Thursday, March 30, 2017

Sweet Dreams, Aunt Janet


Aunt Janet grew up in Manistique. As an adult, she lived in Wisconsin and Lower MI, but chose to end her days back here. 
When my Aunt Janet was a teenager, she dreamed of becoming a country singer. This was in the late 1950s, when country music, along with rock-n-roll, was skyrocketing. Teens daydreamed of being a singer or in a band the way previous generations fantasized about becoming movie stars. The Gould family was from Upper Michigan, which was as remote as the rural southern areas where up-and-coming country chanteuses like Loretta and Tammy came from, so this most likely fed my Aunt Janet's vivid imagination.

Patsy Cline was Aunt Janet's idol and perhaps role model!
My aunt's idol was Patsy Cline. She'd sing along with Patsy on the radio, which was her only chance to listen to the honky-tonk star. The family, with 13 children, one modest paycheck, and no indoor plumbing, certainly didn't have money for luxuries like phonographs and record albums. Lucky for Janet, Patsy was the number #1 female country singer at the time, so my aunt could hear her trademark bluesy twang on the radio all the time.

Aunt Janet whooping it up when she was around 40.
Patsy Cline won Janet's heart because she wholeheartedly empathized with the star's hard luck life story, gutsy determination and brassy charisma. Patsy wasn't like the other girl singers, all batting eyes and singing sweetly. Cline was a woman who swaggered and emoted as much as Elvis. Patsy Cline lived like a star should, dramatically and richly. Janet would read all the fan magazines about the stars, regarding it all as not just fact, but as a blueprint to fame and fortune. But Patsy was the one who touched Janet most, a feeling of kindred spirits.

The old Manistique High School.
My aunt filled her days by apathetically attending school and enthusiastically fighting off boys. Janet was petite but with a volatile figure and feline green eyes with flecks of yellow. She practically vibrated with restless energy that was not fulfilled by wrangling her younger siblings. Secretly, Janet felt there was a greater destiny for her and that she was just biding her time.

Janet's father, Bud, when he was not working at the railroad all the live long day, was often drinking at the bars all the live long night. On weekends, there would be live music at some of the road houses. Occasionally, if someone was decent enough, the band would graciously accompany the amateur through a song or two.

Grandma Alvera & Grandpa Bud posing against the snow banks!
Once Janet got wind of that, she daydreamed about singing with the band day and night. When that fantasy was not enough to satisfy her ego, Janet then determined to make it a reality. She knew all of Patsy's songs practically by heart, had a good voice, personality, and looks to boot. First, she tried to cajole, and when that did not work, cried to my Grandma Alvera for a new dress to wear. My Grandma was a softie underneath, but with a hard-working, hard-drinking railroad man for a husband, plus the surplus kids and shortage of indoor amenities, Alvera's hard, practical exterior prevailed. "Aw, quit your pissing and moaning!" was Grandma Alvera's pet putdown to all whiners.

Undeterred, Janet decided to just make do with her best school dress, but took particular care setting her dark blonde hair in curls, and trying to sneak a little mascara and lipstick past Grandma. She chose three of her favorite Patsy Cline songs to memorize: "Walking after Midnight," "Sweet Dreams," and of course, "Crazy." Which my Aunt Janet kind of was, but that's also why I loved her so much. After all, who else, amidst all that family chaos and squalor, decided that they just had to be a country singing superstar? One often reads of dire beginnings driving certain individuals to great heights, despite the odds. Janet had great energy, but did she have talent?

Manistique bars like the Jack Pine Lodge back in the day.
Janet had much better luck with Grandpa Bud, since she was one his favorites, probably because she was just as high-spirited—and hard-headed—as he was. He not only agreed to take her to the road house, but chatted up the band leader in advance, with his praise of her becoming more effusive with each beer.

When the big night arrived, Grandpa Bud brought home a corsage to make up for the lack of a new dress. Grandma Alvera just harrumphed, since he never brought her flowers. They headed off to town at dusk, with a festive feeling in the fall air that Friday night. Once there, Bud took her around, introducing her to his fellow bar cronies and the bartender, who all agreed she was a pretty little thing. Janet imagined that this must be what it was like to be a star, like Patsy, or even a movie star, like Marilyn or Liz at a premiere. While waiting for the band to show, Bud began drinking his beers, while Janet sipped her cherry Coke and quietly went over her songs.

