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CRAIG'S WIFE (Columbia, 1936), directed by Dorothy Arzner, from the Pulitzer Prize play by George Kelly, marked the turning point for Rosalind Russell career, taking a loan-out assignment from MGM where she had been under contract since 1934, in her first starring role. Previously filmed by Pathe in the silent era (1928) featuring Irene Rich and Warner Baxter, and given a third carnation by Columbia as HARRIET CRAIG (1950) with Joan Crawford and Wendall Corey, this second installment ranks one of the finer domestic dramas produced in the 1930s, though the Crawford version comes close to being an improvement somewhat through its fine acting in the Crawford tradition and its frankness (such as a slight hint of the wife having an abortion). And who is Craig's wife? Let's learn more about her through this brief synopsis.
Walter (John Boles) and Harriet (Rosalind Russell), married two years, live in a luxurious home in Rye, New York, with Mrs. Harold (Jane Darwell) and Maisie (Nydia Westman) as their housekeepers, and Walter's Aunt Ethel, Mrs. Austin (Alma Kruger). Next door to them is Mrs. Frazier (Billie Burke), a humble woman who enjoys both her garden and and the company of her little grandson, Timothy. As the plot develops, Harriet is revealed to be an obsessed woman who thinks more of her home than her husband. Walter is a kind and loving man who cares deeply for his wife, yet he unwittingly takes second place in the domestic scheme of things. After visiting with her sister, Lillian (Elisabeth Risdon) in a hospital in Albany, Harriet decides to offer her quiet and rest by taking her young niece, Ethel (Dorothy Wilson) to stay with her until her mother recovers. Unaware to Ethel, she's being separated from Eugene Fredericks (Robert Allen), her fiancé she had met in college who's unable to connect with Ethel through countless phone calls to the Craig home. During the course of time, Ethel witnesses Harriet's neurotic behavior, while Walter's Aunt Ellen tries to warn him of being in great danger to his wife's jealousy and domineering actions that's keeping him isolated and away from his friends. In time, Walter wakes up to reality when his aunt moves out, followed by the the dismissal of Maisie (Nydia Westman) and walk out of long time employee, Mrs. Harold. The final showdown occurs when Walter sees Harriet for the very first time after discovering that it was through her lies that have kept his name from being linked to a double murder involving his best friend, Fergus (Thomas Mitchell) and wife, Adelaide (Kathleen Burke) after a detective (John Hamilton) arrives to investigate the matter.
A reproduction of the stage play, this second edition to CRAIG'S WIFE is a powerful story with a timely message posted on the screen before the fadeout. Although MGM's own Joan Crawford might have excelled in the part had she been loaned out to Columbia (which she did years later), it's Rosalind Russell whose performance carries the film throughout. While she is quite unsympathetic, she wins our sympathy, especially after revealing to her husband why she is the way she is. It may not offer any excuses for her actions, but does explain why she, and others like her character, marry for something other than love and compassion. Acting, production values and musical score are excellent, right down to the climatic showdown. CRAIG'S WIFE may not have earned Russell an Academy Award nomination as best actress, but it's certainly a step into the right direction in regards to recognition, major stardom and further challenging movie roles. As for John Boles, he's always been a likable screen personality though he gets little recognition for his work, with the exception of possibly CURLY TOP Fox, 1935) opposite Shirley Temple for which he probably best recognized for thanks to frequent revivals. CRAIG'S WIFE deserves to be better known because it's a interesting story and short enough (75 minutes) to hold interest.
Slowly fazed out of commercial television by the late 1970s, its only availability since 1985 was through home video. Thanks to cable television's Turner Classic Movies for offering CRAIG'S WIFE a chance for recognition that took place on the evening of July 8, 2008, where CRAIG'S WIFE played part as its tribute to Rosalind Russell, "Star of the Month" (***)
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