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Theatre / Craig's Wife

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"People who live to themselves, Harriet, are generally left to themselves."

Craig's Wife is a 1925 play by George Kelly.

Harriet Craig is the wife of Walter Craig, an upper-class Manhattan businessman. They live in a household that consists of Walter's aunt Miss Austen, and their servants Maizie and Mrs. Harold. Harriet is a domineering and shrewish wife, bossing the servants around, freezing out Walter's friends, and dominating her meek husband as well. She is every bit as cold to her niece Ethel, who has arrived at the Craig household in emotional distress about her mother, Harriet's sister, who is in a hospital with heart disease. Further stress is brought into the home when it appears that Walter may be implicated in a scandalous murder case.

Craig's Wife won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. It was adapted into film three times: a silent version, a well-regarded 1936 version that was a Star-Making Role for Rosalind Russell (directed by Dorothy Arzner, practically the only woman working as a director in Hollywood in the 1930s), and more loosely in 1950 as Harriet Craig with Joan Crawford.

Playwright George Kelly was the uncle of famed Hollywood actress Grace Kelly.


  • Bad Boss: Harriet is such a housecleaning Nazi that she makes life miserable for her domestics, and the household staff has a high turnover rate. When Mrs. Harold tells Harriet that she is leaving with Miss Austin, she also tells Harriet that the employment agency won't be sending over any new help, as Harriet keeps firing them all. Harriet fires Maizie for leaving out a business card in the wrong place.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The play takes place from 5:30 one afternoon to 9 the following morning. Unrealistic in this instance, especially with Walter who goes from being whipped to walking out on his wife at record speed.
  • Gold Digger: Harriet is quite frank to everybody but Walter about how she married to get a household and security, with love having absolutely nothing to do with it. Her actions are explained—her mother was dumped for a second wife, leaving Harriet and her sister with nothing—but they are still portrayed as cold and selfish.
  • Henpecked Husband: The whole plot concerns Harriet's efforts to turn Walter into this. She's frozen out his friends and circumscribed his behavior within the home. When Walter finally catches on he leaves her in order to avoid becoming this.
  • The Lost Lenore: Mrs. Frazier, the neighbor, reveals that she's never been truly happy since her husband was killed in a car wreck 15 years prior.
  • Ma'am Shock: Mrs. Frazier reveals that she resented her grandson for a while solely for the fact that his existence made her a grandmother.
  • Maiden Aunt: Miss Austin, Walter's aunt, who is specifically described as Miss Austin. Harriet's desire to exclude all outside influences from the Craig household leads Miss Austin to move out.
  • Neat Freak: Harriet is this to an extreme degree, ordering Walter that he can only smoke in certain rooms (an outrageous demand in the 1920s), having special brushes to dust the house plants, freaking out at the prospect of rose petals falling onto the floor.
  • Title Drop: Delivered in the form of an insult, when Miss Austin relates that she heard some men at a restaurant say “Listen to Craig's wife over here” when discussing an overbearing wife.
  • TV Telephone Etiquette: Harriet hangs up on Ethel's suitor Mr. Fredericks abruptly, after saying “I don't care to disturb her just now. I'm very sorry.” Justified in this instance as Harriet is trying to keep them apart.
  • Unable to Support a Wife: Actually, Mr. Fredericks makes enough to support Ethel, he just can't support her in the upper-crust style she's grown up in, being a prep school teacher. Harriet cites this as a reason why Ethel shouldn't marry him.
  • Villainous Breakdown: After everybody leaves her, Harriet, now alone, receives a telegram that her sister has died of a heart attack. She breaks down sobbing, then wanders over the room carelessly dropping rose petals from Mrs. Frazier's roses, as the play ends. Previously, dropped rose petals had been a Berserk Button for Harriet the neat freak.

Tropes specific to the 1936 film:

  • Adaptation Expansion: The movie has a scene in which Walter goes over to the Passmore house and meets a depressed Fergus Passmore (Thomas Mitchell) and his unfaithful wife Adelaide. This happens off-stage in the play. There's also a scene not in the play with Harriet and Ethel visiting Ethel's mom in the hospital.

Alternative Title(s): Craigs Wife