Manistique had a few fancy bars. too!
Finally, the band arrived and methodically began setting up. When the moment presented itself, Bud took Janet over. The bandleader, a tough old bird, took one look at Janet and could see the mix of fear and excitement in her eyes. He immediately softened and told her she could sing one song, and if she did alright, could do a second. Fair enough, he asked? She was thrilled and nodded her agreement.

So, how did she do? Depends on which family member you ask. The Gould clan can be blunt, and at times rough. While family foibles and failures can get kicked around like a football, this musical chapter in the family history seldom receives an encore.

But Janet indeed went on that night. At the end of the first set, the bandleader introduced the home girl to the locals, and they gave her a downhome boozy welcome. Janet chose "Walking after Midnight" because she figured if she got scared she could get by with sassy bravura that was the song's trademark. Janet climbed up on stage out from the dim, smoky clutter of tables and into the spotlight on stage. Looking out, the crowd seemed shadowy and distant, despite their raucous encouragement. The smoky haze created a curtain that put Janet a bit more at ease and she launched into her song. What the crowd saw was a wide-eyed girl in a modest school dress trying to appear confident and win them over. Her curls and makeup made her appear even more girlish, like a kewpie doll rather than a sultry singer. Janet gathered steam, like the little train that could, skirt swaying to the chorus and snapping her fingers to the beat. She must have done well enough, because at the end of the second set, Janet was called back upstage to sing one more tune. She sang "Crazy," her all-time favorite Patsy song. Her simple, sweet rendition won over the crowd of working class men, some out with their wives, and they responded back encouragingly as if she was their own daughter.

I'm sure this news saddened my Aunt Janet.
And Janet did go back onstage a few more times, to sing at a few more roadhouses. When the burning desire to become a singer was snuffed out, or by whom, is unclear. One sister pointed out that there was family chatter about the propriety of a father taking his teenage daughter around to get up and sing at taverns and roadhouses. Perhaps Grandpa Bud tired of having a daughter in tow, cramping his carousing style. Maybe Grandma felt like Cinderella to her own daughter, left behind and getting no help around the house. Janet’s dream probably came to a point where she had to take it to the next level, or walk away. Elvis, who also sang in school shows and honkytonks, went to Sun Records to record a song as a gift to his mother and the rest, as they say, is history. Janet never made that next step. She had energy, but did she have the drive and discipline, often cited as the mark of a true star? It seems not. Perhaps my aunt reached a point where she realized it was just a daydream and that she was lucky to have lived it out as long as she did. Whatever the circumstances, a star was not born. I wondered how Aunt Janet felt when Patsy Cline's own blazing star was extinguished in a plane crash just a few short years later.  

The show was over, but the desire for attention never stopped. I wondered if Janet's subsequent life as an adult seemed like a letdown in comparison to the dreams of her teen years. Her lifestyle was certainly easier. When Janet married Uncle Bob, she went from being dirt poor to a financially comfortable housewife. She loved spending money, showing off one of her prized possessions, a Thunderbird with bucket seats. She raised three children, instead of 13, like her mother. But emotionally, Janet seemed to have gotten short-changed in life. She refused certain family members’ suggestions to put her first-born, a severely retarded daughter, into a group home. Aunt Janet was always the hot-headed but ultimately likeable drama queen of the family. There always seemed to be fights, feuds, and flying four-letter words. Yet, there was often fun to be had and Janet was usually a straight shooter—even if she sometimes aimed low! But as time went on, it seemed like Janet had to endure more bad times than getting to enjoy life's rewards.

In the early years, Janet got through life's ups and downs by singing along to the jukebox at her favorite watering holes. Her middle years were stuck at her kitchen table, with a Miller's High Life and a menthol cigarette at the ready. Later, Janet’s great energy was made cartoonish by Parkinson's disease, all frenzied, uncontrolled movements. Her handicapped daughter’s death was a big blow, though she far exceeded her predicted life expectancy. Uncle Bob passed away in 2016, after a long sentence of early dementia, a quiet shadow of his former self.

