Directed by: Dorothy Arzner
Written by: Mary C. McCall Jr.
Starring: Rosalind Russell, John Boles, Billie Burke, Jane Darwell, Dorothy Wilson
Security for women carries more value than any sort of currency ever can. Maintaining this security becomes of utmost importance to them and when it gets challenged, you can expect a battle. We see one of those fierce attempts in the crisp and unrelenting Craig’s Wife. A story unafraid to show the evil deeds of a particular woman, but still manages to garner enough sympathy to see her point of view.
Marrying solely for financial advantage Harriet Craig (Rosalind Russell) loves to ensure her house continually matches the standards she has set for it with no fear of the feelings she hurts in the process. After visiting her sick sister in Albany, a series of events begin to challenge the life she has built up for herself.
It would be easy to watch Craig’s Wife and have pure disdain for Harriet for the entirety of the feature, but digging deeper into her personality shows something beyond the rigid figure we see for most of the film. It opens with the domestic workers servicing the house, with a younger maid looking to clean a vase. A seasoned maid runs over to her and notifies the younger one about the particularity of Harriet and how everything must be exactly how she left it. A strange thing to hear for the young maid as she simply wants to clean and do her job, but it builds up the woman we will soon meet. All of the build-up leading towards the initial appearance of Harriet sizes her up to be this villainous character, and she certainly delivers on that account.
Harriet makes her taste and lack of patience for others known very quickly, as we begin to piece together why she’s married to her husband Walter (John Boles). She shows him no affection and believes love will only serve to complicate marriages. Walter’s friends rarely spend time with him because they would hate to be near Harriet for more than a moment. The only person allowed to essentially be in the house is Walter’s aunt Ellen (Alma Kruger), who seeks to protect her nephew from the clutches of his wife. The stage is set, we have our players and you’re probably wondering how in the world we could have any sympathy for Harriet?
It’s certainly a large task, seeing as for the entirety of the story she says the cruelest things to others and shows no affection to the person she has promised to love for the rest of her life. Additionally, from what the story presents Walter, Ellen, and the other characters appear to be good people who do not deserve the treatment she lays upon them. The sympathy built for Harriet comes from the fundamental idea of what this home means to her and why she would viciously combat anyone daring to challenge her in any way. The film does not seek to justify her actions whatsoever, but it definitely attempts to explain the root of her actions, which comes from a place of fear.
For someone who certainly married for money, everything that matters for her comes from having a secure home. In a society where women lacked power, the only place she could have it came from her household, which makes any attempt to challenge this an affront to her personally. The limited amount of power forces her to cling to the little she has with the grip of a hawk and it comes out in such rude ways with others. You just have to look at the title of the feature, as it shows a story focused on her being named after her husband. Rosalind Russell’s performance plays a major part in where this sympathy comes into play. She presents this sternness in her voice and presence but she carries a level of elegance in her demeanor, which will always invite some sort of sympathy. In little moments you can see what made Walter fall in love with her initially.
As it’s constructed, Craig’s Wife can feel stagey with the dialogue dominating most of what happens on-screen but director Dorothy Arzner still leaves her imprint as a filmmaker. Her taking on this role makes sense because of her feminist appeal in trying to tackle a woman so villainous and attempting to find the glimmer of humanity from the shield put up. Arzner has never been afraid to inject feminist beliefs and ideas into her films and she does so in the most challenging way with the character of Harriet. She does so by building up what should be a monster and then further breaking down her personality and identity.
With its incredible strengths in its dialogue and acting, Craig’s Wife manages a seemingly insurmountable task in getting sympathy out of someone that appears to have lost all forms of affection for other people. The balance in showing her deeds while also explaining her true intentions walks a tightrope Dorothy Arzner masterfully manages, as she continues to demonstrate her place as an iconic filmmaker during the Golden Age of Hollywood. A real trailblazer and one of the few people in this era who could adequately tell this story with the amount of deftness required.