Films Feminism Forgot: HARRIET CRAIG (1950)


Harriet Craig was and is, for all time, the worst human being who ever lived. Ball-buster, back-breaker, heart-stomper; Uncle Joe Stalin with better eyebrows. As portrayed by Joan Crawford , perhaps the one Hollywood heavyweight best suited to interpret evil incarnate, she is everything mid-century America wanted and need femininity to be: manipulative, deceitful, selfish, brutish, and clownish, all topped with the proverbial cherry of haunted, father-inspired guilt. She cannot be happy unless others are not. Untrustworthy to the core, she is burdened by near-fanatical suspicion. A liar demanding truth. A control freak utterly off the rails. Obsessive and fanatical, if only to hold back the burgeoning breakdown. For her, and all women of the time, love is at its best when expressed as wholesale possession. She wants and needs a man, yes, but only to feed a self-loathing so severe, so all-encompassing, that were it externalized, it would contaminate the globe with radioactive waste. Ms. Craig – or Mrs., as marriage remains the only real goal for such a creature – is, then, the atomic age’s most representative woman. In the end, she’ll send every last soul scrambling for the exits; a sad, solitary figure stomping about her barren manor with only an unparalleled self-pity to guide her.

When we first meet her, Harriet is berating the help. From that singular moment until the final frame, she is a finger-pointing banshee. The flowers brought over by a caring neighbor? Toss them, burn them, just get them out of my sight. What do you mean my husband isn’t available? Pull him from his sensitive work so I can tell him that dinner will be hopelessly burned unless he gets home at precisely 5pm. I see that you dusted, yes, but that priceless vase from the Ming Dynasty is far too close to the edge of the shelf. If it falls, pray I’m locked away, because otherwise, someone will breathe their last. And I’m visiting my sick, brain-scrambled mother for ten long days, but while I’m gone, make sure Mr. Craig never eats out, never uses the phone, and never so much as thinks about entertaining friends. He’ll remain lonely and miserable and depressed until I return. What gives? Walter is such a kind husband, while Harriet is so goddamn awful. The match doesn’t make sense. The servants gossip: in language even the decade’s fuddy-duddies could understand, it is revealed that Harriet has one amazing vagina. Like, the most intoxicating on either coast. It’s so unspeakably grand it can get a man to cancel his Sunday golf game.


Okay, so we know that Harriet fucks like an animal while not allowing anyone to sit on her couches for more than thirty seconds. Hardly a case for misogyny. But then she decides to leave early after visiting mother dear in the sanitarium. Seems no one answered the phone when she called fourteen times every hour, both day and night, so it’s homeward bound, next train running. Entering the front door, it’s clear fun was had in her absence. Lampshades are tilted, and there’s a pillow out of place. And that cigarette butt! Was that not lipstick? Had she not told the grown man who pays all the bills not to dirty the house? Upstairs she goes, her rage matched only by the most contorted visage in Christendom. Let this go and there will be chaos. Okay, so it was just a poker night with the guys. No harm, no foul. Love and kisses, but Harriet is keeping score. Maybe she won’t be so generous in the sack next time. Maybe a bubble bath will remain a bubble bath, without the usual tomfoolery to follow. Or maybe she’ll just pile on the nitpicking that much more. A bit to start so he won’t notice, then a full-scale assault until he’s a fully browned milquetoast. Both sides, just to be sure. Better yet, a dinner party. With people you can’t fucking stand. Sounds like a weekend.

Let’s pause here. Harriet Craig is, to use the parlance of the time, a woman who loves too much. Or not enough. Or without fully admitting that she wanted to fuck her father. Yes, she caught daddy making love to a “cheap, vulgar blond” one night in his office, and it was all downhill from there. Just some “fool with liquor on his breath.” She was betrayed, so she’ll hate them all in advance, just to avoid getting bruised. Mom went nuts, but she’s also to blame. Not enough attention in the bedroom, clearly, so Harriet will sand away her own rough edges to ensure some form of compliance. She’s rotten and mean and full of bitterness, but when has that ever interfered with a good blowjob? But now it’s getting serious. Walter can’t have any friends at all. He’s to wake up, express his undying love, go to work, and return home. A robot under her full control. And if you so much as laugh in a room not shared by me, I’ll bring this whole fucking thing to its knees. After all, this is a woman so hell-bent on remaining top dog that she tells her own live-in cousin that a genuinely decent man is uninterested in marrying her because it would mean losing the person who boils her tea. Once in her sights, you can never leave.


