The Best of Everything
Encyclopedia Entry • Film Page
Lecture Notes on The Best of Everything
By Richard Gorey
[Web editor's note: Gorey is a freelance writer/animator and teacher at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan who gave a lecture on The Best of Everything at a March 2007 screening of the film at the Bronxville Library in New York. Below are his notes for his lecture, supplemented by extensive comments from his sister, whom he credits only as "Debbie" (plus her friend "Maggie"). The notes are rough in places. I haven't edited them at all, just supply them here in rough form as a service to Joan fans.]
Rona Jaffe's career as a writer began in an unexpected way, which may be one of the reasons so many critics are cynical about her work. Her first and most enduring novel, The Best of Everything was actually commissioned by producer Jerry Wald for possible adaptation to a screen subject. Many in the literary field feel Jaffe's success was similarly “commissioned” and managed. What's never been in question is the popularity of Jaffe's bestsellers, from The Best of Everything to her topical eighties thriller Mazes and Monsters. Certainly her work falls under the category we used to call “women's fiction,” but Jaffe's reputation is underestimated; we shouldn't criticize her books just because she was asked to write them: this seems the jealous backbiting of writers whose breaks were longer in coming. Whether or not Jaffe “suffered” to create her work isn't relevant; there is enough suffering in her fiction to compensate.
Jaffe worked as an associate editor at Fawcett Publications in the late nineteen-fifties. When producer Jerry Wald asked Jaffe to create a novel for a specifically women's readership, she drew on personal experience (and, some claimed on the lives of her friends) to deliver a book that's been called “the urban answer to Peyton Place.”
Grace Metalious' scandalous novel Peyton Place had been a sensation two years before, and Wald was looking for something similarly exploitable. He had produced the film version of Peyton Place, and when he met Jaffe he felt she understood why the former book was successful. Jaffe essentially took a leave of absence from her job to write the The Best of Everything, which was completed the year she turned twenty-five.
While the book features characters similar in age and temperament to its author it delves into limitations and insecurities to which Jaffe was not a victim. Caroline Bender and her friends, secretaries at the fictional Fabian Publishing house, are all girls in need, financially and emotionally. Jaffe was a daughter of privilege whose secure upbringing marked her an unexpected companion to the uncultured girls about whom she wrote. While Jaffe hadn't endured the hardships of the “girls” at Fawcett, it's clear from the sensitivity in her writing she at least understood these struggles, and her sympathies were not manufactured. What Jaffe had in common with her heroine was the typical (and frustrating) nineteen-fifties attitude toward romance, sex, and female ambition.
In The Best of Everything, women are expected to find work only as a means to locating a husband; the job itself is a secondary consideration. Time and again, Caroline, the book's main character, is faced with the consequences of choosing badly or not at all. She is presented with several possible futures—in characters like Amanda Farrow, the hardened, middle-aged boss whose romantic inclinations lean toward married men—or Gregg Adams, the stunning “actress” whose beauty blinds men to her neuroses—or the virginal April Morrison, played by Diane Baker, who has no clue as to what is expected from a woman in a man's world.
Caroline has something many of the other girls don't: a history. She has been separated from her fiancée, the seemingly devoted Eddie, and is now looking for an escape. She is not at Fabian to find a husband, and this makes Caroline a keen observer of the dramas around her. She sees the limitations imposed by society—by a finishing school education, by the generation before her, and by the women themselves, who for whatever reasons buy into these insane restrictions and limitations. Still, despite her objectivity Caroline never thinks to ask why it isn't possible for someone like Amanda Farrow to have both a romantic life and a career.
But as we have learned in the decades since the fifties this is largely problematical, even for those who easily manage several things at once. Is there even such a thing as “the best of everything”? Most modern, liberated women would probably say no: inevitably one aspect of a life suffers when the focus is placed on another. Men and women these days are ground down by the demands of finances, educating their children, and making ends meet. If we can agree that the fifties were a vastly different time, we must also agree the myth promised in that decade of “having it all” has proven to be just that: a myth.
Jaffe connected to this sad truth before many other writers were able to articulate it in print. Her novel, which has often been described as “superficial” and “empty” is in fact one of the first pro-feminist works to even ask whether managing a career and a romance were compatible. The film version is remarkable for its fidelity to Jaffe's original and for the intriguing questions it raises regarding the relationships between men and women and between women themselves.