Aunt Janet's home in its heyday.
Janet's illness made her haggard and thin, adding insult to injury of the normal course of aging. But the prettiest girl in her class gave up the ghost of vanity years ago. The dark blonde hair became snow white, her carefully penciled eyebrows a memory. For awhile, her feline eyes were still vivid, sometimes defiant in the face of following doctors or nurses’ orders… eventually, they just looked weary. By the time Janet entered her first nursing home, she could barely hold her head up; her final destination was home in Manistique. Occasionally, there were moments of her old spark, when Janet saw a relative’s grandchild or heard a funny family story. But by last Christmas, Janet’s spirits couldn’t be lifted anymore. Difficulty swallowing, much less smiling or talking, eventually took its toll. The long, tough path of Parkinson’s finally came to an end March 20, at age 72. I got to see her that night, one more time. All that was left to my aunt was a shell, but I was grateful she was comfortable. When my mother got the call later that Janet had passed, I was relieved that her suffering was over at last.

My Aunt Janet lived with Parkinson’s for over 20 years, but the quality of her life lessened at an alarming rate. My sweet dream for Aunt Janet is that she’s singing along with Patsy Cline now. I hope Janet is with family, laughing and carrying on, slapping her hands on the table in time to the music. No pissing and moaning. No more tears. No more pain, ever again.
Sweet Dreams, Aunt Janet!

Friday, March 17, 2017

The King of TV 50 and His Most Loyal Subject

I got turned on to Detroit’s WKPD-TV 50 from Upper Michigan, as a nerdy 7th grader in the early ‘70s. Cable television was like Christmas morning 365 days a year, and TV 50 was the best present of all.

WKPD-TV 50 reigned as Detroit’s superstation during the ‘70s and ‘80s. Endless reruns of beloved sitcoms—The Munsters, Gilligan’s Island, and The Brady Bunch—were after school treats. Star Trek and William Shatner’s over-acting was out of this world compared to Perry Mason’s precision formula and Raymond Burr’s fierce stare. I gobbled up all this pop culture—along with Chips Ahoy!, Little Debbies, buttery popcorn, all washed down with Faygo’s Rock N’ Rye cream soda—also from Detroit. I was not just a babysitter for my aunt and uncle’s kids—I was also a tubby TV fan.

Bill Kennedy was Detroit's top TV movie host.
His sets got more elaborate as time went by!
For me, the best was Bill Kennedy at the Movies. Before Turner Classic Movies (TCM), local TV stations ran afternoon movies, often with a host. TV 50 showcased Bill Kennedy, a one-time actor and life-long ham. Bill loved reliving his glory days as a contract player at Warner Brothers. Sometimes, Kennedy featured a film where he played a bit part, like Now, Voyager or Mr. Skeffington, as one of Bette Davis’ suitors in both classic soaps. In Kennedy’s scenes, his cameraman put a halo of light around Bill’s head, a Hollywood deity at last. Kennedy had substantial scenes in Cary Grant’s only war movie, Operation Tokyo and he played the executioner who lit a fire under Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc. Kennedy’s last claim to fame in Hollywood was the announcer on the 1950s’ Superman series: “Faster than a speeding bullet…”

Voice-overs and radio work got Bill Kennedy through the lean years. Then Kennedy got a break as a movie host, first in Windsor and finally, Detroit. Kennedy joked that his show’s theme song was Just in Time because he was in dire need for a gig. Bill’s new audience wanted their daily dose of his memories and movies, which later included me.

Bill kisses Bette Davis' hand in 'Mr. Skeffington.'
I was an indifferent school student, and Bill Kennedy at the Movies was my reel education. Cozy on my aunt and uncle’s plaid sofa, candy and pop within reach, I’d enter a world of Technicolor or shimmering black-and-white. I learned about each studio, their directors, and stars. Gradually, I noticed the films’ cinematographers, screenwriters, music composers, and costume designers. Instead of doing my homework, I’d consult my best friend, TV Guide, for more movies to gorge on. Old-time flicks were a world filled with snappy dialogue, plot twists, and dramatic confrontations that made real life in Manistique, Michigan look dull.

