Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Best of Everything (1959)


Caroline Bender: What is it about women like us that make you hold us so cheaply? Aren't we the special ones from the best homes and the best colleges? I know the world outside isn't full of rainbows and happy endings, but to you, aren't we even decent? ~from The Best of Everything (1959)
The more things change, the more they stay the same. When watching The Best of Everything it is striking how much things have indeed changed from the days when women went to work in offices wearing with hats and gloves to go with their tailored suits, even in the summer. It is interesting how the girls mostly saw the secretarial jobs as something to do while waiting to get married, not as careers. Some of the older executives took liberties which today would result in a lawsuit. On the other hand, the way women allow themselves to be used by men under the guise of romance and independence is an element of the film which finds an echo in our own time.

Based upon the novel by Rona Jaffe, The Best of Everything deals with the lives of three young women in the jungle of Madison Avenue in the late fifties. Considered scandalous in its time, in some ways it was prophetic of things to come, followed by films such as The Apartment (1960) and Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) about other young females lost in Manhattan. The Best of Everythng was directed by Jean Negulesco. According to Critic After Dark:
Negulesco's use of color in the film is striking--color dictates the office worker's status (the higher up the ladder, the more muted the color of door or dress), everyone has noted the Mondrian set design (Negulesco was a painter, and may also have done some of the sets' paintings). Cinemascope I imagined would be problematical--New York is all about dizzying heights, not wide expanses--but Negulesco counters this by panning down the buildings, emphasizing the way they tower over the antlike workers below; in office interiors he uses the wide screen like a theater set, staging crucial action in long takes where actors cross each other a number of times (I'm thinking of the tipsy Lange and Boyd) and keeping them mostly in medium shot so that they seem to look at each other from arm's length, puzzling over how to close the distance and make contact (this impression is especially strong when it's a woman confronting a man about his lack of commitment). The spaces also point up the relative wealth of corporate officers with their roomy offices and apartments--especially in Manhattan, where the square foot of flooring is at a premium.
Hope Lange stars as the Ivy League heroine, Caroline Bender who, abandoned by her fiancé, has to find a way to occupy her time, so she takes a secretarial job at a publishing house. Of all the girls, she becomes enthralled by the challenge of the work itself and begins to aim for success. She is befriended by Mike Rice (Stephen Boyd) who is one of the few gentlemen in the film, in spite of being a bit of a drunk. He does not take advantage of Caroline when, in a heartbroken and intoxicated state, she throws herself at him. Caroline finds herself turning into her boss, Amanda Farrow, played with ferocity by Joan Crawford. Miss Farrow is an independent, powerful executive whom Caroline aims to be and yet, like the other young women, dreads to emulate. Miss Farrow has a glamorous and successful life but no domesticity, which the trio of heroines, whether they want to admit it or not, all long for. Caroline has to decide whether she wants to devote herself totally to glittering success, with uncommitted lovers on the side, or whether she wants to make the compromises demanded by marriage.

Caroline's friend April (Diane Baker) is the type of girl who hardly exists anymore, a total innocent. Even the guidance of her slightly more savvy friends cannot deliver her from the seductions of wealthy playboy Dexter, the absolute creep of the movie. April thinks she has found a great romance but in the end, as she says from her hospital bed, "Now I'm just another person who has had an affair."

Suzy Parker, who was a model and Dorian Leigh's sister, plays the most truly modern heroine, Gregg, of whom there are legions of contemporary counterparts. In her quest to become an actress, Gregg works as a secretary to support herself, but otherwise she wants nothing more from life than fun. The product of a broken home, Gregg, with zesty independence, is willing to play the field in the same way as the men, no strings attached. When she does fall in love, she casts all ambition, dignity, and self-respect aside to become the obsessed handmaid of her lover. When her boyfriend, a Broadway director portrayed by Louis Jourdan, tires of her, Gregg is shattered. Some commentators have said that the Gregg's breakdown is a bit too melodramatic. However, having witnessed friends in the past go through similar anguish, I would hesitate to say that her mental state is entirely far-fetched.

By the end of the film, marriage with a respectable man looks almost too good and too unattainable to be true. Ultimately, it is what the heroines were all striving for in their own way, along the crooked paths of modernity, which promise success and sex without enduring love and happiness.

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6 comments:

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

It sounds like a worthwhile foil to The Devil Wears Prada. Of course, in the recently released film, what the young woman protagonist hopes for is not a good husband and a fulfilling domestic life, but a supportive boyfriend and a fulfilling career.

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, it a precursor to The Devil Wears Prada. How the world changed in a short span of years....

Unknown said...

A very good film, but Joan Crawford scares me. I saw this film as a young person and it really affected me...I took the lesson in morality to heart. Some of those old movies are great for teaching consequences of immoral behavior.

elena maria vidal said...

They really are.

the booklady said...

Excellent review! I'm going to get this to watch with my teenage daughters. I've seen so many of the old movies but somehow I've missed this one.

Thank you! booklady

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, booklady, it is definitely a movie for teenage girls to watch with their mom! It will elicit some great discussions!