Saturday, May 14, 2022

Tonight's Movie: Queen Bee (1955) at the TCM Classic Film Festival

One of my very favorite films at the recent TCM Classic Film Festival was QUEEN BEE (1955), a highly entertaining melodrama starring the great Joan Crawford.

It might sound strange to call a film which features murder, madness, and suicide "fun," but indeed it was, and based on the reactions, my fellow attendees agreed. Over the course of the festival I heard QUEEN BEE cited with regularity as one of the most enjoyable films of the weekend. Reacting to it with a crowd was a delightful moviegoing experience.

As the film begins, "poor relation" Jennifer Stewart (the little-known actress Lucy Marlow) arrives to stay at the Phillips estate in the South.

We soon learn that Eva Phillips (Crawford), though initially treacly sweet to Jennifer, is something of a dragon lady. She stole her husband Avery (Barry Sullivan) from Sue McKinnon (Fay Wray), and Sue has never been "quite right" ever since.

Eva also had an affair with Avery's business associate, Jud Prentiss (John Ireland), who now plans to marry Avery's sister Carol (Betsy Palmer). This news does not please Eva, who sets out to destroy Jud and Carol's relationship.

Avery, meanwhile, feels trapped with Eva and threatens to drink himself to death, while their neglected young children Trissa (Linda Bennett) and Ted (Tim Hovey) suffer from nightmares and an evil nanny (Katherine Anderson).

Carol and Jennifer both do what they can for the children. Jennifer also feels a pull toward Avery, and some straight talk with him helps pull him away from the bottle and to involve himself in his children's well-being.

Ultimately, though, things get very bad very fast at the Phillips estate, and there will be a very strange competition to see who can kill wicked Queen Bee Eva first and free everyone around her from her clutches.

This film was released the same year as Crawford's FEMALE ON THE BEACH (1955) and is just as compelling in its own way. Crawford owns the screen as a woman everyone -- characters and audience -- loves to hate. (I think I gasped when she hauls off and slaps Jennifer.)

At the same time, she can evoke a strange pity, such as a scene where she's informed of a death and completely crumbles. In the final stages of the story, I felt a little sad for her when she really seems to believe that her husband has recommitted to their marriage. In the end, though, this is a miserable woman who wants everyone else to be just as miserable as she is.

I'm increasingly a Sullivan fan, and he's terrific in this as a man who's scarred both literally and figuratively. In the early going there's not much to the character, as he locks himself in his room with books and bottles. There's also an awful moment where he seemingly nonchalantly puts an old dog down; the scene makes him seem cold and hateful. It's only later we realize that he's a sensitive man and it probably really hurt him to have to do it.

Sullivan does a great job depicting Avery's gradual return to the living. I would have liked more depth to the Avery-Jennifer relationship, but what's there is interesting. Given his drinking history Avery is probably not the best bargain for Jennifer, but perhaps some genuine love from such a sweet young thing will keep him on the straight and narrow...if only he could divorce Eva without scandal and retain custody of the children.

Ireland is also excellent as a man who's pulling himself away from Eva's thrall and regularly stands up to her, only to have her use their past relationship to sabotage the future he's building for himself. His role in the denouement comes as a bit of a surprise but turns out to be really quite a moment. The audience loved it!

Palmer and Marlow are adequate, if a bit bland, but perhaps that seems inevitable in Crawford's shadow.

QUEEN BEE was written and directed by Ranald MacDougall, based on a story by Edna Lee. The running time is a well-paced 95 minutes. It was filmed in black and white by Charles Lang. The gowns were designed by Jean Louis.

The supporting cast includes William Leslie, Willa Pearl Curtis, Bill Walker, and Olan Soule.

QUEEN BEE is available on DVD in the TCM Vault Collection's Joan Crawford in the 1950s set or as a single-title DVD from Columbia Classics or Sony Choice.

I found QUEEN BEE highly enjoyable, an excellent example of Crawford's '50s melodrama career phase, and I recommend it to anyone looking for an over-the-top drama with plenty of twists and turns.


Anonymous Barry Lane said...

Before someone hammers Joan Crawford and the stupid book, I knew John, he worked for me. One evening at dinner, my wife asked him if he had read Mommie Dearest? John said he had, and that was NOTHING like the woman he knew. The crews all loved her. Robert Bloch wrote about her in his autobiography and he paints pictures of a neurotically clean woman anxious to please. Sweet and cooperative.

5:12 PM  
Blogger Jerry Entract said...

I find that some really interesting detail, Barry, and insight to real Joan Crawford. Sadly, misshapen facts often get repeated (lazy journalism) and there is nothing better than personal experience.

8:18 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I always appreciate the personal insights, Barry, especially as you knew someone who worked on this film (and what a good part he had). I'm glad to know that others saw Joan as a cooperative "pro." Those stories seem to be more plentiful than the negative ones.

Best wishes,

11:13 PM  

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