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. 

2 comments:

  1. Of course I worship this movie, but you inadvertently gave me a mental image... What if there had been a Technicolor 1962 movie in which Stephen Boyd and Sean Connery played two NYC business men who unexpectedly fell in love! What a ticket that would be. LOL One thing (among many) that I admired about Joan was that even though that fiery copper hair is a bit shocking to behold at first, it is an exact replication of how Miss Farrow was described in the book. She wanted to BE that character (though it was disappointing to read the book and find that Amanda wasn't nearly as featured or as fleshed out as Joan's version in the film. She pretty much created the woman from scraps and bits.)

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