The enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934 dealt a deadly blow to director Dorothy Arzner’s career. The Code strictly enforced specifics around what could be shown in a film in terms of violence, drinking, and sex.
More damning for Arzner, the Code restricted the types of stories that could be told.
Arzner’s films didn’t glorify sex, drinking, or drug use, but they very much dealt with the plight and constraints of the modern woman. No longer was she free to tell stories about unmarried women having affairs, or married women and men experimenting with open marriages.
Arzner made only four films after the code, and though they were not box office success at the time, today they are among her most celebrated films. Even with the restrictions, she still found a way to make films with something to say, and she still worked with legendary actresses at the start of their careers.
Craig’s Wife was the first of her post-code efforts. This was the second film adaptation of the Pulitzer-Prizing winning play, and the first talking version. The third and (thus far) final version was made in 1950, with the leading role played by Joan Crawford. (Which I reviewed here earlier this year.)
In this version, Harriet Craig is played by Rosalind Russell, three years before she caught fire as the gossipy Sylvia Fowler in George Cukor’s The Women. Though much better known for playing boisterous characters such as Auntie Mame and Hildy in His Girl Friday, she is up to the task of playing an ice queen.
At 20 minutes shorter than the Joan Crawford version, Arzner’s film gets right to the point, snipping out several subplots to focus on the main event—Harriet Craig is a woman who married her husband to get a house.
As she explains to her wide-eyed niece, she never loved her husband, but saw marriage as a road to independence and wealth. She rules her sparkling home with an iron fist—with exacting standards for the servants, and her husband too.
Poor Walter (John Boles) isn’t allowed to smoke or sit on the arms of chairs in his own home.
As the film moves forward, Harriet pushes away everyone—servants, acquaintances, her niece, her husband.
She never had any friends to begin with.
At the film’s conclusion, she receives a telegram informing her that her sister has died, and Harriet realizes she finally has what she’s always wanted—she’s completely alone in the world, with her big fancy house all to herself.
The enormity of her grief and regret engulfs her and she dissolves into tears.
It’s a good film, and in many ways a clever one—Arzner and company found a way to tell a story about how confined women’s roles were in the 1930s without running afoul of the production code’s rules.
Though some of the details are changed, it’s got the same spine as the Crawford version, and is just as enjoyable.
Which one is better? It’s a coin flip for me—watch them both and decide for yourself.
You can watch Craig’s Wife for free on You Tube here.
- Mayne, Judith. Directed by Dorothy Arzner. 1994.
- Russell, Rosalind. Life Is a Banquet. 1977.
Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.