Bill Kennedy, far right, in his biggest role, 'Operation Tokyo,' with Cary Grant.
Sometimes I watched movies at my aunt and uncle’s house alone. Afterward, I’d walk home. The scenery was stellar: Indian Lake and the summer greenery of pines mingling with maples, later a kaleidoscope of fall leaves; the fields, clover or hay, along the secondary roads home. Yet my mind always drifted, as I replayed movie moments, often involving co-stars kissing, slapping, or shooting each other in beautiful black and white.

Bill with Debbie Reynolds, both getting photobombed by Bette Davis!
When Bill Kennedy’s young self popped up in old pictures, he looked like the typical handsome actor of his day: square-jawed, strong brow, and distinguished profile. When I started watching Bill Kennedy at the Movies, he wore suits and wire rim glasses, and looked like an aging ad man. Business suits were eventually retired for leisure variety. He later wore glasses the size of welder shields, the norm for that era. Kennedy sometimes sported a nautical-themed jacket to go with his boating cap, reminding me of Thurston Howell on Gilligan’s Island. My own ‘70s style mainly was growing shaggy hair and getting “husky.” I faithfully watched Bill’s show through high school and was growing up to be a big—in every sense—film buff.

Bill showing one of his own movies, this one starred Robert Alda--yes Alan's dad!
Kennedy’s set underwent periodic makeovers, but my favorite featured pillars, wrapped in mock-celluloid frames of stars in their greatest roles, like Bette Davis in All about Eve or Bogart in Casablanca. And that huge yellow desk phone, which he worked like a prop: “Hello, Bill Kennedy at the Movies! Your question, please!”

I marveled at Bill’s bravado. I hated answering the phone, especially when my uncle’s work crew called the house, and I’d get mistaken for my aunt. As a kid, I’d quietly lurk around rowdy relatives at family gatherings, eavesdropping while making myself useful, like emptying ashtrays and on one memorable night, topping a glass of beer with a few shakes of salt!

Bill loved big stars like John Wayne and Clark Gable.
Bill Kennedy was like those aging relatives, one-time pistols who were still good for a few more explosive rounds. Bill constantly had a cigarette going, smoke wafting from his ashtray, while he rambled on. Sometimes Kennedy seemed tipsy—my suspicions sparked by isolated news stories about him getting pulled over for drunk driving.

During breaks, Bill’s showbiz stories ran from sentimental to sassy to sometimes sour. I was in stitches when Kennedy recited quotes from movie star memoirs, grandly emoting with each syllable. If a phone caller hemmed and hawed while asking a showbiz question, Bill got irate, as if he had received a solicitation call, barking: “Why are you calling?”

Bill Kennedy was in Hollywood hog heaven when celebrities visited his show!
Kennedy’s imitations of movie stars were a hoot, bellowing as Charles Laughton’s Captain Bligh: “Mr. Christian!” Or Bill’s droll take on Bette Davis’ camp classic line in Beyond the Forest: “Whaaat a dumppp!”

Gable's acting wasn't as good as
my Grandma Leone remembered!
My Grandma Leone couldn’t stand Bill Kennedy. She thought Bill was a showboater—I thought he was a showman. Grandma was a high school secretary between marriages when she fell down the icy steps of her upstairs apartment, and broke her leg. My grandmother hated the soaps, so I suggested that she enjoy the movies Kennedy showed, and ignore him.  Recovering that winter, the ice broke between Grandma and Bill Kennedy. She realized that beneath his bluster, Bill was a softie who loved movies, stars, and his audience. From then on, Grandma chuckled at his antics.

Grandma and I compared our favorite movie stars. She was amazed that some of her once-favorite actors now seemed hammy, laughing about Clark Gable’s cartoonish persona. My grandmother was reserved, so it was no surprise that she didn’t care much for alpha actresses like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, acting with a capital A. Grandma thought Cary Grant was utterly charming and adored Frank Sinatra not just as a singer, but also his natural acting style. Grandma enjoyed revisiting the movies of her youth, a respite from her dreary circumstances as a financially struggling divorcee.

