Craig’s Wife, 1936. 7/10

Wow. This is so tightly drawn and on-point that it’s difficult to watch. John Boles is the utterly hen-pecked husband of Rosalind Russell’s Harriet. She so convincing as a shrew that the only question is whether Walter (Boles) will survive, and in what condition. He’s let himself exist in the posh gulag that their home has become. The acting is uniformly strong–the niece (Dorothy Wilson), servants, neighbor (Billie Burke), and friends make an agreeable supporting cast.

Walter pretty much can’t do anything without his wife’s permission; and even so he’s still subject to ridicule. The irony for Harriet is that her status is effectively meaningless, since no one wants to visit or invite her to visit. She reveals to her niece Ethel how deliciously narcissistic she is. That’s the problem though–there’s absolutely no subtlety to her personality. No nuance, no balance. We do get background that her mom was dominated by her husband; so, her reaction is to dominate everyone around her. With scene after scene of Walter’s emotional abuse he finally finds the courage to defy her.

It takes her indifference to Walter’s possible implication in a couple’s murder to trigger his reaction. But even that’s not enough to satisfy her mischief-making. She manipulates Ethel for good measure. This movie could almost work as a training device for psychologists learning about deviant personality types. Not only do we have Harriet’s haughty righteousness in the early scene with Ethel, we get the extremely drawn-out counterpoint–when Walter’s aunt Ellen (Alma Kruger) later lectures Harriet. As many others have remarked, Walter’s epiphany is abrupt. He’s just not an interesting character.

Craig’s Wife is a TV melodrama a generation before TV. In that genre it succeeds admirably; the complete lack of character development keeps it in that box. Harriet’s bad, Walter’s good: she gets her comeuppance, that’s good too. With some shading here and there this could’ve been a lot better. I need to see the other versions of this story; the premise is certainly interesting, it’s just rendered so cut-and-dried here to really become memorable. Worth watching for the even performances, just not very satisfying overall. 7/10.

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