Ah, to have a big house in Rye, New York, with servants and marble floors and a big ming vase on the mantlepiece -- who wouldn't want that? Dorothy Arzner's 1936 morality fable rakes poor Mrs. Craig over the coals for being a cold, shrewish, conniving, materialistic woman somewhat unfairly. Nowadays she'd be Martha Stewart and have her own line of linens and two eponymous magazines. Seriously people, Mrs. Craig might've been a hardass and all, but, well .... have you seen that house? I'd be mad too if the movers scratched my floor.
Alright, facetiousness aside, for those who haven't seen it, Craig's Wife is a searing indictment of the institution of marriage, that is, of a world in which a woman's financial worth is secured through only one means. More prosaically, it appears to be a morality fable about selfishness, materialism and greed, about putting THINGS before people and human relationships (a tacked-on little post-script at the movie's end says: "Those who live for themselves are generally left to themselves") but any fool can see through that. The film so obviously lambastes the idea that a gal's financial independence must be -- ironically! -- achieved through hitching your wagon to a solvent man (which was very much the only option at the time, as it had been for millennia) it's astonishing anyone bought that little studio-mandated postscript (if indeed they did). Historical oddity, preachy bourgeois morality play and feminist fable, Craig's Wife should be easily dismissable but for Russell's performance and a nagging feeling that what seems simple (patriarchy = bad!) really isn't so simple.
Apparently there was no nuance in the original play upon which it was based. The playwright apparently was content to let the little postscript stand, and introduce no layers of context, motivation or meaning. The audience was supposed to straigh-up hate Mrs. Craig. Arzner's version reveals the complex nature of woman's relationship to marriage and money, and Russell's performance gives life and nuance to those layers. We can't despise Harriet because she's a hard-ass ... there must be some sympathy and understanding with this woman, otherwise there is no understanding at all. Mrs. Craig is only doing what she needs to do to protect Harriet. Her practicality, her "bargain" are not only self-preservation at its most astute, but also philosophically more honest than others' naive theories of love (personified by her silly, self-satisfied niece). Arzner and Russel create sympathy for this apparently unpleasant, hardheaded and shrewish woman, so that, by the film's end, you aren't glad she's been punished, you just feel pity, and somehow a feeling that it maybe isn't all her fault.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Dorothy Arzner movie without some fun lesbian subtext, so there's a maiden aunt traveling round the world with her maid, which is open to interpretation. And in the final scene one can't help but root for a friendship between Harriet and the kindly neighbor lady (Billie Burke!) to take hold, which you can also interpret according to taste. There's an interesting breakdown of female relationships in Senses of Cinema, for further reading. And frankly, her husband does kind of seem like a dipshit, I can't imagined anyone was sad to see him go. (In fact, the more I think about it, the more everyone in this movie seems smug, except for Harriet, even if she does go too far sometimes, as when she fires a maid unjustly). By the end of the movie I was hoping she'd learn a bit of a lesson about life, make friends with the nice neighbor and get to keep her house forever, just the way she likes it. And that's a good thing.