Saturday, July 18, 2015

THE BEST OF EVERYTHING: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1959) Twilight Time

With its lush and slushy main titles sung in six-track stereo by Johnny Mathis, set against a series of glittery crane and helicopter shots of cosmopolitan Manhattan in the Spring, grafted to an enviable roster of Fox contract eye-candy a la the curvaceous, gazelle-like, though equally as vacuous, Suzy Parker and Martha Hyder; padded out by more formidable ‘star’ talent in Hope Lange, Diane Baker, Brian Aherne and Steven Boyd – also, featuring a pair of cameos: the first, a rather sad farewell  to the uber-bitches played by one-time red-hot scaling super diva, Joan Crawford; the latter, an intriguing glimpse into famed producer and Paramount CEO, Robert Evan’s failed career as an actor; Jean Negulesco’s The Best of Everything (1959) promises a great deal more than it actually delivers. Indeed, Rona Jaffe’s novel had been perfectly poised to take advantage of this tawdry and tabloid-esque 50’s pastiche to the ‘power-brokering’ female with feline reflexes, seeking recognition in the high-powered and equally as high-priced world of self-sacrifice in commercial book publishing.
Regrettably, the cinematic incarnation of The Best of Everything is basically a sociological soap opera dedicated to sexual politics in the workplace, Fox execs desperately hoping to resuscitate the box office Richter Scale tipper of their relatively bucolic – and somewhat emasculated version of Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place (1957); the three women in love motif interminably revived herein, only now transplanted to the steel, glass and concrete jungles of New York, similarly tricked out in expansive Cinemascope and Color by DeLuxe. It’s no surprise to find Hope Lange in this one; her post-Peyton Place career relegated to variations on the put upon ingénue destined for heartbreak, though ultimately matured from her rose-colored outlook on life and love. Ironically titled, The Best of Everything is actually about the worst that can happen to a young girl looking for romance and financial independence, the underlying – though incredibly transparent  – message of the picture basically ‘liberated nice girls don’t land husbands…or perhaps, don’t need to.’ And so the sexual merry-go-round of stereotypes and politics begins to whirl; jostling everyone up and down and spinning wildly out of control during the last fateful – and fitful – act.
The Best of Everything fits rather succinctly into Fox’s downward slither into the muck and mire of single-minded women and the disreputable social climbing to which they pledge themselves on the rungs of that proverbial ladder marked ‘success’. Fox had, of course, plumbed the patina with earlier hits like A Letter To Three Wives (1949) and Woman’s World (1954); better variations on this theme. The Best of Everything is problematic, perhaps because it tends not to hold its female protagonists in very high regard. Our lamb to this slaughter, Caroline Bender (Lange), has immense aspirations to assuage into a corner office on Madison Ave., initially unaware of the guff first to be force-fed by senior editor, Amanda Farrow (Crawford). The middle-age Amanda is last year’s news; no longer the girl who turns men’s heads; disastrously involved with a mealy-mouthed suitor who just happens to be married to somebody else. Amanda has never asked for more than one small corner of this never-to-be-seen man’s life. But if he cannot even offer her this momentary luxury (and make no mistake, it is simply that; diverting and dull) then, as Amanda puts it, he and his ‘rabbit-faced’ significant other can go ‘straight to hell’ – from whence a gal like Crawford in life knew no end to either its scorn or fury.
Too bad The Best of Everything isn’t Joan’s (or rather, Amanda’s) story; its Caroline’s. Crawford would have undoubtedly made something of the picture; her rare appearances crackling with that inimitable spark of Machiavellian enterprise that can quash and devour without even really trying.  Regrettably, in the presence of la Crawford, Hope Lange dissolves with all the transparency of a sugar cube dipped in arsenic. To buttress the tale, we are introduced to Caroline’s friends; meek and grotesquely naïve, April Morrison (Diane Baker) and superficial, Gregg Adams (Suzy Parker). April is mildly boy crazy, an affront to the proto-feminist ideals of the new woman as ‘go-getters’, believing the highest achievement in life is to marry for love. Oh woman, blind is thy faith. Gregg, on the other hand, is too self-absorbed to care about anything or anyone except herself. She does latch onto a rather contemptuous lady’s man, David Savage (Louis Jourdan). Amanda has David’s number. But David also happens to be rehearsing a new Broadway show. Believing that the way to fast track her future career ambitions is to seduce, or rather, allow herself to be seduced by David, Gregg throws herself at David’s head, effectively throwing her own sanity under the bus. Alas, David quickly tunes into Gregg’s needy possessiveness, casting her out of his boudoir and his production. This predictably leads to Gregg’s eventual descent into madness, culminating with her suicide. In the meantime, April falls prey to a lecherous playboy, Dexter Key (Robert Evans); getting the short end of the proverbial stick – literally – impregnated by Key and discarded to face the daunting prospect of rearing her as yet unborn child alone.