In its day, The Best of Everything was considered controversial, as Sex and the City is today. Of course book was much more explicit and frank than the film version, but the movie manages to transcend its glossy soap opera trappings and in many ways is an affecting and honest work. Though it has been dismissed (as was Peyton Place) as a work of typical fifties excess and romance, The Best of Everything hints at complex psychology and is often touching. Jaffe herself was disappointed in the changes made to her book, but overall she felt the movie was an admirable attempt to recreate the look, feel, and the emotion of her creation.
Director Jean Negulesco, who'd shot the popular Three Coins in a Fountain was hired to oversee the production, and it was felt his expertise in negotiating such multi-character dramas would serve the film. This was true, but in Best of Everything Negulesco had much more to work with. The original film ran three hours, and was considered an “important” picture, like the equally lengthy Peyton Place. But after a disappointing premiere nearly an hour was cut, resulting in the version currently available, which is a compromise. Gone forever were some tremendous scenes with Joan Crawford, playing the empty Amanda Farrow; a plot featuring Martha Hyer as a divorcee involved with a married man was almost completely excised. Those who see Hyer's name so prominently featured in the opening credits may wonder what on earth happened to her. These cuts hurt the film, but what remains is quite entertaining, for several reasons.
Despite the film's surface polish (DeLuxe color, lavish Cinemascope photography and irresistible Johnny Mathis theme song) the drama of young girls coming to terms with adulthood does come through. Hope Lange has never been more appealing than as Caroline Bender. Lange is powerfully alluring, resembling a young Grace Kelly, and her affection for her harried co-workers feels genuine. Diane Baker lays it on a little thick as the naïve April, but Baker is such an ingratiating performer that we buy her innocence. Suzy Parker, the stunning supermodel who plays Gregg, is little more than lovely, but her scenes are compelling for a reason that has little to do with Parker's limited ability. There's a force about her: an almost primal sensuality—especially when she wears a stunning red dress—that says volumes about what we now call “star quality”. Parker's entrance, in the opulently designed café, in which she removes her glasses, takes off her scarf, and tosses her dazzlingly red hair, is an unabashed “star entrance”. Parker had that certain something—a command of the camera, even while she lacked a command of her craft—that made her work worth watching.
Negulesco was an unobtrusive director. He was never really addicted to the kind of camera acrobatics that Hitchcock or Hawks would have employed, but he did have a sense of the physical setting of a film, and The Best of Everything is a visual feast. His set decoration, while artistically motivated, is always primarily geared toward supporting the story. The offices of the Fabian publishing house are grand, intimidating, and impersonal. There's something unexpectedly grim in these colorful lines of anonymous desks and chairs. It's a pretty prison for the girls, but it's a prison all the same. Pay close attention to how broad the doors are: these were designed for the then-new wide-screen Cinemascope process, and they are “cheated” so as to fill the frame more. Like everything else in the film the doors are overdone, but it's the kind of overdone audiences forgive, even encourage in such films. On a certain level the movie stands as a time capsule for the everyday touches sadly missing from today's workplace: coffee served in jars, in-house cafeterias that look more like fine restaurants, women in suits and hats, men in coats and ties, and a civility and professionalism in the décor and support staff many older viewers will note with a sense of sad nostalgia. The sets for the film were intentionally designed to remind audiences of designer-to-the-stars Michael Greer. They may look appealingly dated today, but in 1959 they were considered progressive, even groundbreaking, for their color harmonies and unexpectedly modern touches.
What we might not miss about that repressive era were the outdated attitudes regarding women—not just in their professional roles but in what was expected of them and what they were led to expect from themselves. Poor Carline and her roommates sit around sipping wine in their cramped apartment, imagining that “if they aren't married by twenty-six, they'll have to do something shocking and take a lover.” In 1959, this must have seemed risqué to the uptight censor board, which deemed the film “sordid and controversial”. Today it merely seems sad that these young girls would deny themselves the pleasure of sex because society tells them it's “bad” or “dirty”. But what role models do they have, aside from the ghastly harpy Amanda, whose frighteningly masculine looks hide a lonely harridan whose stolen weekends are all the love she can reasonably expect?
