Friday, July 19, 2013

Rosalind's Showplace

A few weeks ago, we watched two different versions of the same story.  We are doing it again.  The time, we begin with the 1936 version of the Pulitzer Prize winning play be George Kelly (uncle of Grace Kelly), Craig's Wife.  This is the story of a woman who married for a house, rather than for love or position.  And it is directed by Hollywood's only woman director in this period, Dorothy Arzner.

Harriett Craig (as played by Rosalind Russell) is the very model of a total bitch (one of our group said that if you look up "bitch" in the dictionary, Harriet's picture is there).  She is cold and calculating, a liar and a snob.  Her attitude to everyone is supercilious, no one is as smart as she and no one is good enough to set foot in her precious house.  She has no friends, and has made sure her husband Walter (John Boles) is distanced from his friends.  Friends, after all, might want to visit, and no one is allowed into the temple that Harriet has created.  Harriet is fascinated by objects, and revolted by anything that she perceives as mess.  Flowers are forbidden in her "temple". The petals might get on the table.
The film opens while Harriet is away. Her sister is ill, and Harriet goes to visit her for a few days.  While there, Harriet decides to bring her niece Ethel (Dorothy Wilson) home with her (Harriet has decided that he sister will recover more quickly if she is left alone). On the trip back, Harriet lectures the young woman on the benefits of a loveless marriage, and the security of a well-to-do husband.  Meanwhile, back home, her husband has used her time away to visit his friend Fergus Passmore (Thomas Mitchell), an unhappy alcoholic, who suspects his wife's fidelity.

There really is no motivation given for Harriet's obsessive behavior about her home.  We also don't know much about the marriage; in the play, Harriet and Walter have been married for only 18 months.  This film gives us no idea of the length of the marriage.  Since Walter doesn't seem to be unhappy at the start of the film, his switch to utter disgust of his wife is rapid.  Certainly, a lot of small things happen to tarnish his image of her (his Aunt Austen's lecture, Harriet's unwillingness to cooperate with the police), but he's been living with her for awhile.  His rebellion seems a bit precipitous here.  We found it amusing that Harriet forbids Walter to smoke in the house, something that would have been quite offensive to viewers in 1936  (maybe she suspected that second-hand smoke is bad!).

We were very impressed by Rosalind Russell in this film.  She is not afraid to make Harriet unlikeable.  Even her attitude towards her sister and niece is reserved to the point of disinterest.  Her Harriet is totally dead inside.  Also quite good was Billie Burke as the neighbor, Mrs. Frazier, a warm, affectionate woman with a love for flowers and children. She serves as the perfect foil to Harriet.

We've already been told at multiple points what a harridan Harriet is and how difficult it is for her staff.  Poor Mazie (played beautifully by Nydia Westman) is treated shabbily by Harriet, even though she has taken on the  cooking responsibilities (she was hired as a housemaid), the most recent cook having resigned.  We find out that there is so much turnover in the staff, the employment agency won't send a new cook until the home has been inspected. So, when Jane Darwell, as the housekeeper, Mrs. Harold  has her final confrontation with Harriet,  you want to cheer as Mrs. Harold takes the match.  
One thing to note, when you see Thomas Mitchell, you will assume that this subplot will actually have a conclusion.  Like a lot of the subplots here, it does not.  Primarily because these incidents don't affect Harriet - she won't let them.  

We recommend to you the excellent TCM article for more insights into the making of this interesting picture. This is an excellent film, and well worth your viewing.

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