Only Caroline escapes the deluge, though hardly unscathed. In fact, she quickly realizes not only the cream rises to the top. Success comes at a hefty price she may not be willing to pay; skirting around the desk to avoid wily senior editor, Fred Shalimar (Brian Aherne), momentarily backstabbing, then beating Amanda at her own game (only to realize it really is lonely at the top) – thus becoming the epitome of the cruel maven she so readily despises, and finally sacrificing her truer feelings for a middling advertising exec; the too-good-to-be-true…but is, Mike Rice (Stephen Boyd). In what practically amounts to nothing more substantial than a cameo, Boyd cuts an enviable swath as the gentle guiding hand that sustains Caroline through all the rigors and heartbreak. It’s an awkward tightrope, in fact, Boyd starting out with romantic designs, but harboring a sort of brotherly brawn to shield Caroline from the pitfalls of her chosen path, queerly slipping in and out of patriarchal loyalty, before settling back into potential suitor mode before the final fade out. For the most part, Boyd is successful in maintaining the analogous features of their ‘affair’ while grappling with its incongruities. 
It is a genuine pity the Edith R. Sommer/Mann Rubin screenplay chose to boil down Jaffe’s superbly written prose, a real page-turner when first published in 1958, into the cinematic equivalent of a glossified, white trash bodice ripper. The lethargy that creeps into this visualized high-concept is almost immediately felt; Lange’s introduction to the various women, who would just as easily poke out each other’s eyes as claw their way to the top of this very complex and interwoven manure pile, really stepping into with her own unfulfilling relationship and abysmal dissatisfaction once the race to the bottom has been achieved. The screenplay diffuses virtually all of Jaffe’s literary credibility into a very cut and paste affair, void of even the promise of a few stinging paper cuts along the way. Whereas Jaffe’s novel explained the machinations of these women with intelligence, empathy and compassion, the movie goes for a sort of faux office erotica, bastardizing everything except the look of that world the author has written about from personal experiences; thus, robbing the picture of its dramatic impetus and humor along the way. It’s too serious to be funny, yet much too campy to be taken seriously.  
Under that pre-Sex and the City code of immorality, The Best of Everything emerges as little more than a very ‘blue’ movie deprived of its essential skin. If these gals are enterprising enough to occasionally sell more than their smarts to get ahead, the intimation is severely blunted by Hollywood’s then self-governing code of censorship. Gregg’s thwarted play for David is about as hot and heavy as our story gets; all of it done with smoke and mirrors and the suggestion David is legendary for using ambitious young playmates to satisfy his urges before quickly tiring of their company and moving on to the next best thing. But David’s discard of Gregg is cruel, precisely because it seems to lack even the intent of occupying her heart for his own beneficial ‘good time’.  She’s taken on as an understudy, then a bit player in his out of town tryouts, then given the old heave hoe without so much as a farewell kiss; leaving Gregg to increasingly spiral into a sort of wildly leering obsession; skulking around back alleys, stealing bits of David’s garbage, merely to be ‘close’ to him. Suzy Parker’s interpretation of this egocentric woman, obsessed with escaping from a good solid career on the starry-eyed ether some fantastic lifestyle, never to be hers, is just around the corner, makes Gregg a glamorous chump. Ultimately, she is destroyed by her own crazy and soured notions of love and legacy, creating about as much empathy for the character as two sticks of very wet kindling, chaffing from being rubbed together instead of igniting the necessary spark of tragedy.