Grandma Leone was amused by my knowledge of old time movies, stars, and singers. The nostalgia boom was just kicking in during the early ‘70s, so imagine Grandma’s surprise when her oldest grandchild started asking what folks in her heyday thought about Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner’s ricochet romance or Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s infamous feud.

Before there was TCM, syndicated stations like TV 50 showed the classics.
In 9th grade, I joined The Nostalgia Book Club. Making my book binge a double feature, I joined The Movie Book Club, where I received a dozen free books. When that big box arrived by mail, my siblings surrounded me. After I opened the package and they only saw books about old movies, they quickly scattered. My school books now took second-billing to film books. I even snuck movie memoirs with my textbooks to school, though I was careful to hide them from teachers or fellow students.

Elizabeth Taylor & Richard Burton were in their "breaking up/together again" heyday, which gave Bill Kennedy a field day!
Thirty years later, I owned over two dozen large boxes of books. When I moved to Portland, OR, I sold all but two boxes. The contents of every single memoir, film genre book, coffee table tome, and movie magazine that I ever read was imbedded in my head.  I yearned for none of the many other possessions I sold, but later missed holding actual copies of my favorite film books. In researching Bill Kennedy, I found that the books, magazines, and papers he often used on his show have been donated to the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA). Maybe someday, I will hold Bill’s books and papers in my hands.

Bill Kennedy at the Movies was a starring part of my coming of age. I was not an outdoorsy boy growing up in rugged Upper Michigan. The men in the family worked and hunted out in the northern cold, while my brothers and male cousins played in the woods and rode snowmobiles. I stayed toasty warm in front of the television. I preferred warmth, books, baking, snack foods, and most of all, TV shows and movies.

In my research of Bill Kennedy, I found that many baby boomers associate Bill Kennedy with being home sick from school, under blankets on a sofa, and watching old movies with grownups. Others wrote about watching Bill’s Sunday film classics, while listening to their parents’ movie memories, with smells of dinner cooking wafting from the kitchen. People repeatedly said that their love of classic movies started with Bill Kennedy.

Bill Kennedy and toupee heading into their last hurrah!
As the ‘70s ended, I was out of my cinematic cocoon and in the real world—downstate Traverse City—and only occasionally watched Kennedy’s show. Over the next few years, I’d get a bit of a jolt checking in with Bill. The panda print pants and nautical-themed jackets were now joined by tropical floral shirts and pastel leisure suits. This was most appropriate for his later move to Palm Beach, where he hosted movies weekly instead of daily for Detroit TV 50. He wore the most bald-faced lie of a toupee, which looked like a lapdog napping on his noggin. All of this made Bill look like a potential suitor for one of The Golden Girls. Kennedy presented his last movie in December 1983. There were no more comebacks and Bill Kennedy remained retired until his death, January 27, 1997.  I hope those last dozen years were as blissful for Bill as the dozen that I watched Bill Kennedy at the Movies.

Bill Kennedy, easing into retirement from Palm Beach.
Looking back on the past is like a funhouse mirror. You get the distorted feeling that it was only yesterday, yet it also seems so long ago, like it is someone else’s life. Was it really over 40 years ago that I first watched that old hambone Bill Kennedy, when he was rumored to have had hair plugs? Was it over 30 years ago that I spiked my hair like Duran Duran or slicked back, like retro Elvis? Or 17 years ago when I faced the new millennium head on by shaving my balding scalp? No plugs or rugs for me, like my old movie buddy Bill.

Movies comforted and entertained me as a kid, and inspired me to live a creative life as an adult. For that, I owe thanks to Bill Kennedy, my movie mentor, who once ruled the airwaves every afternoon on WKPD-TV 50.

