The rise of suburbia brought with it an influx of novels, specifically lurid tales of gossip and romance that housewives could read in their spare time. And Hollywood responded to this with glossy Technicolor melodramas that became, somewhat derogatorily known as, “women’s pictures.” Now, not all of these films are gems, piling on soapy romance and backbiting in lieu of actual story, and I’ve never responded to the work of director Jean Negulesco with open arms, so I was resistant to watch Twilight Time’s latest Blu-ray, The Best of Everything. Based on a novel by Rona Jaffe, The Best of Everything takes time to get acclimated, much like its new female secretaries, but once it does the presentation is nothing short of bleak and, surprisingly, authentic. It’s actually cruel how little has changed since 1959.
Caroline Bender (Hope Lange) is one of three secretaries working at the Fabian Publishing House. In their time working, each woman experiences issues regarding life, career, and love.
The Best of Everything was the death knell for the opulent 1950s melodrama, coming off the heels of the film that brought the gauzy, Technicolor “woman’s picture” to its apotheosis, Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life. Unlike Sirk’s couture craziness, The Best of Everything heaps on the horrors all women face, both in life and work: relationships (either the wrong one or lack thereof), questions about sex and virginity, sexual harassment, constant competition with female coworkers, abortion. By the end of this two-hour odyssey you’ll be exhausted and ready to march.
The script follows what I’ve affectionately called the “Three Little Girls in Blue” narrative of taking three different one-note females and using them as springboards for various issues. In this case you have the bride (Lange), the independent woman (supermodel Suzy Parker), and the virgin (Diane Baker). Unlike most heroines, the characters don’t follow their signifiers to the letter, creating characters with actual dreams and goals that are achieved or changed based on their choices (or the choices thrust upon them by others). For example, I feared Lange’s good girl with the overseas boyfriend would end in matrimony for sure. She even reiterates that she’s simply working until her boyfriend comes to fetch her. Instead, the boyfriend dumps her for a woman with a Texas oil well – because there’s always a woman with an oil well – throwing a wrench in Caroline’s plans.
Hope Lange isn’t my favorite actress, but she shows surprising grace and depth other than being the average “nice girl.” Sure, she’s polished and doesn’t do anything wrong, but she grows towards finding out what she wants and, more importantly, what she doesn’t. Her rivalry with Fabian editor Amanda Farrell (Joan Crawford), imbues her with the sad fact that women in business always feel they’re competing, but Caroline soon realizes when to say when. She doesn’t want to see life race by her while working, and that doesn’t mean going up to a guy and demanding he put a ring on it. Because the censors demanded it, Caroline isn’t able to run off with her old flame knowing he’s still married. Instead she gets together with the cynical Mike (Stephen Boyd). It does feel like settling, if only because Caroline’s made such a complete transformation, but there’s no talk of marriage at the end, simply two people finding comfort in each other.
Lange glues the cast together, acting as both watchdog and moral compass. When a friend is wronged, Caroline is there to execute a well-timed slap to the cad’s face who wronged them; when Caroline is picked on by her boss, she’s quippy with a one-liner. By the end, it’s hard finding any fault with Caroline outside of the possibility she might seduce a married man. She’s even found friendly ground with Amanda by the time “the end” arrives. But none of this necessarily feels like a thin character, but a progression of picking one’s battles and sticking to their guns.
The rest of the cast aren’t written as fluidly as Caroline but the ladies are all at the top of their game. This was considered a comedown for A-list icon Joan Crawford, and there’s been much talk about how nibbled away her role became. Before Miranda Priestley of The Devil Wears Prada, there was Amanda Farrell. Although not quite as satanic as Meryl Streep, Crawford cuts an intimidating figure as Amanda, yet Crawford gives her vulnerability; she’s constantly worried, and somewhat rightfully so, about being replaced by a younger, fresher version of herself. For a star of her caliber it’s shocking how underutilized Crawford is, but what’s there is amazing. Crawford certainly looks like she’s ready to take on the publishing world as much as the boardroom of Pepsi-Cola – she was recently widowed after the demise of Pepsi-Cola CEO, Alfred Steele. We don’t gather much other than she’s carrying on an affair with an unseen executive, but it’s enough to showcase her feistiness. In fact, Crawford was allowed to write some of her own dialogue, leading to this hilarious bon mot: “You and your rabbit-faced wife can both go to hell!”
After realizing she’s waited too long to follow after love, Amanda returns to Fabian as the wizened acolyte of the career world, doomed to work, forever alone. That’s not to say she’s uncaring. There are moments where you realize her pushing of Caroline and others is as a means of inspiring them to do more with their lives, or at least be able to balance home and career. It’s alluded that she has more of a friendship with Suzy Parker’s Gregg, but there’s just never enough given to Crawford to make much coherence of her trajectory.
Parker and Baker are rather flat, but their character arcs are the juiciest. Parker, one of the world’s most beautiful women (and star of my favorite Twilight Zone episode), plays aspiring actress Gregg Adams. Her relationship with Louis Jourdan’s playwright, David Wilder Savage, leads to her eventual stalking, madness, and death. I guess if anyone’s gonna drive you to insanity, you can’t do worse than Louis Jourdan? I mean, there’s a reason his character’s last name is “Wilder Savage,” right? There’s never any background for why Gregg would be driven towards insanity, or why she’d pick David to stalk. As far as we know she’s lived independently with much success over the years. I believe her arc shows how there’s no pleasing men; you’re seen as clingy if you’re too interested, and cold if you’re not interested enough.
Baker plays sweet neophyte April who falls in love with Dexter (an appropriately douchey Robert Evans) and ends up pregnant. It’s shocking how coldly Dexter presents April with the abortion, dressing it up as them going to get married. April’s decision is a bit hasty – she could have waited for Dexter to stop at a red light before exiting the car – but her narrative shows the complications of having sex. It’s obvious Dexter manipulated the virginal April for the purpose of sleeping with her, and while her pregnancy and miscarriage play as punishment, it’s another moment of honesty regarding women and their desires.
I haven’t touched on several other topics, including the film’s exploration of workplace sexual harassment, Martha Hyer’s underwritten character, etc. Suffice it to say I enjoyed The Best of Everything more than I expected. Negulesco directs a shockingly candid portrait of modern womanhood, hiding it all behind a veneer of gossip and romance novel characters. Twilight Time’s lovely Blu-ray, complete with isolated soundtrack, audio commentary, Fox newsreel, and trailer, is certainly worthy of purchasing.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.