Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Best of Everything (1959)

The Best of Everything
. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation; screenplay by Edith Sommer and Mann Rubin; directed by Jean Negulesco. Based on the novel by Rona Jaffe. Director of photography, William C. Mellor; film editor, Robert Simpson; music, Alfred Newman. Performers: Hope Lange, Stephen Boyd, Suzy Parker, Martha Hyer, Diane Baker, Brian Aherne, Robert Evans, Louis Jourdan, Joan Crawford.
Summary: It’s 1959, a time of post-WW2 prosperity and Cold War angst. New Yo
rk is the publishing and intellectual capital of America. Four typists at a publishing house fight to have their own careers and find true love in the ruthless New York
business world.

style ****
substance ***1/2

The Best of Everything is often lumped together with late Fifties and early Sixties camp classics like Valley of the Dolls (recently reviewed in these pages) and Peyton Place. To be exact, Dolls appeared nearly a decade later, in 1967, and in the opinion of the writer, is a much different, and ultimately inferior, work to both aforementioned titles. But more on that later.

First, it must be admitted that said comparisons are not without merit. And inasmuch as Everything’s über Fifties gestalt might solidify its status as the original Valley of the Dolls, it also harkens back to those ‘women’s pictures’ of the early Thirties which starred the likes of Kay Francis, Ruth Chatterton, Joan Blondell and, yes, Joan Crawford, the present film’s nominal but mostly invisible star.

Indeed, there are striking similarities to Valley of the Dolls: three ingénues try their hand at the big time, and one meets with a tragic end. There’s also an intimidating, tough-as-nails old pro that the ingénues secretly aspire to. In both films this character is portrayed by a mega-star from cinema’s Golden Age. Both films are set in an artsy milieu, and both have male romantic interests that cut pretty poor figures, caddish in one film and weak and dull in the other. There is an equivocal ending in which the main ingénue literally walks out of the picture. And of course both have lushly romantic music scores with memorable title tunes.

Even with all the topical elements, Best of Everything has aged pretty well. The characters and their concerns still resonate, and moreover, the production elements are first-rate and everything works together in beautiful synergy, all contributing to a very easy-to-watch cinematic experience. An exception: the much-praised mod office interiors. Truth to tell they didn’t do that much for me. I’m more partial to the coffee shop (actually the Four Seasons restaurant) where the principals like to hang out, or theatre auteur David Wilder Savage’s book- and African art-laden bachelor pad.

The opening pan of New York City with the lush theme music sets the tone and recalls the beginning of Love is a Many Splendored Thing (the panorama in that film was Hong Kong), with music again by Fox mainstay Alfred Newman [1]. Johnny Mathis’s silky voice croons the lilting title tune and we can be forgiven for thinking this one will be another campy soaper. But no, it’s not. And in fact it wouldn’t be too far off the mark to say the opening sequence is the best part of the entire film from a purely cinematic point of view. The street scenes of folks going to work are also reminiscent of the, more frantic, opening of North by Northwest, which came out the same year.

Best of Everything
gives us a glamorous, well-scrubbed New York that was the center of the universe, populated by beautiful people and beautiful people-wannabes in which all the women wear Dior dresses and the men favor gray suits. A Weegee’s New York it's not: for all the inter-office backbiting in the story, from a purely visual standpoint there’s not a hint of the literally dark New York we see in other films of the era (TV shows, too), most blisteringly so in the sulfuric, gloves-off late noir classic Sweet Smell of Success. But I digress.

As for the principals, Best of Everything is for the most part exceptionally well cast. In what’s little more than an extended cameo, Joan Crawford is wonderful playing a very Joan Crawford-esque character to which she manages to bring some nice shadings. And for all of Joan’s (in)famous scenery chewing, this is actually a rather restrained performance. It helps that she’s ably directed by former collaborator Jean Negulesco. Usually thought of as a Forties film noir specialist, here he shows a nice touch for a Fifties aesthetic and maybe deserves the credit for reining Joan in. The three girls in the big city – Hope Lange, Suzy Parker, and Diane Baker – are well chosen and bring energy and believability to their roles. The men, both actors and characters, fare less well, though oily Louis Jordan and an Errol Flynn-esque Brian Aherne make strong impressions.

Getting back to the Valley of the Dolls comparison: The Best of Everything is more subtle, more honest, and certainly less over-the-top, and thus has few if any of the camp qualities of Dolls. It may simply be that Everything is the genuine item, i.e. a Fifties story actually shot in the Fifties, while Dolls was a Fifties idea shot in the ultimate swinging Sixties, summer-of-love year of 1967.

In any case, times and tastes have changed but people and emotions haven’t, and The Best of Everything is a nostalgic, tasty slab of angel food cake with scoop of ice cream topping served with warm milk chaser, scrumptiously delicious in its plushy, easy to digest beauty, but even a little nourishing in spite of itself, best viewed with a hanky or two nearby.

[1] Actually I prefer the dreamy, piano dominated theme associated with the Suzy Parker character to the brought-back-one-time-too-many main title tune.

Further reading:

Jacobs, Laura. “The Lipstick Jungle.” Vanity Fair, March 2004.
Negulesco, Jean. Things I Did and Things I Think I Did. New York: Linden Press/Simon & Schuster, 1984.

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