Critic Camille Paglia said of the film, in 2004, “the movie has a lot in common with the characters of the series Sex and the City, not just because both sets of girls have similar lifestyles, but because both groups of characters are very much at the mercy of cads.” True and false. What makes the film work so well—even though many of its attitudes have faded from public consciousness—is that both Jaffe's book and Negulesco's movie have compassion, even pity, for the troubled men in Caroline's life. We may not admire any of these men especially, but are they to be envied? No. Their lives are in freefall, from the whiskey-soaked letch Mr. Shalimar (a tragic figure, not an intimidating one) to the despicable jerk Dexter, who abandons April. She is frankly better off without him, but at least April can move on: Dexter will always be Dexter, and it's not a pretty picture.
So much has unfolded in the fifty years since the movie was produced and released. Some things have changed for the better, but there is a feeling of wistful sadness when we see it today. Were they really simpler times? Probably not. And it's doubtful that the fifties were a more civil time, despite the imposed politeness of formal society. Then why do we look back on those days as something to be admired and longed for? It's more than the prettiness of the movies from that decade. It's more than the appeal of the wildly romantic theme song that opens the film. Perhaps it is longing for the days during the postwar boom when the country believed in the idea that the “best of everything” was attainable and possible. Negulesco's film is filled with such hope and promise; even its ambiguous ending hints at a brighter future for Caroline.
But where did Caroline and her friends end up, in the days and years after the closing credits? Jaffe's Class Reunion offers a possible scenario, and it's bleak. Had the novelist herself been betrayed by the promise of her early successes? Or had the world matured in such a way that what she once thought of as “the best of everything” turned out to be very ordinary, even depressing?
In an online review of the DVD version of Jaffe's story, Amy Nicholson suggested the film's melodramatic excesses were best accompanied by “bonbons, chilled blush wine and possibly an emergency hanky”. Such comments are commonplace, but it's too easy to dismiss this piece as mere soap opera—and maybe unfair to judge the film by a more “modern” standard. If we choose to look closely, there's something strangely contemporary in the subtext of The Best of Everything. When women and men are bound by unreasonable rules, Jaffe says, both sexes suffer.
From Richard's sister Debbie, before screening the film:
Once again, a dated film, but I tried hard to view it in its own context to get the most out of it. It could have been titled, “The Best of Both Worlds,” and may be the first film to deal with the topic of choosing either marriage or career (1959). Amanda Farrow is a very Meryl Streep/“Devil Wears Prada”-type boss, and she grooms Hope Lange in a similar manner to the recent film.
What struck me was that, despite the fact these women were beautiful and smart in their own right, their self-esteem and destinies were all contingent upon, and determined by, men. Hope Lange/Caroline Bender stands up to Ms. Farrow right from the start in the film, and April Morrison stands up to Fred Shalimar, but both these women lose big-time in other relationships where sexual treachery is not as blatant/obvious.
The film gave mixed messages: April Morrison had more ambitions for a man and marriage than for a career, yet the career-oriented Caroline Bender was just as pathologically hung up on men as April. Caroline came damn close to getting herself in trouble the night she got drunk and threw herself at Mike Rice: it was the pure luck that Mike happened to be a respectable guy that kept Caroline from facing April's fate.
Rejection by their respective men leads April to throw herself out of a moving car and forfeit the life of her child; Caroline to go on a Bender (...no pun intended) and throw herself at a man she hardly knows, and Greg to stalking and hence, death from a tragic fall.
I thought the line that exemplified the whole film was the directive April gives the cab driver as she goes off to pick up Dexter: “Be careful of the bumps.”
The Fred Shalimar character: the office leach, was the emblem of the dangers of sex and the single girl. He was the wolf lurking around every corner.
I loved how the film began and ended with Hope Lange: in the beginning, she arrives to an empty office and suddenly the office is abuzz with people and noise and she knows no one. In the end she is surrounded by those same people who all know her and one by one offer their respectful goodbyes as she leaves one evening. There is then a poignant shot of Hope Lange as seen through the publishing company's masthead on the glass doors, symbolizing the company's imprint on her identity.
After April loses the baby she says to Caroline Bender: “Now I'm just somebody who's had an affair.” She believes her mistake has lessened her value, but I was sure she did not think it lessened Dexter's.
