Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.
Released on November 7, 1955
Directed by Ranald MacDougall
Written by Ranald MacDougall, based on the novel by Edna Lee
Cast: Joan Crawford, Barry Sullivan, Betsy Palmer, John Ireland, Lucy Marlow, William Leslie, Fay Wray, Katherine Anderson, Tim Hovey, Linda Bennett, Willa Pearle Curtis, Robert McCord, Bill Walker, Olan Soule
For this year’s edition of the O Canada! blogathon, which spotlights all things Canada and is again hosted by Kristina at Speakeasy and Ruth at Silver Screenings, I thought I’d discuss a movie I was already planning on reviewing in February: the 1955 film noir drama Queen Bee. This one featured not one but two members of its main cast who were born in Canada, and in neighboring provinces: John Ireland, who was from British Columbia, and former King Kong love interest Fay Wray, who hailed from Alberta.
The dictionary seen in the preview trailer says it all: One female alone may be the queen bee. She rules supreme. The other females serve only to sacrifice themselves while tending the queen bee or defending her. The males of the species are stingless and useful only for performing one fleeting but all-important service. Granted, this wasn’t a definition I could find in any of the dictionaries on my shelf, but it most certainly defines the pervading mentality of the film, and more specifically, its lead actress Joan Crawford.
Crawford plays Eva, a domineering and devious matriarch of a family living in a large Georgia mansion, who welcomes a cousin, Jennifer, into their home for an extended visit. There Jennifer meets Eva’s husband Avery (Barry Sullivan), an alcoholic with a disfiguring scar on his face; Avery’s sister Carol and her boyfriend Jud (Betsy Palmer and John Ireland), who hope to be married, though Carol knows nothing of Eva and Jud’s prior dalliance; and family friend Ty (William Leslie) and his sister Sue (Fay Wray), who suffers from a mental condition after Eva stole Avery away from her on their wedding day. Yes, enough drama to fill two movies, but trust me, this just scratches the surface.
The fun, of course, was watching Crawford in action; a neurotic, demanding, and treacherous woman who, instead of ‘Queen Bee’, might be better described as ‘Queen B’; it’s a wonder anyone stays in that house, including her spouse. Lucy Marlow, who played cousin Jennifer, and who had a homespun screen presence, was quite ingratiating, while Wray and Ireland were altogether memorable in their roles; though Wray only appeared in a few opening scenes, she still made a notable impact. But the one who really grabbed my attention was Sullivan, as the angry and put-upon husband Avery, who went from a whipped shell of a man to one who’d finally had enough, and eventually took matters into his own hands. For me, his character’s story arc was by far the most satisfying.
I’d never heard of director Ranald MacDougall before this, and wondered afterwards if he’d previously worked in noir, but as I found out, this was his first film, of only six he would ever direct. I liked how he took advantage of the mansion interiors, filming through windows and doorways, and from different spots on a massive staircase. But best of all, I loved the downbeat mood he created with his camera, from the noirish lighting and sour atmosphere to the sudden layer of tension that would pervade a scene whenever Crawford walked into frame. A commendable job for a screenwriter helming his first production; his tracking shot and reveal in the stable were as cool as they were shocking.
Back before noir films were known as noir films, they were sometimes called melodramas, and Queen Bee fits that bill to perfection. Though considered by many to be a camp classic, I didn’t notice anything campy about it at all, and saw it only as a well-made, high-class soap opera with a mean streak, with examples of noir elements—high-contrast lighting, tone, shadows, and a major league femme fatale in Crawford–very much evident throughout. When my friend lent me this movie, he mentioned how he’d once read that Crawford’s performance was the one most like her true self. If that’s the case, then Queen Bee is a biography that’s worth checking out. (7/10)