Tuesday, September 27

Our Miss Arden

Here was a character actress of the highest order which is why she's getting her own posting and doesn't have to share it with others as I usually have done.  Eve Arden had occasional leading roles and excelled in dramas, comedies and musicals.  By far her most popular role, the one that accords her lasting fame is Our Miss Brooks, which she first played on the radio, then as a popular television series and finally as a movie.  I always thought she was a hoot, didn't you?

One usually found her billed fourth or fifth and playing the best friend of the leading lady or a sister or coworker.  Maybe she was the girlfriend of the leading man's best friend or someone's secretary or she worked in an industry that catered to the needs of the leading characters. 

No matter the part, Arden's screen persona was etched in stone... sharp-tongued, smart, independent, witty.  She could throw away a line like it was nobody's business.  With her 40s hair-piled-high, those shoulder pads, a stately grace, an attractive face, she was something to behold. She loved to make faces.  After a time, the camera panned to her and she did a little mugging.  I was always on to her. She was predictable perhaps to some but I'd rather say she was someone I could count on to deliver the goods.  She honed what she brought to acting in significant ways.  Her characters seemed brighter than the leading characters and her counsel was often sought and more frequently freely given. More often than not, her characters were not in love relationships. Many of her characters displayed a sophisticated boredom.  

She always looked so comfortable as an actress and yet she saw it as simply a job. Her family came first.  It started back in 1908 Mill Valley, California.  She was raised by her mother, grandmother and aunt, three women she absolutely adored.  They and her menagerie of animals (also a lifelong passion) fulfilled her every need.  She made room for acting after she received good notices for appearing in a high school play. She quit school at 16 when she secured work in San Francisco theater.  She also copped a couple of minor film roles under her real name , Eunice Quedens.  She accepted stage assignments throughout California.  With more people telling her she had what it took to shake the rafters in the theater, she headed to New York and the Great White Way.

For awhile she was Fannie Brice's understudy and friend.  She appeared in several versions of Ziegfeld's Follies including taking one of the shows on the road.  She became an expert at sketch work, developed perfect comic timing, often engaged in hysterical ad libbing and even learned to play the kazoo.  

In 1937 she appeared in another small film role which led to her first important movie, Stage Door (1937).  She more than held her own against the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers and newcomers Lucille Ball and Ann Miller in a comedy-drama tale of aspiring actresses living in a Manhattan boardinghouse.  Arden played Eve and the actress delivered so much extra bits of business that the director expanded her role. She developed that sardonic personality that was to follow her for the rest of her six decades-long career.  She said later in life making this film was one of her most rewarding career experiences.  

By 1938 she was permanently ensconced in Hollywood and married to her first husband, an insurance man.  While they were wed nine years and adopted a daughter, it was a union marked by a lack of passion.  She knew there was more for her.

One role after the other was added to her résumé and she found herself supporting Rogers again in Having Wonderful Time, Loretta Young in Eternally Yours and the Marx Brothers in At the Circus, all 1939. Working at all the studios, she seemed to favor RKO and Columbia.  Women weren't treated very well at Columbia because of the wretched leader, Harry Cohn, but she flew under his radar and enjoyed working there. He certainly didn't confuse her with Rita Hayworth, whom he bothered continually, and the two actresses enjoyed working with one another in the highly successful Cover Girl (1944).  Arden, playing a consultant who hires models, had her most visible role as this film was her most successful to date.

The 40s, of course, becomes her best decade as a movie actress, just as the 50s and 60s would showcase her even more successfully in television.  But ah those 40s. They began with a brief stint at MGM playing Clark Gable's girlfriend in Comrade X (1940) although she lost him to Hedy Lamarr.  The following year she joined Lamarr again, Lana Turner and Judy Garland in Ziegfeld Girl, but Arden was not one of those girls.  She was a B girl opposite glamorous Marlene Dietrich in Manpower (1941).

Along with her 1944 success in Cover Girl, something else happened.  She signed her first studio contract.  Both she and Warner Bros wanted her to make the comedy The Doughgirls but the studio insisted on a contract. She certainly worked a lot but she thought the security of getting paid whether one worked or not was more to her liking with a young child and a shaky marriage.

The Doughgirls is a screwball comedy involving a shortage of accommodations in wartime Washington D.C. with newlyweds Jane Wyman and Jack Carson getting a room that is still occupied by a screwy crowd.  Arden coveted the part of a Russian guerrilla because she loved to do accents. Her fractured English and risqué gestures with her rifle remain memorable.  I loved the fun romp and so did Arden who became lifelong friends with Wyman and the film's star, Ann Sheridan.

In 1945 she made one of her most famous films and copped her only Oscar nomination in Mildred Pierce.  Part of a sensational film noir cast, including Joan Crawford, Ann Blyth, Zachary Scott and Carson, Arden was at her signature best as Crawford's friend and trusted coworker.  You may recall reading about Mildred earlier when we began highlighting the 40s.

In 1947 she joined Sheridan and Scott again in the noir, The Unfaithful.  It's a B but a darned good one with Arden as Scott's all-knowing and forthcoming cousin whose sage advice swirls around a suspicious murder. The same year she was wickedly funny as a society dame who stands up soldier Ronald Reagan in Voice of the Turtle, sending him into the arms of a young and gorgeous Eleanor Parker.  It was another of Arden's favorite films and happiest working experiences.  She ended the year by ending her marriage.

Arden, despite her busy film appearances, still managed some stage work and also performed on the radio.  In 1948 she would begin her most successful characterization when she was signed for the title role of Our Miss Brooks on the radio.  Playing the warm-hearted but sassy English teacher fit her well and the radio show was a certified hit and increased her fame.  She not only dated costar, hunky Jeff Chandler, but claimed in her autobiography that he was in love with her.