Mid-way through our office space excursion, The Best of Everything cannot decide whose story to tell. It all but abandons Caroline and Mike for a subversively antagonistic and flirtatious pseudo-lesbian implication between Caroline and Amanda. Caroline wants to possess what Amanda already has – presumably, without her viewpoint on men. While chronically chastising Caroline, and taking the greatest of perverse pleasure in abusing her good graces as a potential understudy, Amanda secretly admires this young woman’s resolve, perhaps seeing a bit of herself in the ingénue, or rather, projecting a hint of the way she used to be or would prefer to remember herself. Crawford plays these scenes with subliminal lasciviousness; her thin-lipped grins capable of unexpectedly shifting to gritted teeth oozing venom only partly predicated on jealousy.  She would eat the girl alive if she could. But along the way Amanda becomes enamored with her secretarial assistant, more so when Caroline proves she can get around her to rise above her lowly position within the organization; considered at least something of an equal by Amanda before the final fade out.
In April 1958, producer, Jerry Wald outbid the competition at $100,000 to bring The Best of Everything to the screen. In his prime, Wald was known for such soap-opera-ish outings. It was Wald who appealed to Joan Crawford to partake in his movie just ten days before principle photography was to commence; initially promising a more plum part to the one-time Hollywood diva than the one that actually materialized in the film. Early in his preparations, Wald was ecstatic about his casting prospects, in tandem offering choice roles to Lee Remick, Hope Lange, Diane Varsi, Suzy Parker, Robert Evans, Lee Philips and Robert Wagner, while also courting Joanne Woodward, Audrey Hepburn, Lauren Bacall and Margaret Truman. Alas, Wald’s reach – at least on this outing - exceeded his grasp; his first choice for director, Martin Ritt, eventually replaced with Jean Negulesco after it is rumored Ritt emphatically protested the signing of Suzy Parker. A tumultuous gestation followed; Remick and Varsi signed, then backing out; replaced, first by Julia Meade, then Diane Harman, June Blair, and finally Jean Peters. Ultimately, none of these ladies would stay the course.
Our story opens with youthful promise – always a good place to start – as new college graduate, Caroline Bender reports for her first day at Manhattan’s Fabian Publishing Company. Chatterbox, Mary Agnes (Sue Carson), the manager of the steno pool, assigns Caroline to the brutally calculating, Amanda Farrow. Amanda’s full time secretary, Gregg Adams, is out sick…or rather, out on another audition. Almost immediately, Caroline bonds with another newbie to this steel and glass den of iniquity, April Morrison, a severely green girl in search of true love. Amanda is ruthless, aloof and unapologetically cruel toward Caroline, perhaps venting all of her frustrations from a thwarted love affair she is currently attempting to reconcile. Amanda insists Caroline remain after hours to type a rejection letter to an author. Instead, Caroline reads the manuscript and, seeing its potential, offers a more positive evaluation that thoroughly impresses Mr. Shalimar, a lecherous senior exec, somewhat notorious for his seduction of pretty young things with lots of ambition. Caroline’s insight also garners the respect of Mike Rice, Fabian’s jaded magazine editor. Mike warns Caroline she is in for a rocky start.
But it’s no use. Caroline is bitten by the notion she just might be able to make it on her own in a career in publishing. That evening, April, Gregg and Caroline convene for dinner, swapping stories and daydreams about what the future might hold. Caroline waxes lyrical about her fiancé, Eddie Harris (Brett Halsey), currently traveling overseas. But Gregg, an aspiring actress, insists today’s woman doesn’t need a man to be happy. She has the virtues of her own independence. As money is tight and living accommodations tighter still, Gregg and April encourage Caroline to move into their apartment: a perfect arrangement – or so it would first appear. Meanwhile, having caught wind of Caroline’s initial success with the manuscript she believe to be trash, Amanda accuses Caroline of trying to steal her job. Agreeing on a blind date with friend's son, Paul Landers (Lionel Kane) at her own mother’s request, Caroline is crushed to learn from Eddie by telephone that he has since married a wealthy heiress in London.
The date with Paul commences, Caroline intoxicated and uncomfortably numb as she barely listens to Paul’s insufferable laundry list of his own accomplishments. Mike comes to Caroline’s rescue. She begs him to make love to her; then, passes out. If Caroline’s love life is a shambles, her career prospects could not be poised for a better outlook. Shalimar promotes her as a reader. Meanwhile, forced to take Gregg back as her secretary, Amanda enlists her to work as a maid at a house party she is giving. Inadvertently, this leads to a ‘cute meet’ between Gregg and theatrical director, David Savage (Louis Jourdan). Sensing Gregg’s vulnerability, David invites Gregg to spend the night with him, unaware of the consequences this casual indiscretion will bear out for both of them.  By the time of the company picnic, Gregg is completely consumed by her obsessive love for David, who already knows there is no future for them as a couple.
