Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on January 9, 2014
THE BEST OF EVERYTHING airs on TCM Jan. 30th
I love a good Hollywood melodrama. Particularly full-color big-budget melodramas that directors such as Douglas Sirk (ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, WRITTEN ON THE WIND, IMITATION OF LIFE), Mark Robson (PEYTON PLACE, FROM THE TERRACE, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS) and Delmer Daves (A SUMMER PLACE, SUSAN SLADE, ROME ADVENTURE) dished out in the 1950s and 60s. Critics often refer to these movies as “women’s pictures” or “weepies” but that trite description tends to put them in a corner or a small box and the movies are often much too big and multifaceted to be shoehorned into a simple one-size-fits all package. Last year I re-watched many of my favorite mid-century melodramas and caught up with a few I hadn’t seen before including Jean Negulesco’s THE BEST OF EVERYTHING (1959), which features the one and only Joan Crawford in a small but standout role as Amanda Farrow, a cutthroat editor working at a New York publishing firm.
Like many of Jean Negulesco’s films (HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE, THREE COINS IN A FOUNTAIN and THE PLEASURE SEEKERS), THE BEST OF EVERYTHING focuses on the lives of three women and their romantic follies but there’s a darker and more pertinent aspect to this tale of three secretaries trying to climb the corporate ladder to success that separates it from Negulesco’s more lighthearted outings. In THE BEST OF EVERYTHING reluctant career girl Caroline (Hope Lange), the hopelessly romantic April (Diane Baker) and aspiring actress Gregg (Suzy Parker) struggle with sexual harassment, rejection, heartbreak and an unplanned pregnancy but their biggest obstacle might be Joan Crawford, as the brash, bitchy, chain-smoking Amanda Farrow who rules the office with a jewel encrusted fist. Crawford’s character has seen it all, done it all and survived it all and she never lets the young women who work under her forget it. In what amounts to about 15-20 minutes of screen time, Crawford proceeds to chew her way through the eye-popping scenery and effortlessly commands every scene she’s in.
This was the first time that the Queen of the Movies had been reduced to playing a secondary character in decades. Crawford took the part in THE BEST OF EVERYTHING because she needed the money following the unexpected death of her husband, Pepsi Cola executive Alfred Steele, who she once called her “soul mate.” Steele died deep in debt which was passed onto Joan and she was forced to take his seat on the executive board of Pepsi Cola in order to repay his loans. Crawford quickly discovered how competitive and merciless the world of business could be as the only woman working for a powerful company in an executive position. And that real world experience undoubtedly informed her role in THE BEST OF EVERYTHING. By all accounts Crawford was devastated by Steele’s death and must have felt the burden of suddenly being solely responsible for her and her family’s financial well-being. During the filming of THE BEST OF EVERYTHING, Crawford supposedly broke down in tears many times on set and was often seen mixing vodka with her Pepsi. Her distress was amplified by the conflicts she was having with her costar Hope Lange whom she once referred to as a “young upstart” and director Jean Negulesco.
13 years earlier Crawford had successfully worked with Negulesco on the Oscar nominated film HUMORESQUE (1946) but she was no longer the “star” of the film and the director refused to give her special treatment. When Crawford asked Negulesco to help her in private rehearsals so she could work on her role the director refused and he often sided with Hope Lange when she and Crawford disagreed on a particular line reading. Crawford was 55-years-old and was no longer getting the star treatment she had grown used to. Faced with her own mortality and an uncertain future while still grieving her recently deceased husband must have been a bitter pill to swallow. The escalating conflicts made for a tense set during filming but they also may have helped Crawford deliver a powerful and punchy performance.
Crawford’s role was originally written as a one dimensional she-monster with very little depth. The audience wasn’t supposed to care about her background or how she had succeeded in a business world made up of men with “clean-cut faces and dirty little minds.” We were supposed to loathe her and root against her success and in a lessor actor’s hands Crawford’s character in THE BEST OF EVERYTHING could have easily been reduced to a comic book-style villain. But Crawford was incapable of delivering a one note performance. With only a handful of lines and very little screen time, she gave Amanda Farrow a rich inner life that makes us care about her underdeveloped story. We want to know more about Farrow, we want to spend more time in her lush New York apartment and we want to see a glimpse of the mystery men who she romances off screen. And apparently we could have if director Jean Negulesco and producer Jerry Wald hadn’t decided to cut one of Crawford’s major scenes showing Amanda Farrow getting rip-roaring drunk while she unloads her troubles on an unsuspecting bartender. By all accounts it was supposed to be Crawford’s “big screen moment” and one of the reasons she agreed to take the minor role. Witnesses claimed that it was superbly acted but it ended up on the cutting room floor because the studio thought the film had grown too long and unwieldy. Naturally Crawford was furious when she found out and it supposedly soured her on the acting profession for a few years before she was finally lured back to Hollywood to costar in the cult classic WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962) with longtime rival Bette Davis.
Crawford’s scene stealing performance is one of the reasons you should watch THE BEST OF EVERYTHING when it airs on TCM Jan. 30th but it also has a lot of other things to recommend it. Much of the film was shot on location in New York giving audiences a wonderful view of “The Big Apple” in the late 1950s and most of the interiors were shot on the Twentieth Century-Fox backlot. Director Jean Negulesco was an artist himself and the film is a visual feast for anyone who appreciates mid-century design. From the Mondrian inspired office interiors to the Stilnovo style lamps that sit on the executive’s desks and the Bernard Buffet art that occupies wall space, the film makes great use of period fittings and fixtures. It also features a beautiful score by composer Alfred Newman and a great title song composed by Sammy Cahn and sung by the velvet voiced Johnny Mathis. The rest of the cast is also very good, particularly the always reliable Brian Aherne as a sleazy publisher and Suzy Parker who losses her mind over Louis Jourdan. It’s hard to blame her of course (we’re talking about Louis Jourdan after all!) and Parker’s character arc, which has her playing a fiery would-be actress who transforms into an overzealous stalker, is fascinating to watch. Parker had been a hugely successful model before she got into acting and watching her in THE BEST OF EVERYTHING makes you wish that she had made more movies. It’s also worth noting that the film has been cited as one of the major influences on the popular television series MAD MEN and fans of the show should enjoy spotting the similarities.
The film suffers from a tacked on Hollywood ending that has Hope Lange’s spunky character nearly running into the arms of her much-too conventional and preachy coworker (Stephen Boyd) and it’s hard to believe when all the men in THE BEST OF EVERYTHING are so unlikable. Boyd, along with costars Brian Aherne, Louis Jourdan and Robert Evans, play the worst kind of hard-drinking cads and wretches imaginable. But the actors seem to relish playing bad guys who lurk over the women like hungry vultures and cause them all kinds of grief. I also couldn’t help but notice that director Jean Negulesco seemed determined to make New York look threatening and downright scary at times by shooting the towering skyscrapers like they’re unreachable monuments built to celebrate masculine dominance over commerce. The tall office buildings appear to swallow up the women who dare to enter them and cast great shadows over their activities throughout the film. It may not be a conventional horror film but there are plenty of monsters in THE BEST OF EVERYTHING and Negulesco’s stylized direction made me feel as if I was watching a thriller or a mystery at times. The unpredictable nature of the film and its smart direction really impressed me and made it one of my favorite film discoveries of 2013. Watch it for Crawford but stick with it if you want to see one of Negulesco’s most rewarding films.
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