The film suggests that if a woman aspires to a career, she must sacrifice integrity in her personal relationships, because all she has to choose from is a “pool” of less-than-honorable men: those who are willing to give only a portion of their time to a woman who can only give a portion of hers. The film demonstrates that a career demands a large share of selfhood: Caroline leaves the comfort of her family home in Connecticut to live in a cramped apartment in the city. Her nights are spent reading manuscripts. Amanda Farrow's attempt at domestic life fails and she returns to the publishing house claiming, “I had nothing to give...I'd forgotten how.”
Dialogue such as April's comment to Dexter: “Would you ever marry a girl who wasn't pure?” will never have resonance again.
I noticed the incessant clatter of the typing pool was often cut off by the closing of an office door. This contrast suggested the soundness of managerial aspirations as opposed to the `hammering away' of clerical work. Mary Agnes's bridal shower and her success in nabbing a man as opposed to the three main characters represented the alternative outcome: the girl who had set her sights on a husband, rather than a career, got her man. Mary Agnes's man, however, is depicted as an uninspiring mate. The three main characters all hook up with more complex characters...but jeez, no one wins!
In fact, the film puts forth a dismal portrayal of marriage, as all the married men in the film cheat on their wives: Dexter, Fred Shalimar, Eddie, [Sidney? The guy who wanted Barbara—who had the baby. Was he married?] and Amanda Farrow's married lover. To me, the guy Caroline Bender ends up with, Mike Rice, isn't such a great catch because I don't think there was much chemistry there; it doesn't seem like Caroline really loves him. Yes, I think Mike would be good for Caroline, but it was no love match.
The film takes place entirely in the city, where liaisons occur in private offices and apartments: this alveolus atmosphere coupled with the “buzzing” of the typewriters connotes a hive where Amanda Farrow is the queen bee. The only scene that does not take place in the city is the company picnic scene where three buses carry the employees to a place in the country for the day. It is here where Dexter seduces April...after coaxing her back to the city.
The film's title may actually be a clue to its thesis: “The Best of Everything” may suggest that whatever arena we choose to enter, once inside we [only] get to choose “the best of everything”—in that arena. In other words, in choosing a path in life, we only get to make choices from those particular fields along our path, and those choices are limited. I think this is an interesting concept: that the whole wide world is never fully open to any of us. Our endeavors are finite because we are only human.
Our parents' generation's version of “Sex and the City,” I thought the film tackled heavy-handed issues for its day; I thought the acting was superb and the dialogue fantastic. Though the situations would resonate with a modern audience, the sensibility is passé, as modern women take charge of their selfhood in a way mid-century women did not (or could not).
Notes written by Debbie after reading Richard's analysis:
Maggie and I watched this together. Maggie noticed that the office doors were oversized.
I agree: Mr. Shalimar is a tragic, not intimidating, character. Perhaps even harmless.
Yes: Suzy Parker's character has a commanding sensuality that is an interesting complement to Caroline's classic beauty and April's naïvete: the same character models as the “Sex and the City” girls.
Yes, generally the men are depicted in a sad light. Dexter even admits he is a cad to Caroline in the hospital.
I loved all your back-story on the making of the film: Michael Greer sets, etc.
Rich: What are the “unreasonable rules” women and men are bound by?
FROM RICH AS FOLLOW-UP:
Dear Deb and Maggie,
When I speak of the unreasonable rules that bind men and women, I mean the roles they are expected to inhabit: Mr. Shalimar, poor thing, believes he MUST make a pass at anything in skirts, and it's clear his heart (and libido) are not “up” to the challenge. There is no sport in his pursuit of women: he is an old lion, trying desperately to keep up with the “pride,” and he is a pathetic figure. Mike, Caroline's love interest, played by the ridiculously virile Stephen Boyd (Ben Hur) drinks, because...because men are fools!--Supposed to drink away their feelings, troubles, and emotions. Women aren't, so Caroline is affected by liquor in a way that Mike isn't. April is SUPPOSED to be shocked at Shalimar's clumsy pass, but in a wonderful shot in the scene after, she smiles secretly in delight at the flattering nature of his interest. April enjoys being perceived as attractive, and as an extension it appears she might enjoy sex also, but there is a PRICE TO PAY for enjoying sex: in this case, an unexpected baby.