Having adopted Amanda’s warrior-like stance against interoffice romance, Caroline dispenses business advice to Shalimar who is mildly put off by her inability to simply relax and have a good time. Meanwhile, inside the clubhouse, April meets playboy, Dexter Key. Dazzling her with his pearly whites and sleek roadster, Dexter shows April the world – or rather, the reasonable facsimile awaiting her in his apartment. Meanwhile, Gregg announces to April and Caroline she is resigning from her secretarial job to take on an extremely small role in David's new play. Gregg sees the opportunity as a springboard into another more glamorous lifestyle. But Amanda wisely cautions her to reconsider. David is notoriously fickle with women.  Gregg doesn’t believe her, but after early Boston tryouts, David makes the fateful decision to replace Gregg with another actress who has caught his eye.
Anteing up her mild infatuation into full-blown obsession, Gregg begs to be kept on as the new girl’s understudy.  At Mary Agnes’ wedding in New York, April unexpectedly faints while catching the bridal bouquet. Shortly thereafter, the girls learn her secret. April is pregnant with Dexter’s baby. That evening, Caroline decides to invite Mike over for dinner. She has entertained his romantic notions for some time. But now, as they proceed to the all-important first kiss, their amour is thwarted by a telephone call from Eddie. Caroline tells Mike she must go and see Eddie at the Plaza Hotel. Realizing she is still untethered from their past, Mike storms off in a huff. However, Caroline is to have a rude awakening when Eddie suggests she become his mistress. He is unhappily married, perhaps, but still very unwilling to get a divorce from his millionaire wife. After fooling herself into believing Eddie will leave his wife for her, Caroline comes to the realization she has been had, spurns his request, and steps away from their toxic relationship.
Having returned to New York thoroughly obsessed with David, Gregg suspects him of having an affair. David has had enough. He orders Gregg out of his apartment and his life. It’s time to move on; a cruelty David is particularly good at. The romantic outlook is not much better for April who, believing Dexter is coming to drive her to a justice of the peace so that they might marry, is instead told he is taking her to a private clinic to have an abortion. Panicked and heartbroken, April leaps from the moving car and suffers a miscarriage; awakening a short while later, distraught, though comforted by the kindly Dr. Ronnie Wood (Ted Otis). Now it is Amanda’s turn to drop a shocking bombshell: she has decided to retire from the fray and marry a widower from Illinois she has known and been corresponding with for some years. The office is agog, but Amanda knows too well her time has passed. She’s yesterday’s model and happy to secede the autonomy she once held so dear to be happy in love; a lesson slowly beginning to rub off on Caroline, who has been missing Mike ever since their bitter parting.
Shalamar awards Caroline both Amanda’s office and position; Mike begrudgingly offering his congratulations for becoming the very thing she once readily abhorred.  It doesn’t take long for Caroline’s success to curdle. She settles into bossy belligerence. Thus, when Amanda unexpectedly returns after a short respite, claiming to have suffered a relapse in realizing domesticity is not for her, Caroline is only too happy to step aside and relinquish her promotion. It’s not for her. She desires a future with love in the picture. The last to discover this realization, Gregg succumbs to a deep depression over David, stalking him from a distance and raiding his garbage for mementos.  Alas, on one of her secret trips to David’s apartment, Gregg is spotted by a tenant who remembers her and believes she has merely been locked out of the apartment.  Panicked he will spread the news and thus alter David to her secret skulking around Gregg inadvertently stumbles backward through an open window in the hallway and plummets to her death. Notified of Gregg’s passing by David, Caroline is brave enough to recognize the looming emptiness pervading her own life. That afternoon as she prepares to go home, Caroline sees Mike waiting for her outside of Fabian’s. They share a mutual glance of recognition and casually stroll off together – presumably, with their affections for one another renewed.
