Jan 14, 2016

There's No Place For Them Here: Home, Order and Independency in Harriet Craig (1950)

In last week's post I mentioned how Rebecca's bedroom (in Hitchcock's Rebecca, 1940) had become a shrine, with a place for everything and everything in its place. This surely counts for the Craig's household as well. Harriet Craig (played by Joan Crawford) is the perfect mistress of the house, with a talent for running a household.

At the beginning of the film we see a beautiful house with the servants running up and down the stairs. We hear the mistress of the house being irritated because the tissue paper she asked for is taking so long. Then we find out what all of the commotion is about: Mrs. Craig's mother has been moved to a sanitarium and she wants to catch the next train to visit her mother. The shouting for tissue paper is forgiven, because we all know the stress of catching a train, and especially to visit a parent in a sanitarium, although the majority of us probably doesn't stuff every shoe and dress with tissue paper. This is just a lady that takes really good care of her possessions: she's immaculately groomed, her wardrobe looks perfect, she packs her luggage with care and she is leery about her interior. For when everything looks nice, it is nice and it will be loved.

We soon learn that Harriet values her home to extremes. She knows the place by heart; every painting, every coffee cup and every lamp has been put in its place by her, and in its place it should remain. When entering a room, Harriet scans the interior for changes—in other words: traces—to map out the movements that were made during her absence.


One of Harriet's most prized possessions is an Early Ming Dynasty vase. She notices when the vase is just the tiniest bit too close to the edge of the mantle or when it's not perfectly centered. She proudly tells a party about the old custom of filling the vase with rice from your wedding feast to protect the home. One of the ladies replies that "it takes more than rice these days."

On the train back home from visiting her mother in the sanitarium, Harriet confesses to her cousin: "I don't like trains. I don't like the feeling of being rushed along in the darkness, having no control, putting my life completely in someone else's hands." This confession comes rather out of the blue and is followed by her rational approach to marriage. "The average woman," she says, "does completely put her life into someone else's hands; her husband's." But not Harriet, independent as she is, for marriage is merely a "practical matter" to achieve security; she becomes a wife to get a house.

Upon arriving back home, the first trace that is out of place is spotted before even entering the house: the newspaper is still outside. She leaves it there and enters the house, eager to find out what has happened. She stands still and takes in the view, carefully registering every object that is out of its place. Quickly she maps out a scenario of what has happened the night before.


The house looks like a rather wild party has taken place: The furniture is out of place, there's beer bottles on the floor and on the piano, the lampshade is tilted, the blinds aren't closed (they should be closed by 11 a.m. to prevent the sun from fading the colors in the room) and a full ashtray indicates that people have been smoking heavily indoors. A closer look at the ashtray reveals a cigarette butt with lipstick and then there's a vase full of Mrs. Frazier's roses. Hadn't Harriet clearly told Mrs. Harold, one of the servants, that there was no place for them here?

Mrs. Frazier is the "scheming widow" who lives next door together with her little boy. She can always be found tending her roses. Innocent as she may seem, she's a threat to Harriet's controlled household: she's friendly, her house is being lived in (with traces to prove it) and she's got a son, which is one of Walter Craig's biggest wishes. Naturally Harriet wants to keep Mrs. Frazier from invading their private lives by keeping her roses out of her home and out of her husband's sight.


As a contrast to Mrs. Frazier's cozy home, the Craig's house takes aesthetics over comfort. From the first glance it is clear that a lot of thought has been put into decorating the house. Symmetry can be found everywhere and all of the rooms have the same oriental influences. Throughout the house figurines are displayed, either in glass showcases or as lamp bases. When it comes to the furniture: aesthetics over comfort, once again. This becomes painstakingly clear when we see Walter trying to become comfortable on the sofa, without success, not even when rearranging the throw pillows. Harriet, however, seems perfectly at home on the sofa the way it is. She is comfortable with keeping up appearances.