People think the film is dated, and in some respects of course it is, but Dexter's abandoning of April and insistence on her abortion is something I believe would be just as devastating to a woman today as it was in the fifties. I LOVE it when Caroline slaps him in the hospital: it's one of the great movie slaps.
Mary Agnes, to me, represents the kind of horrid Purgatory Rona Jaffe felt lay in secret wait for any woman who marries because that is what is expected of her. In the novel (a superb read) Caroline and the others go to visit Mary Agnes and her dull spouse a year later. They are in “two dismal rooms with furniture from Sears that is being paid for on layaway,” and Mary Agnes cries in the bedroom when the girls go to see her and her new baby. Marriage is not at ALL what Mary Agnes thinks it might be, and after all the fuss (a shower, the intriguing and—for her—pleasant incremental payment for the wedding gown, etc.) she is left in a tiny apartment with a husband who clearly doesn't ring her bell, and a child that actually shits, several times a day!
On another note, I think Hope Lange is just stunning in the scene where she tells Eddie off, and naturally, she wears black here, because she is a “fallen woman”. A great color for Lange, and a great dress.
The women are expected to brush off (or succumb to) Shalimar's artless flirting: it is their “place”. Women are judged by their ability to type a certain amount of words per minute, while men are judged by their ability to hold liquor (Mike expresses pride in his ability to manage a hangover). Men are expected to use women and then discard them. Gregg is insecure, but David Wilder Savage (what a name!) tires of her too easily: he, as a man, can only experience her sexuality, and cannot enjoy her sense of humor, her vivacity, and her shrewd assessment of her own talents. I LOVE Suzy Parker in this film, even though it isn't by any stretch a great performance. It is, I believe, a great PERSONALITY on film, and she is breathtaking, and very modern in her appearance: that hairstyle could be seen on any Manhattan street today and look contemporary.
In the original film, there was a scene in which Amanda Farrow goes to a bar to see her married lover. He doesn't show, and it is humiliating for her. Then, a much younger man, seeing her looking at her watch and figuring it out, makes a pass at her (unreasonable rules: chivalry dictates he MUST make this absurdly Quixotic gesture) and she is furious, screaming “Amanda Farrow is nobody's pickup!” Too bad they cut this!
Men put their mistresses up in apartments because they are expected to sexualize and cage their conquests. Eddie doesn't want Caroline for her humor, her insight, and her personality: she is a thing to him, and this restriction, placed on men by an unforgiving society, prevents him for marrying for love, an emotion men are not expected to discuss or express because it is a “feminine” and “weak” character trait. I love Caroline's dissing of him late into the film, because she is angry...but more broken-hearted, and Lange plays this skillfully.
When, as the script was being written, the screenwriters were trying to figure out how to get Gregg to meet David Wilder Savage, they called Rona Jaffe for advice.
“Why don't you have her meet him at Amanda's party?” she asked. “That's great, just perfect,” the writers said. “However did you come up with that?”
“Jesus Christ, it's in the book!” she told them, realizing they HADN'T READ IT, only the synopsis provided by the studio! It was her first exposure to the kind of dismissive attitude men have to professional women in Hollywood (an extension of the dismissal her female characters experience at the hands of men in the film).
I love it when Caroline says, of the picnic, “I'd rather be shot in the head!” because it's one of the first time she bucks the rules and expresses a truth about what is expected of her.
The theme song is one of the great movie songs: so overdone in all the right ways, with this choir-like chorus in the beginning suggesting that the Manhattan of the fifties was “Heaven” and having all the women come up from the subway (purgatory) to the Godly realm of the tall office towers (phallic symbols) that are meant to be “heaven” for them. Is the subway tunnel a symbol for the womb and birth canal? It might not have been intentional, but I can't believe the Fabian office building isn't supposed to be a surrogate penis.
Loved your analysis, Deb, and I think that films like this, even though they are dated in some respects, are a terrific time capsule to the styles and morals of another era. Yes: it is the “Sex and the City” of its day, and I believe it is much more stylish and elegant than that series because it is a story for adults without the smut of the recent TV series. I think, in the fifties, people knew exactly what was going on offscreen: they just didn't need to see it happening to be aware of the potent sexuality of these films.
Thanks for watching this amazing movie. I find it fascinating and remarkably entertaining.