The Best of Everything is meant to be bittersweet and poignant. What it actually is, is mildly frivolous to outright campy; the best to be said of it; it looks the part of a glossy Hollywood yarn teetering on the verge of some inept proto-feminist ennui. The women who occupy this tiny enclave are not ‘go-getters’ but easily scared, scarred and sacrificed on the altar of this male-dominated social structure; neither the checks nor balances spread around fairly or in their favor.  And what of the overriding message of the piece: that a woman’s career and love do not go hand in glove? Perhaps the only protagonists to truly walk away fulfilled are middling secretary, Barbara Lamont (Martha Hyer) and Joan Crawford’s insufferable sage, Amanda; the former, by recognizing she never wanted a career in the first place; the latter, with a very clear, uncompromising and steely-eyed notion she is the woman wearing the pants in her family. Caroline’s placid acquiescence to forego a career practically handed to her on a silver platter saves her from making the same mistakes as Amanda; becoming the other woman in a dead end love affair. As far as the movie is concerned, it also spares Caroline the unflattering prospects of an unwanted pregnancy and the denigration of self, leading to a botched suicide.
Viewed today, The Best of Everything really is something of a grotesque relic from that bygone era, steeped in the faux progressivism of fifties sexual politics where the concept of the ‘little women’, perpetually aproned and chained to the stove, suggested stability – nee, contentment and happiness via domesticity that no outside stimulation from an enterprising career could rival. Had the acting been more stellar or the screenplay more adept at teasing us with the in-house erotica contained between the pages of Rona Jaffe’s novel we might have at least been in for an enveloping time capsule. As it stands, The Best of Everything is a handsomely mounted, but thoroughly antiseptic soap opera. The Sommer/Rubin screenplay makes several glaring faux pas along the way that cumulatively delay and diffuse our general enjoyment of the picture; chiefly in isolating la Crawford’s storyline from the rest of these intertwining lives. Oh sure, Amanda is seemingly trapped in her corner office like a viper in a box, wielding her venom at all who enter this inner sanctum. Aside from Crawford’s decision to sport a tragically pumpkin-hued haircut, when she is on the screen her star presence overwhelms.  Alas, none of the other female talent assembled for this picture can compete with Joan’s sly ability to be a chronic scene stealer.  Perhaps sensing this, director, Jean Negulesco has reserved and limited Amanda’s interaction with the rest of Fabian’s staff to a few choice scenes of confrontation. Again, this might have worked had the rest of the cast had risen to meet Crawford’s high bar and standards. They can’t, don’t and the result is a picture that only crackles with interest when Crawford’s Amanda momentarily steps from the shadows to inflict herself upon the unsuspecting.   
Okay, can someone at Fox Home Video please enlighten the rest of us as to why virtually all of their Cinemascope movies from 1955-59 on Blu-ray continue to adopt a wretched palette of extreme teal bias? The Best of Everything is another in a long line of transgressors, featuring an excessively unflattering teal slant that in NO way replicates DeLuxe color from this vintage. Everything is at the mercy of this slant toward an unnatural and highly unattractive bluey tint. It’s difficult to praise color saturation, markedly improved over the old DVD. Flesh tones remain relatively accurate. But honestly, someone has fallen asleep at the controls here. Virtually every color in the natural spectrum has been sacrificed, the teal so oppressive it even casts a hint across pure white surfaces: hugely disappointing.  Yes, the image is free of age-related artifacts, with no untoward digital anomalies to speak of either; also, sporting some very fine contrast and competently rendered film grain.
These virtues, however, do not dismiss or excuse Fox from its egregious manipulation of color. We’ve heard the argument before: “this is how it was supposed to look”. Alas, dig up any DeLuxe print from this vintage (barring one stricken with extreme vinegar syndrome) and you will see an entirely different – and varied – spectrum of colors. Consider, merely for comparison, the lushness in TT’s release of Fox’s remastered April Love Blu-ray. That is DeLuxe color in its prime. Not this hideous Franken-mutt of a Frisbee disc! The audio is DTS 5.1 and very competently rendered with a fairly robust sonic characteristic surely to please. But hey, I didn’t buy The Best of Everything as an audio book. Honestly, I cannot watch this disc again!
Except for TT’s usual sterling commitment to providing an isolated score track, the remaining extras are all ported over from Fox’s old DVD: an audio commentary from film historian, Sylvia Stoddard and author, Rona Jaffe, who offers a nice counterbalance and comparative analysis of her book vs. the movie. There’s also a vintage Fox Movietone Newsreel and theatrical trailer, plus Julie Kirgo’s exceptional six page booklet essay. I was genuinely looking forward to this release, but this disc is an ugly rendering of yet another vintage Cinemascope confection. Badly done!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3
VIDEO/AUDIO
1.5
EXTRAS

2 

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