In reviews of Harriet Craig, Harriet is often written about as the bitch of all bitches, with not a good cell in her body. Indeed, Harriet isn't a warm person and she does some heartless things like feigning infertility, or preventing her cousin from being loved. It's inexcusable, but it doesn't make Harriet heartless.


Early on in her childhood Harriet was hurt by her father when she caught him with "a vulgar blonde". The father left Harriet and her mother alone to make ends meet. From this moment on Harriet decided that no man can be trusted. The only person a woman can rely on is herself. Every part of her life is carefully planned and thought about as if it were a game, and she is playing it by the rules.

Harriet doesn't have to build walls around her to protect herself from getting bruised again for the house provides them for her. Decorated with hand painted oriental wall hangings, it becomes a lovely facade. The house is her safe haven, her territory, so when somebody disrupts her household, it disrupts her. A vase too close to the edge isn't just any object put in a different position, it is someone endangering the security of her home.


When Mr. Craig finally rebels against Harriet, he takes it out on the house, for that is the only way to hurt her. He smokes inside, throws the stub on the carpet and finally finds a way to be comfortable in the sofa; by rearranging the pillows and reclining with his shoes still on. He is taking back control. This is where the importance of the Ming vase and all it stands for comes back. Walter carelessly takes the vase from its pedestal and pours out the rice that was supposed to protect their home. He then smashes it.

H: "What was that?!"
W: "Nothing very much."
H: "What do you mean 'nothing very much'? It sounded as though the whole house fell down."
W: "Maybe it did."
[...]
H: "Why would you deliberately destroy a beautiful thing like this?"
W: "I didn't like it."

He has smashed Harriet's safe haven and broken down the facade. Their marriage is over, but "you can keep the house." And so Harriet remains alone in the house. The films end with Harriet drying her tears and straightening her back, trying to repair the facade with all her might. The last shot is of her ascending the stairs, before fading to black.

By the end of the film it is safe to say the house is the center of the film, the main protagonist even, for Harriet is her house: beautiful, but deserted.


In an article in People Weekly (May 30, 1977) Doris Lilly recalls Joan Crawford once telling her that
"there's a little bit of Harriet Craig in all of us." Crawford was known to be a fastidious housekeeper and she didn't shy away from branding herself as one. Next week's post will be about how Joan became known as the Queen of clean.

Question to you:

What I can't seem to figure out is why the interior is so oriental. As far as I know orientalist decor went out of style in the 1930's, so why would Harriet go for something outdated?

Credits:

Produced by William Dozier; Directed by Vincent Sherman; Based on play by George Kelly; Screenplay by Anne Froelich & James Gunn; Cinematography by Joseph Walker; Art direction by Walter Holscher; Starring Joan Crawford and Wendell Corey


Sources:

  1. “A ★★★★ Review of Harriet Craig (1950).” Accessed January 3, 2016. http://letterboxd.com/overbreakfast/film/harriet-craig/.
  2. Basinger, Jeanine. A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2013.
  3. Bruno, Giuliana. Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film. Verso, 2002.
  4. “Harriet Craig (Sony Choice Collection).” DVD Talk. Accessed January 3, 2016. http://www.dvdtalk.com/reviews/61509/harriet-craig/.
  5. “I’m Not Patty: Are Harriet Craig and Beth Jarrett Just Ordinary People?” Accessed January 3, 2016. http://imnotpatty.blogspot.be/2010/03/are-harriet-craig-and-beth-jarrett-just.html.
  6. Matt. “Films Feminism Forgot: HARRIET CRAIG (1950).” Ruthless Reviews. Accessed January 3, 2016. http://www.ruthlessreviews.com/20730/films-feminism-forgot-harriet-craig-1950/.
  7. Matthews, Glenna. “Just a Housewife”: The Rise and Fall of Domesticity in America. USA: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  8. “Self-Styled Siren: Harriet Craig (1950).” Accessed January 10, 2016. http://selfstyledsiren.blogspot.be/2011/08/harriet-craig-1950.html.
  9. Sherman, Vincent. Harriet Craig. Drama. Columbia Pictures, 1950.


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