Craig's Wife (Dorothy Arzner / U.S., 1936):

A fine inside job by Dorothy Arzner: The George Kelly play sketches a feminine monstrosity and isolates it, the movie anticipates Day of Wrath (and Jeanne Dielman) in its indictment of a system where womanhood is made to deform itself. Marriage as an institution of "honesty" is questioned before the socialite of the title is even introduced, courtesy of a piercing vignette by Thomas Mitchell as a cuckold churning at a nearly empty poker party; Rosalind Russell then crisply exposes matrimony as "the only road to independence for me" as her young niece (Dorothy Wilson) stares, aghast. The wife has the household as her arena and turns it into the "holiest of holy," she sees the cheery neighbor (Billie Burke) carrying roses into the living room and turns her icy stare onto the intruder. When a luggage trunk scratches the polished floor, the veneer of practiced sophistication cracks and the neurotic beast snaps -- the proverbial home falls down. Arzner's tense style provides pre-Sirk layouts of a swanky drawing room as a mausoleum, with the verticals of William Haines' sets turning subtly suffocating ("Rooms that have died... And are laid out") and the smashing of a precious vase striking like the desecration of an altar. The biggest subversion lies in Russell's severe hausfrau, however: The nominal progress is the husband's (John Boles) growing awareness of the creature he has wed, yet Arzner's awareness of female struggle and its warped outlets complicates the villainess, makes her a product of society rather than an aberration. If the older lesbian couple (Alma Kruger and Jane Darwell) can escape by leaving the country, the heroine is stuck in an impeccably decorated tomb -- her indelible tragic moment is not when Boles packs his bags and leaves, but when teary Russell reaches towards the camera for Burke, who's no longer there. With Raymond Walburn, Elisabeth Risdon, Robert Allen, and Nydia Westman. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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