I’ll give it to Harriet – she keeps one hell of a home. Sure, there are cooks and maids about, but she tells them what to do with unforgiving clarity. But then she gets reckless. A cup is broken, and the best of the lot is fired. A mainstay, the one servant that goes back to before Harriet arrived, is driven out for being too efficient. Or something. We all know it’s because she’s keen to Harriet’s game. And then a far greater crime. Walter is asked to go to Japan for three months. No one can fully explain why, but his job calls for it. Something about being the only man for the job. We accept in on faith, with Harriet remaining the lone holdout. Why, Walter might eat well without me. Have fun. Chuckle at a joke someone else told. Worst of all, he might become overly fond of the sound of silence. A towel not hung right, though now an act without a twenty-minute lecture at breakfast. From that to estrangement, then divorce, with only the grave as a cruel, final act. The trip must be stopped. She’ll pay a visit to Walter’s boss. Toss out a hint that maybe, just maybe, he has a gambling problem. An alcoholic who might get crazy without the wife to keep one eye open. The sort of man who might rob the firm blind.

No matter that it’s a promotion. More money, more prestige, and one hell of a career capper. But Harriet can’t look over Walter’s shoulder from 6,000 miles away, so forget the whole thing. It’s the last straw. Not even Joan Crawford in silk sheets is going to take away the sting. Yes, everyone says how beautiful she is – from servant to party guest – but money can buy another. “But what about me?” Harriet spits. Always the female. Storm through without regard, then sit back and wonder where it all went. A firm equal when prizes are being distributed, a mere woman when handing out blame. A partner on the ride up, a singular victim on the way down. Still, it was the natural follow-up to noir. Then, a gun and a lie to end your dreams. Now, just the lie, with a rumble in depressing domesticity rather than the backseat of a getaway car. Dames used to make it seem a little worthwhile before they stole your soul. A big risk with the hint of an even bigger payoff. Now, it’s a safe bet you’re just in it for her meatloaf. Broads used to go places. Today, they just stick around; always underfoot as a reminder that you have no other place to go. We fought on the beaches for this? Walter sure as hell didn’t, though it took being brought to rock bottom before reaching that long-sought awakening.


Not surprisingly, though, not even fucking with his livelihood was enough. He was ready to forgive, with love to spare. No, Harriet had to up the ante. More than screwing a man out of his just desserts? A woman can sink lower. She can pretend to be barren. Cursed by nature, when all along, it was a choice. Walter dreamed of a family, but Harriet wanted no such thing. But hold on here. Harriet loves to fuck. It’s clear it was a nightly ritual. This is 1950, well before the pill. And let’s face it, Harriet never struck anyone as the type to insist on condoms. Animals don’t pause to act responsibly. Was she having abortions on the side? She’ll never tell. The real Crawford had at least a dozen, so why not the fictional one? All told, it’s the greatest of sins. The woman who loathes the wee ones. They cry, shit, and piss, reducing your figure to ruin. Who is this monster? This unholy triumvirate of vanity, insanity, and inhumanity? A lust for power so great she can’t interrupt the flow to satisfy the gods? How on earth can this arrangement be called a marriage? A proper, sanctioned human coupling? Instead, we must bear witness to the twisted, the unnatural. A woman on the throne, denying her husband an heir. In the end, she’s as useless as that damned vase.

What have we learned? First and foremost, it must be said that civilization began its dance with decline the moment men stopped lounging around the house in a suit and tie while reading the evening paper. From there, it was a swift boat to anarchy. Of equal importance, however, is the woman at rest. Sans infants or jobs – preferably jobs, as they inevitably bring money, which in turn foments sass – the female of our race blocks out the world, and eventually the sun, in her unquenchable thirst for castration. And she’ll do it every time, as Hollywood proved again and again. Harriet Craig is but the most obvious example. Saddled with child, she cannot plot revolution, and men are once again free to roam, rule, and regulate with extreme prejudice. It’s 1950’s greatest contribution to the national conversation: a marriage without children is not only pointless, but arguably as dangerous as plutonium. If the Soviets ever march down Main Street, it won’t be an accident when they first salute the Craig estate. Though thankfully, by the end, they won’t see Walter on their mad push. He learned, even if it had to be the hard way. Maybe he’ll find that neighbor lady one day soon. I hear she’s a widow, sweet as candy. And her son is developing into one amazing young man. Yep, she has a son. One she wanted. No wonder she’s so at peace.

About Matt

Matt is the site’s Longest Serving Critic and chief misanthrope. He divides his time between classics of cinema and the most ridiculous movies he can find on Redbox.
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