“No man was born for marriage. He has to be trained for it.”
In the opening scene of the film Harriet Craig a houseful of servants scurry around frantically as they help Harriet (Joan Crawford) prepare for a trip. While Harriet, at first, speaks politely to her cousin/maid Clare, the harried, frantic manner in which Clare attempts to meet Harriet’s every whim, is chilling. Harriet Craig is a domestic dragon. Her house is run like clockwork–nothing is to be moved out of place–everything is to remain spotless. This neatness fetish may not sound too daunting, but Harriet’s obsession with perfection runs deeper than a tidy house. Harriet is a domineering controller, and everyone who lives in her house must bend to her will in all situations.
Harriet Craig moves forward with precision. At first, Harriet’s fetish with neatness is slightly deranged, but within a few scenes, Harriet takes increasingly greater liberties with the lives of the people she’s supposed to care about. The incidents which reveal Harriet’s true nature build with steady momentum. As the film progresses, the buried depths of venom spew from her in rapid succession. Harriet is capable of layers of spite. She doesn’t worry, for example, about the social niceties with the servants, and with them, she doesn’t even bother to appear nice. With her husband, Harriet is at her most manipulative. One brilliant scene, in particular, (when she dissuades him from a game of golf), shows Harriet’s seductive power. By the time she’s finished with her husband, he thinks it’s his idea to miss the game and stay home, and he’s even happy about it! He is blissfully unaware of Harriet’s true nature, and he thinks he’s married some sort of domestic goddess who worries about the house too much. Harriet controls her husband with guided sweetness, but under that facade of sweetness, she will stop at nothing to keep him under her thumb. Things in Harriet’s house become decidedly out-of-control during a dinner party, and as Harriet moves back and forth between her servants and her social acquaintances, she switches back between viciousness and controlling masked by concern. Joan Crawford delivers a tour-de-force performance. It’s easy to see her as the perfect house-frau, cold, heartless, and cruel. She acts her heart out, and just as she appears to give the role everything she has, deeper layers of viciousness explode to the surface. Great stuff.