Bill Kennedy, lookin' good back in his Hollywood days.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Joan Crawford Commands 'The Best of Everything'

Joan Crawford IS tough, driven book editor Amanda Farrow in 'The Best of Everything."
Here’s a classic, sometimes clichéd, Hollywood plot premise: A trio of young women set off in search of riches and romance, only to find hardship and heartache—surprise! Whether it’s Hollywood or Broadway, New York City, Italy, or heck, even Fort Lauderdale, the gal pals inevitably learn tough lessons about life and love. The results are often box-office bonanzas: How to Marry a Millionaire, Valley of the Dolls, Three Coins in a Fountain, and Where the Boys Are, to name just a few.

Fresh from her Oscar-nominated farm girl Selena Cross in 'Peyton Place,' Hope Lange goes to NYC as Caroline Bender.
The deserve the best of everything, but seem to get the worst thrown at them!
The Best of Everything depicts, 1959-style, three young career women who set out to succeed in the Big Apple. The setting is sophisticated Fabian Publishing, but the girls’ goals are pure soap opera. Caroline (Hope Lange) is determined to become a book editor before she becomes a bride. April (Diane Baker) wants to work only to land a husband. Gregg’s (Suzy Parker) dream is to become a stage actress, but gets romantically blindsided. Warning signs of the rocky path ahead: Aging, hard-as-nails editor Amanda Farrow (Joan Crawford) and damaged goods divorced mother, Barbara (Martha Hyer).

Hope Lange, Suzy Parker, and Diane Baker as the "three girls" in the big city!
As with most ‘50s and early ‘60s movies, Hollywood tries to have it both ways: the girls seek to fulfill their ambitions and desires, as they titillate audiences. Then they suffer the consequences, courtesy of Hollywood’s censorship code. Sleeping with playboys will make you crazy or pregnant. Climbing the corporate ladder will only attract married jerks or criticism for not being a “real woman.”

Rona Jaffe was 25 when she wrote 'The Best of Everything.'
Despite promoting it as “In the outspoken tradition of Peyton Place,” like Wald’s most recent big-screen adaptation, The Best of Everything was “cleaned up” for the big screen. The most notable example was when April’s abortion was changed to a movie miscarriage, much like the screen version of Selena Cross in Peyton Place. However, hot young The Best of Everything writer Rona Jaffe insisted that realistic details of her “girls” personal and office lives be kept. Producer Jerry Wald, interested in depicting modern working women, listened.

The “movie-smart” dialogue in this movie has so many clinkers, I’m surprised that The Best of Everything hasn’t hit the camp status of Valley of the Dolls. When despicable Dexter is pressed by April whether he has gotten other girls pregnant, his gallant response is, “Not that I know of.” And when April wakes up in a hospital bed after losing the baby, she turns her head away: “I’m so ashamed…now I’m just somebody who’s had an affair!”

I know my various workplace cafeterias weren't this swanky, but then I wasn't working at 'Fabian Publishing!'
For me, what makes The Best of Everything so watchable is to know that such stereotypes were once archetypes. Now, they are a snapshot of another era—but I know not all people feel that way. Movies like this are also a tribute to studio era filmmaking at its best. The lush score by Alfred Newman is intoxicating. William C. Mellor’s cinematography is stellar, particularly the NYC locales, capturing it in all its mid-century glory. Director Jean Negulesco was an old pro in utilizing Cinemascope and driving the “three girls” story, as director of How to Marry a Millionaire and Three Coins in a Fountain. The look of the film, from recreating Pocket Books’ offices for the fictional Fabian Publishing, to the various apartments of its characters, is Fab Fifties at its best. Technically, The Best of Everything really is the best. The reality that the makers were selling, even for its time, was fast becoming dated.

Hope Lange is moving on up as the bright young thing in publishing.
There are two acting standouts in this movie. The first is Hope Lange, who gives the one natural performance in The Best of Everything. Lange is lovely but real, a strong presence. It's a shame Hope’s career didn’t take off beyond promising newcomer. However, Hope Lange’s star rose just as the studio system was waning, and a lot of promising newcomers ended up on television, rather than the big screen.

