Recently a very good friend recommended a film I had never seen. After watching it, I was so impressed it became my latest hidden gem. Director Jean Negulesco’s 1959 “The Best of Everything” is a stylishly crafted melodrama with a uniquely early feminist touch. This outstanding women-centered tale is an adaptation of a popular 1958 book by Rona Jaffe offers a fascinating look at career women in the New York publishing business, the endless challenges to equal and fair treatment in the work world, and the push to be taken seriously by men in their lives.
Unlike many of the A-list 1950s big-screen movies of this period, this one stars the lesser-known Hope Lange, Suzy Parker, Diane Baker, Stephen Boyd, Louis Jordan and the aging Joan Crawford in a supporting role.
Yet, it’s refreshing in an odd way to see how contemporary and frank this 60-year-old film is in dealing with the topics of “me-too” sexual harassment, single women who chose not to marry straight out of high school, abortion, the heartbreak of lovers who lie, cheat and discard their partners at a whim, and the shared sisterhood of professional women. This film’s effectiveness is also because one of the screenwriters was Edith Sommer, who uniquely understood Ms. Jaffe’s material.
Negulesco, who was known as “the first real master of CinemaScope,” the widescreen process that was the industry’s reaction to the popularity of television, was the master of the woman’s film too, having directed “How to Marry a Millionaire,” “Three Coins in a Fountain” and “Woman’s World” in the mid-1950s. “The Best of Everything” is an ironic title for a social melodrama where women get the raw end of the deal. Still, it’s a phrase from a real employment ad for women seeking entry-level jobs in the publishing business that offered “the best of everything” for a future career.
Using a wonderful ensemble cast, the story’s primary focus is on a trio of women who work in the paperback book division of the Manhattan Fabian publishing company. They share a nearby apartment and become closer, sharing frustrations and heartaches with the men in their lives. Caroline Bender (Lange) is a smart, recent Radcliff graduate entering the publishing world as first a typist in the stenographers’ pool, who works her way up to becoming a reader of manuscripts and eventually an editor. She is anxiously waiting for her fiancé Eddie Harris (Brett Halsey) to return from Europe to set the date. Gregg Adams (Parker) is an attractive office worker seeking a career as an actress, with the help of her handsome director David Savage (Louis Jordan). And April Morrison (Baker) is the innocent, virginal gal who is in love with the wealthy Dexter Key (Robert Evans).
Their immediate boss is editor Amanda Farrow (Crawford), a middle-aged seasoned professional who knows the publishing business well and has had her share of heartbreaks from married men in her life. Fred Shalimar (Brian Aherne) is the office editor in chief who a lecherous sleaze who can’t keep his hands off any woman he gets close to.
Within weeks Eddie shocks Caroline with news that he’s not going to join her in New York and has proposed to another woman. Fellow office worker Mike Rice (Boyd) seems like a nice guy and tries to comfort her, but he may be an alcoholic. A year later, Eddie even returns with more lies. Gregg gets a part in David’s play but will be replaced when the show goes on the road by David’s newest conquest. And later still, the now pregnant April is about to leave town with her true love Dexter to tie the knot when he suggests she see a doctor friend who will rid them of their baby. All this was packed in a 1950s film, years before such issues would be more directly raised in the liberated ‘60s and ‘70s.
Lange’s compelling performance as Caroline provides the emotional center to this film. Lange, who was usually cast in supporting parts, like her Oscar-nominated role in “Peyton Place” (1957) or as Montgomery Cliff’s girlfriend in “The Young Lions” (1958), proves she could hold her own as a strong, spunky, determined character living in a male-dominated business world. Crawford is impressive as the tough as nails boss who reveals a more human side when she leaves the company for personal reasons and later returns.
Years later “The Best of Everything” was adapted into a short-lived ABC day time soap opera in 1970. Still, I further think this 1959 gem was likely the inspiration of two more significant sitcoms of the 1970s and 1990s, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Sex in the City.”