because it will mean more travel—and thus time out from under her thumb.
In the film’s most satisfying scene, Walter—who has always tried hard to follow Harriet’s mandates—deliberately smashes her favorite vase as an act of liberating himself from his stifling marriage.
He leaves Harriet, and in the final scene we see her ascending the pristine stairs, knowing that she will have full control over her sterile home, but no one to share it with.
We’re lucky that Crawford talked Sherman into making the picture, for it’s delicious fun to watch her terrorize the entire household with her exacting orders.
And knowing that she may have been exorcising personal demons only adds to its appeal.
- Sherman, Vincent. Studio Affairs—My Life as a Film Director. 1996.
- Spoto, Donald. Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford. 2010.
- Bret, David. Joan Crawford: Hollywood Martyr. 2006.
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