"I'll get the cards out on time, okay?!" Joan as bossy Amanda Farrow, hazing Hope Lange's Caroline on her first day at work!
The second is Joan Crawford, in full veteran star mode. Crawford makes her entrance as the dragon lady editor by opening her office door and announcing to Lange’s Caroline, “I’m Amanda Farrow,” in a manner akin to movie space aliens pronouncing their dominance over hapless earthlings. Crawford was well into the next phase of her career: Pepsi spokesperson. So the role of business pro Amanda Farrow was a perfect fit. Crawford plays a variation of the same role that Susan Hayward later immortalized in Valley of the Dolls, Broadway barracuda Helen Lawson—a role Joan expressed interest in! And like hard cookie Hayward, Crawford steals the movie with her withering delivery. Time has stood on Joan Crawford’s side: When The Best of Everything was first released, Joan’s name and image was at the bottom of the film’s posters. Now, on DVD covers, Joan is prominently displayed, despite the brevity of her role.

Joan was not in the best of spirits during filming. Photo by legendary Eve Arnold.
It's really a shame that Joan's part was later trimmed, because she was lured into the part with a showy drunk scene, depicting her lonely personal life. Crawford’s return to film wasn’t under the best of circumstances. Her hoped-for “happy ending” of a marriage to Pepsi executive Alfred Steele ended with Joan cast as a widow. Also, Crawford was short on cash. So, for the first time in 30 years, Joan Crawford took a secondary role. Imagine her mood on the set. There was a clash with co-star Lange over which actress a scene ended on. Joan no longer held sway over Jean Negulesco, who directed her a dozen years earlier in Humoresque, right after her Oscar win. The director, a well-known art collector and artist, also mocked Crawford in front of the cast, over her taste in art—those Keane paintings!

In contrast to Lange’s fresh take on a starlet role was Martha Hyer as Barbara, the slightly older, single mother. Hyer’s obsolete delivery only calls attention to her own sell-by date as a starlet. Despite her inexplicable best supporting actress Oscar nomination the prior year, for Some Came Running, her part was cut as much as co-star Crawford’s. While Hyer was at her short-lived peak and Crawford then considered passé, both got a trim job from a movie brimming with plot and characters.

Diane Baker is gullible April; Robert Evans is greasy Dexter.
Most of the characters are hilariously hopeless. Diane Baker, usually a good actress, is stuck with April, who is a total dip. The small town girl, apparently was dropped on her head as a baby, finds Mr. Perfect in Robert Evans as playboy Dexter. Evans, who looks like a greasy gigolo, is so repellent that he later found the perfect career, as a sleazy movie producer! April is so gullible that Dexter dupes her into getting dolled up for their “wedding” day, and instead takes her to an abortionist.

Suzy Parker starts off all breezy banter as “Gregg,” the aspiring actress whose day job is secretary. Then she goes all Fatal Attraction over Louis Jourdan, the womanizing director, David Wilder Savage—that name alone should have sounded off alarms. Jourdan, unlike Evans, was an established star, so he’s given the chance to look sadly repentant when Parker plunges from a fire escape, after spying on him.

Suzy Parker as Gregg & Louis Jourdan as the aptly named David Wilder Savage!
 Former Crawford leading man Brian Aherne is Mr. Shalimar, the “charming” old office letch. Every time I hear someone say his name, I think of that ‘80s one hit wonder singing Dancing in the Sheets—which is most appropriate for this movie. Despite his pinching and cornering the vulnerable office females, Shalimar always has a quip or quote to deflate his own sails.

The nicest guy in the movie is a self-hating office lush named Mike Rice, played by Stephen Boyd. He tries to warn Lange’s Caroline off the career track so she doesn’t end up bitter like Crawford’s Amanda. Ironic, since Rice is pretty cynical himself. Boyd’s attempt at hiding his Irish accent to play an American is right up there with Sean Connery’s Scottish brogue in Marnie. Like Sean, Stephen is such a fine specimen that he could speak Pig Latin for all I care.

A decade later, life got even harder for a young woman in NYC!
The Best of Everything is a look at life in the Big Apple during the Mad Men era, filtered through the lens of studio era Hollywood. The Old Hollywood glamour and the glimpses of a new reality that shine through are fascinating, if not heartwarming reminders of the ‘50s era.