In One Touch of Venus (1948), a fantasy-comedy starring Robert Walker and Ava Gardner, she played a department store owner's snarky secretary.  The often-outrageous Gardner completely fascinated Arden and they briefly double-dated.  Arden worked in two early Doris Day films, My Dream Is Yours (1949) and Tea for Two (1950), both wise-ass roles.  She was a witchy coworker in the Lizabeth Scott noir, Paid in Full (1950).  

For the most part her films in the early 50s were undistinguished (although she was frequently the best thing in the film with the best lines).  By 1952 television was a force and the industry thought Our Miss Brooks should be on the schedule.  The show lasted for four years and would provide her with an Emmy.  When it was over, WB decided it would make a good film.

Mr. & Mrs. West

In 1952 she would marry actor Brooks West and it would last until his death 32 years later. They would adopt two children and then have a natural child, a happy event that she thought was not possible.  West was certainly the love of her life and they enjoyed life on a Hidden Valley, California, farm they bought and lived on for years.  It had once been owned by Ronald Colman and the Wests would sell to Sophia Loren.

When her WB contract expired, so did Arden's film career in some respects. Certainly the output lessened and she did a lot of guest shots on television because most shows were filmed in Los Angeles and she could easily be home at night.  Nothing was more important to her than life with Brooks, the four kiddies, the donkey, the chickens and the staff who was like family.  She had another brief TV experience with The Eve Arden Show and years later with Kaye Ballard in The Mothers-In-Law, not to mention two or three TV pilots that didn't sell.

Into all this domestic bliss and TV mediocrity came offers to work in two movies that I regard as the best of the actress' career. Oddly, they were both in dramas.  Not that Arden hadn't done drama but she was certainly better known for comedy.  

That mean old s.o.b., Otto Preminger, was making a movie based on a true murder in tiny Ishpeming, Michigan.  It would be called Anatomy of a Murder and would be filmed on location.  Arden would play defense attorney James Stewart's loyal and occasionally outspoken secretary.  To the actress' delight, her husband had also been hired to play the prosecuting attorney.  What fun.  And it was. Along with costars Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Kathryn Grant, Arthur O'Connell and later George C. Scott, they all holed up at the same location and played charades and knitted and gossiped and drank. Arden said it provided her with the work experience of her life.

It is a lusty little flick containing great acting. Its language was so frank that Preminger ran afoul of the censors, not his first time. Audiences of 1959 were all-a-flutter with the raciness of it all, and Arden found herself in another popular venture. 

In 1960s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, as an unwanted houseguest at the time of a family's crisis, Arden was the dark at the bottom of the stairs.  Her Lottie is whiny, cruel, desperately unhappy, delusional and utterly unlikable.  Instead of ending her loveless marriage to her polar opposite and having the affair she needs to have, she victimizes him while they both pretend to relatives who see through them.  It's a seering performance by Arden, the best of her shiny career.  I have to believe that director Danny Mann saw something in Our Miss Arden that didn't pass the test for the rest of us and he was so right. I had that same feeling years later when another director hired another actress for another great film.  What did first-time director Robert Redford see in light and fluffy Mary Tyler Moore to offer her the dark, dark role of Beth in Ordinary People? 

Arden reached for something deep to play Lottie and it's a performance that deserves to be seen.  There is a mutually- disrespectful relationship with brother-in-law Robert Preston, loveless exchanges with sister Dorothy McGuire and the saddest of all with character actor, Frank Overton, as her meek husband.  The words that poured from the pen of playwright William Inge have always gotten to me.

The Dark at the Top of the Stairs was detailed earlier here as one of my 50 Favorite Films.  It is very special to me. Costar Angela Lansbury said it might be her favorite movie role and that it deserved to be seen by more than it was.  I'm with you, Angie.

With all this said, how odd that Arden didn't mention it whatsoever in her autobiography. Say what?  I wish I knew why that was and confess to wondering if it was because Lottie bled through to Eve, making the latter not very pleasant to be around.  I'm jus' sayin'.  I don't know... I wasn't there.  But you gotta admit that to not even mention a film in which you gave, at minimum, a very credible and talked-about performance is, well, odd.

It was back to television guest shots... re-energized movie career be damned.  The entire family loved traveling and they often left their beloved farm in caretakers' hands and dashed off to exotic places all over the world with Europe being a favorite.  She was one of that parade of older actresses treading the boards in Hello Dolly and Mame (with her husband) and more.

What happens in 1978?  Once again she bobs up to the top again due to her performance as a zany high school principal in the monster hit, Grease.  (Miss Brooks promoted and older.)  I hadn't seen her work in some time and marveled that she was still able to knock out a home run in another return gig.  Too bad the same couldn't be said for its 1982 sequel and that film would ingloriously end her movie career.

Two years later her beloved Brooks died. She was very close to her children and grandchildren but a light had gone out. She continued to work on television a little, nothing meaningful to her, although she was certainly glad to work with her old friend Wyman in Falcon Crest, the last opportunity we would have to see Our Miss Arden in something fresh.

She would live out her final years quietly but some of them found her ill.  She passed away in 1990 in Los Angeles from colorectal cancer and heart disease.  She was 82 years old.

I loved a quote of hers that seems to sum up the life and career of this wonderful actress... I've worked with a lot of great glamour girls in the movies and the theater.  And I'll admit, I've often thought it would be wonderful to be a femme fatale.  But then I'd always come back to thinking if they only had what I've had... a family, real love, an anchor... they would have been so much happier during all the hours when the marquees and the floodlights are dark.

Next posting:
Movie review

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