“Parties are to women what battlefields are to men…”
Joan Crawford seemed to be making the rounds of all the studios in Hollywood in the mid-1950s. After long and generally memorable stints at first MGM and then Warner Brothers that ended in 1952, she began to freelance, making stops at RKO (Sudden Fear), MGM (Torch Song), Republic (Johnny Guitar), and Universal (Female on the Beach) before signing a three picture deal at Columbia in 1955. Her first film under the Columbia contract was Queen Bee, which Columbia has just released on DVD under its Columbia Classics banner. (Question to Columbia: Why does Queen Bee get issued as a Columbia Classic, yet The Big Heat, which was released in 1953 and is a better film, receives no such designation?)
Eva Phillips presides over a Georgia mansion where she lives with her husband Avery, a well-off mill owner. Avery hates Eva and has turned to drink to make his home life tolerable. Eva’s cousin Jennifer comes to live with Eva and Avery and is at first taken in by Eva’s apparent veneer of charm. She soon learns otherwise. Eva first manages to subvert the wedding plans of Avery’s sister Carol to Judson Prentiss (who is Avery’s mill manager) as she can’t bear to see Judson — Eva’s lover many years previously — now lost to the younger Carol. Eva then turns her attentions back to her husband, ridiculing him at every opportunity.
Meanwhile, Jennifer’s concern over how a new governess for the children is treating them prompts her to ask Avery to intervene. Soon, it becomes apparent that a relationship is developing between the two. Recognizing this, Eva threatens to destroy Avery with a scandal if he tries to seek a divorce. To Eva’s surprise, Avery’s response is to turn over a new leaf, treating her once again as if they were newly-weds. But Avery’s new attentiveness to Eva hides a more sinister plan.
Queen Bee was the film that prompted Joan Crawford’s daughter Christina to observe “That wasn’t any acting job on mother’s part. It was exactly the way I knew her at home.” The role of Eva Phillips, the queen bee who achieves her selfish aims by stinging any rivals around her that might challenge her supremacy, seemed tailor-made for Crawford. By 1955, she’d played variations of this sort of role a number of times, including Mildred Pierce (1945), Humoresque (1946), and Harriet Craig (1950). None were quite as quintessentially bitchy as Eva, though, and by the film’s end, the viewer’s greatest desire is to see Eva get hers. Crawford always excelled at making characters like Eva unlikable, but as she grew older (she was 47 when Queen Bee was made), her performances seemed more artificial and contrived, which accentuated the shallowness and insincerity of many of the characters she played, ironically making them even more delightful to hate.
Revolving around Crawford is a fine cast of supporting players. The frequently under-rated Barry Sullivan plays Avery and John Ireland has the role of Judson. Both deliver solid, nuanced performances. Ireland seldom seemed to get the material he deserved and he never really realized the promise he showed in his Academy-Award nominated work in 1949’s All The King’s Men, generally settling for routine roles in routine films throughout the three decades following. Also notable in the cast are Betsy Palmer as Carol and Fay Wray (of King Kong fame) in a small part as one of Eva’s early victims.
The film’s direction is competently handled by Ranald MacDougall who made his reputation first as a screenwriter for WB (Objective Burma, Possessed, June Bride, The Hasty Heart). He then tried his hand at directing, with Queen Bee being his first effort. For most of the rest of his career, he was a double threat guy, but none of the titles were particularly memorable (although one title had at least an interesting ring to it — The Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County ). With Queen Bee, he keeps the tension up fairly effectively throughout, although the film sags a little between its middle and the last ten minutes. His script is well-written, providing rounded and realistically motivated characters for the most part. If there’s one failing, it’s in the relationship that develops between Avery and Jennifer. That just never seems to really get off the ground.
The film was originally released with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio and Columbia has delivered a fine anamorphic transfer that preserves the theatrical aspect ratio. Some speckling is present, but for the most part, the image is clear and clean with deep blacks, bright whites, and fairly good shadow detail. Contrast is good and edge enhancement is not an issue.
A Dolby Digital 2.0 mono English sound track is provided and this does a satisfactory job of delivering the dialogue-driven film. The sound is clear and free of distortion or age-related hiss. There is some slight fluctuation in volume level, but in general it does not detract from the film experience. Sub-titles are available in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, and Thai.
Supplementary content is slight. There are short biographies with selected filmographies for the director, Joan Crawford, John Ireland, and curiously Fay Wray, but none for Barry Sullivan or Betsy Palmer. Theatrical trailers are included for Queen Bee, Suddenly Last Summer, and The Last Hurrah. Vintage advertising consists of two, count ’em, two images — a lobby card and a poster. The keep-case insert pamphlet contains a short publicity piece on the various outfits Joan Crawford wears in the film.
Queen Bee offers Joan Crawford a juicy role as a domineering woman happy to poison the lives of everyone else who dares to take the spotlight off her. The film is no masterpiece, but it is an entertaining Crawford vehicle buttressed by a fine supporting cast. Columbia has delivered quite a nice-looking anamorphic transfer that does the film justice. This may not be a purchase for many people, but it’s certainly worth a rental and Joan Crawford fans will definitely want to have their own copy.