I get the feeling that Dorothy Arzner, like Ida Lupino, is not as well-known by younger cinephiles as she should be. Partly, I think that is because relatively few of her films are on DVD/Blu-ray or are shown on streamers. I checked streamers in the UK and couldn’t find any Arzner films. However this 1936 film is available in a perfectly watchable print on a well-known social media website and you can easily find it using any search engine. It’s a terrific film.

Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979) began her directing career in 1927 after several years in other filmmaking roles. In all she worked on 20 films as a director between 1927 and 1943. Craig’s Wife was an adaptation of a 1925 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by George Kelly. It was first adapted as a film by Cecil B. DeMille’s brother William in 1928 and a third version appeared as a Joan Crawford film under the title Harriet Craig in 1950. Arzner’s version was scripted by Mary C. McCall Jr., who was only in her early thirties at the time and no doubt attuned to what women of the period thought about life in the US.

The ‘happy couple’? Harriet (Rosalind Russell) and Walter (John Boles)

The film’s origin as a play is evident in the limited locations, primarily the Craig household and a couple of other indoor locations. There wasn’t a great deal that a young Lucien Ballard could do as a cinematographer. The main emphasis is on costumes, décor and other aspects of mise en scène and the performances of the principals. This is a Columbia feature with a brisk 76 minute running time. If it had been an MGM feature there might have been a bigger budget. However, I think despite this, Dorothy Arzner creates an enjoyable and intriguing narrative.

Dorothy Arzner on set with her cinematographer Lucien Ballard

What makes Craig’s Wife memorable is that here we have the only female director in the Hollywood of the 1930s directing a young Rosalind Russell, later one of the leading female stars of the 1940s when she was typed as the strong, wisecracking ‘broad’. But here MsRussell is playing the villain, Harriet. She is ‘Craig’s Wife’ or, more formally, Mrs Craig the wife of Walter Craig (John Boles) a wealthy New Yorker with a beautiful house. She’s the villain because she cares about nobody except herself – and the house. What makes this ironic is that early in the narrative we see Harriet returning from visiting her hospitalised sister and explaining to her niece Ethel that she got married to secure her own independence. She says this because Ethel has just announced her engagement and is very much in love. Harriet thinks any kind of romantic love is worthless in the long term. She is pleased because she has married a wealthy man. Today, we all no doubt believe that women should be able to be independent whether married or single. However, we soon realise that Harriet’s independence is at the expense of everyone else.

Harriet and her niece Ethel on the way back to New York and in discussion about marriage

In many films of the 1930s and later, especially those deemed to be seen as an example of the ‘woman’s picture’, there is a sense in which the narrative offers the possibility of independence but will eventually ‘punish’ the woman for wanting ‘too much’. A classic example is Stella Dallas, another story, this time by Olive Higgins Prouty, adapted for the cinema three times in 1925, 1937 and 1990. The 1937 version stars Barbara Stanwyck as Stella, who suffers the worst punishment for any mother, being kept literally outside in the cold when her daughter is married. Stella as a mill girl married a man from a wealthy background, but left him and encouraged him to raise their daughter as a middle-class woman. He is also played by John Boles. Stella sacrificed herself and we feel for her. Harriet’s sacrifice is of her own possibility for an emotional relationship, something she has repressed. No woman should be expected to make a sacrifice but she should think about how her behaviour affects others.

Walter’s Aunt Ellen (Alma Kruger) is perhaps the real example of the ‘independent woman’

The last act of the film plays out how we all probably expect it will and we may find ourselves siding with all those who desert Harriet because her controlling behaviour and her basic ‘meanness’ are unbearable. It’s a brave statement for Arzner to make, although it is worth noting that four of those who abandon Harriet are women whose lives she has damaged in some way. That just leaves Walter. Boles is an interesting actor. He’s a handsome and ‘smooth’ (but not ‘slick’) man who appears genuinely in love with Harriet and a good friend and neighbour to everyone else. But in the end he sees through her. Harriet, it must be said, is a tall, slim, beautiful woman who wears beautiful clothes. I do often wonder if audiences (and I include myself in this) take more from incidents during the narrative than from an ending which seems to make a moral point. In other words, can we be impressed by Harriet’s appearance and her move to be independent while not worrying too much about what happens to her? Looking back of course, we are aware of Rosalind Russell’s star persona but in 1936 I suspect audiences thought she got what was coming to her.

Harriet treats her staff with disdain – Jane Darwell (left) as her housekeeper Mrs Harold and Nydia Westman as the maid Maizie

I think audiences would have admired Arzner’s direction of the film, even if they didn’t remember her name. The other actors to look out for include the great Thomas Mitchell, a fine character actor here playing one of Walter’s friends and Jane Darwell, later memorable as Ma Joad in John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath (1940) and in over 200 films in all. Here she is the Craig’s housekeeper who is calmness personified but knows exactly what to do when the breaking point comes. Billie Burke plays the neighbour Mrs Frazier whose only ‘crime’ in Harriet’s eyes is to bring gifts of roses from her garden.

In her comprehensive analysis of the ‘woman’s picture’ in A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-60 (1993),  Jeanine Basinger argues that the ordered state of the house, its cleanliness and carefully arranged furniture and its lack of any sense that anyone actually lives in it represents Harriet as a person. Harriet is her house and its good and bad features. But, Basinger suggests, being left with a house and no husband might be something that women in the audience at the end of the film might think was not so terrible. This film embodies the contradictions of the ‘woman’s picture’ in the 1930s and 1940s.