Thursday, February 23, 2017

Queen Joan

When Jennifer Stewart (Lucy Marlow) arrives at the home of her cousin, Eva Phillips (Joan Crawford), she discovers a mess of unhappiness.  Eva's sister-in-law, Carol Lee (Betsy Palmer) despises Eva and is loathe to tell her about Carol Lee's engagement to Judson Prentis (John Ireland); Eva's husband, Avery is rarely sober, Eva's son Ted (Tim Hovey) has constant nightmares. Jennifer, however, is immediately enchanted with the affectionate Eva, and becomes her acolyte and defender.  Little does she know Eva is not the woman she images; she is, in fact, the heartless Queen Bee (1955).

We always enjoy Joan Crawford, and seeing her play the witch is generally a pleasure.  But Queen Bee really taxes that pleasure button.  Based on a novel by Edna Lee, the film is melodrama at its worst.  The plot has holes in it a mile wide, and the characters are superficial, and annoying.  Even Ms. Crawford suffers from the inconsistencies in a character that could have been a companion to Harriet Craig. Eva is uptight, controlling, and jealous, just like Harriet, but she is Harriet on steroids. Unlike Harriet, she is contradictory.  On the one hand, she emotionally tortures her family endlessly. One the other hand, she falls into an inconsolable depression when a person she has just tormented beyond endurance dies.   Once she recovers, she's back on the torture trail.  She is, to quote Winston Churchill, "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma."

But she's not the only character that makes you throw up your hands in despair.  Let's look at her husband, Avery.  When we meet Avery, he snarls at Jennifer about the scar on his face.  His family, even the sister that loves him, calls him "Beauty" as a nickname!  The scar and the nickname are brought up the once, and then dropped.  We know he got the scar in an auto accident, but it is a throwaway reference. He's a raging alcoholic (allegedly because he is married to Eva); he also is fairly spineless.  Even with the health and well-being of his children are at stake, he is terrified of confronting his wife.
Which makes us question why Jennifer would fall in love with him.  She despises him on first meeting, but within a hair's breath is madly in love (and for no good reason.  The man is constantly inebriated and is verbally abusive to boot).  But quite frankly, there's not much to like about Jennifer either.  An orphan, she has come to the Phillips' home because Eva, who has been supporting Jennifer in Chicago, has invited her.  Jennifer has had a good education, thanks to the financial munificence of the Phillips', but she doesn't seem to have made any effort to support herself by getting a job.   At first enamored of Eva, she ultimately discovers her to be a monster.  But still Jennifer stays.  Why? Her affection for the children? This great love for Avery? Again, the film gives you no legitimate reason for her actions.  In its review of the film, the New York Times  talks about Ms. Marlow "gawk[ing] and quak[ing]."  I hate to agree with Bosley Crowther, but he's right on this one.

As if all this is not enough, the film throws in the abusive Miss Breen (Katherine Anderson), the stereotypical evil nanny (the character Bette Davis would play in The Nanny).  The character arrives when Eva suffers her nervous breakdown, then stays on to emotionally and physically torment the children.  Miss Breen serves a point - she provides Eva with a source of blackmail at the end of the film, but quite frankly, Eva could have gotten her blackmail information without Miss Breen's annoying presence.  All Miss Breen contributes is to make Avery, in his one moment of rebellion, again look like a weakling.
It is nice to see Fay Wray (Sue McKinnon) in the film, even if it is only for about 5 minutes. But, the presence of her character is, again, rather pointless (she's a rather dotty lady who was emotionally damaged when Eva stole Avery from her.  She doesn't know how lucky she was!) According to this TCM article, Ms. Wray announced her return to film (she had retired when she married Robert Riskin, to care for her child from her prior marriage and to her two children with Mr. Riskin) after her husband's death in 1955.  Ms. Crawford not only sent her a note saying "Welcome...we need you", she arranged for her to be cast in the part of Sue.  It's a thankless role, but Ms. Wray is excellent in this little snippet.  While not her first post-retirement role, it was certainly not her last.  She would continue to act in both film and television until her final retirement in 1980.  She would marry again, in 1971; she and Dr. Sanford Rothenberg were together until his death in 1991; Ms. Wray died in 2004, aged 96. 
Oh, yes, and then there is the supernatural element of young Ted, and his dreams of a horrific car crash, which, by the conclusion of the film, we discover has a supernatural element to it (the abusive nanny wasn't enough of a leap into the macabre).  

This AFI Catalog entry notes that the film received Oscar nominations for black and white cinematography and for costume design (it lost to The Rose Tattoo and I'll Cry Tomorrow, respectively).  The film also changed the ending of the book, possibly to provide what they considered a happy ending.  But nothing is all that happy about this film, and it did Ms. Crawford no good service.  So, unless you hunger for the complete Crawford, avoid this one.  We'll leave you with this clip in which Ms. Crawford is matchmaking for  Ms. Marlow:

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