More from Debbie:
In the scene where Caroline talks to Eddie long distance on the phone at her office: even after hours, the noise is distracting. She can't hear him over the vacuum and conversation of the cleaning people. This symbolizes the distractions of a career life in the city, which leaves no room for personal relationships.
Does David Savage, the play director, answer Gregg's question, “what do you do?” with: “I'm a vivisectionist?” This is one who excises a living body to study disease. Savage also says, “I'm always looking for something new and exciting...In my business, it pays to have an insatiable appetite.” He's the real wolf.
The jury is still out as to whether Amanda Farrow was trying to help or sabotage Caroline's career. This wasn't clear.
From Rich: Maybe it was in the three-hour version. I think there's definitely resentment and competition there, but Amanda spends all of her (admittedly truncated) mother-love on her surrogate daughter, Caroline.
Amanda Farrow is a hard-core boss, yet she overlooks Gregg's absences to attend auditions. You were right that her beauty masked her neuroses.
A few more notes From Debbie:
“But if we choose to look closely, there's something strangely contemporary in the subtext of The Best of Everything. When women and men are bound by unreasonable rules, Jaffe says, both sexes suffer.”
Yes: The film is contemporary in many ways. However: I don't know if these characters suffer because they are bound by unreasonable rules: I think they are drawn as character-types: the leach (Mr. Shalimar the old leach and David Savage the young leach), the hero (Mike), the playboy (Dexter), the virgin (April), the sensible smart girl (Caroline), and the vixen (Gregg), and they suffer because they all fall victim to the seduction of “the city,” which is a metaphor for sex. You made a great observation about the sensual imagery of the subway tunnel and skyscrapers.
“Be careful of the bumps:” i.e., breasts, erections, and pregnancy. Remember, this film was made before the advent of the birth control pill. Sex was taboo because pregnancy was much harder to prevent before the pill! The film showed the double-edged sword of sex and the single girl: and all the potholes and bumps (both figurative and literal) such a girl might encounter living that lifestyle. But you're right: the film also demonstrated it was not any easier for the men: for, if a woman becomes pregnant (a much likelier scenario back then), a man is obligated to marry her: a life sentence! The sexual landscape was just as treacherous for men in that era! I think (probably without knowing it...) the film illuminates a popular underlying sentiment of the time period: male resentment at feminine vulnerability and dependence.
The women are expected to brush off (or succumb to) Shalimar's artless flirting: it is their “place”. Women are judged by their ability to type a certain amount of words per minute, while men are judged by their ability to hold liquor (Mike expresses pride in his ability to manage a hangover). Men are expected to use women and then discard them. Gregg is insecure, but David Wilder Savage (what a name!) tires of her too easily: he, as a man, can only experience her sexuality, and cannot enjoy her sense of humor, her vivacity, and her shrewd assessment of her own talents.”
I don't think the film sets up these scenarios as gender “expectations.” I think they are rather set up as “excesses” (dangers) of city life. I sympathized with David Wilder Savage (yes! What a name!) for his brush-off of Gregg: she was becoming a neurotic stalker (the scene where she keeps interrupting him when he's directing the play...I was gritting my teeth...you want to slap her!). In David's defense, Gregg may have snapped before David got the chance to know her better (and: if Gregg snapped because David was a leach and inattentive, it's still Gregg's fault for not having the self-esteem to leave quietly and do better for herself). That liaison had a high cost for him, and I think this was one of the great messages of the film: that guilt-free sex does not exist for either women or men. What struck me about this film was the theme of betrayal: everyone is betrayed by love in this film. Even the `successful' union of Mary Agnes and her lackluster husband, who end up in two rooms decorated by Sears (book version) after having dreams of “French Provincial” furniture.
Seduction was around every corner in this film and sometimes the characters succumbed to it (April to Dexter) and sometimes they didn't (April to Shalimar), but the film showed it was available to everyone.
A separate thought on the “arena” theory: When Eddie leaves Caroline's arena and lands in a new arena (Europe), he picks from that pool of women and marries “Helen.” He betrays his union with Caroline, as Barbara's husband has betrayed their union, as Dexter betrays all his unions, etc. Like a giant beehive, liaisons in the city are random and meaningless.
And this, later on, from Debbie:
I can't stop thinking about this film, and I know you'll forgive my obsession: