02/09/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Waking Up from the American Dream, 1950s Style

Revolutionary Road, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet (Mrs. Sam Mendes), takes us back to the post-war tree-lined Utopia Americans still dream for today. The sacred tableau of loving newlyweds, a promising career, and the life of the stay-at-home mom are painted neatly into this film until the its hard-core undertow drowns away the bunny-and-rainbow-Librium fifties fog.

It's a romp from reality for the film's young couple, the Wheelers, when they decide to buck the trend, cash in their chips, and stop walking single-file through their lives. Finally, life on their own, unconventional terms. Then there's an unplanned pregnancy and, well, you get the idea.

Quarterbacking about suburban angst fifty years ago makes for an insightful film, but for a look at country club unease from its contemporary point of view, turn to Joan Crawford in 1950's oft-missed classic Harriet Craig. Joan plays the title character who -- as the film's advertising intones -- is hiding a great big nasty lie. Is she a wanted criminal, an alcoholic, a bigamist, or, could it be that Harriet doesn't want any children? Unimaginable.

From the moment Joan Crawford steps into her mottled pin-spot, she commands the role like a WWI Bulldog on steroids. She is Harriet Craig, a woman obsessed with the ordered cleanliness of her grand white house as she controls everyone who falls into her orbit. Her hapless husband Walter provides for her well enough, but he's just part of the house's elaborate furnishings. He reflects the happy 1950's machismo when he says, "Wives may be a little extra trouble now and then, but they're mighty handy gadgets to have around the house." Harriet is more than a convenience as she covertly cracks the whip and keeps him happy in the bedroom.

Harriet admits to her female assistant that men aren't born to be good husbands. They have to be trained, and she's got her man jumping like a trained seal. When Harriet is forced away from her coveted cocoon to visit her sick mother, she commands her "servants" to shut the blinds by "at least 11:30 so the sun doesn't fade anything," to use the rear stairs so the carpet of the huge grand curving staircase doesn't get tattered, and make sure her husband eats at home alone every night she is away.

When Harriet throws a dinner party she invites only people over 60 so she'll look like a glamour girl. "My, that's a lovely vase," comments one of the senior guests. "It's Ming Dynasty," replies Harriet. "Chinese women would fill them with rice from their wedding day." As she wands the vase she adds, "It was supposed to protect the home." "Nowadays, it takes more than rice," retorts another guest.

The real-life Harriet Craig's storyline bled over to foggy reality when her daughter Cristina wrote Mommie Dearest. If you believe that torrid tale, you'll think this is Joan Crawford simply playing herself, but this is one of the screen's greatest actresses turning in one of her finest performances.

1950's Harriet Craig didn't get Joan an Academy Award, but remember the competition: Sunset Blvd and All About Eve. It was the year of the melodramatic diva. But Harriet Craig is still Oscar-worthy acting.

Kate Winslet is standing on Crawford's padded shoulders when she turns in the performance of a lifetime along her gritty, raw Revolutionary Road. Fifties angst never looked so good. But heck, you didn't really think the American dream was actually fun did you?

You can't find Harriet Craig on DVD; Columbia Pictures has yet to release it in that format. You can find it on -- and you'll be glad that you did.