Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Great Characters: Eve Arden

If you have ever found yourself wishing you had thought of just the right comeback at just the right time, in a way you have wished that you were Eve Arden.

She was the master of the witty retort, and although it's true that she didn't write her own lines (at least as far as I know), she delivered them as no one else ever could -- with an acid tongue alongside a tiny bit of honey.

Just as I had found Walter Brennan on that faithful companion of my youth, television, so Ms. Arden was one of my weekly visitors in Our Miss Brooks. There she was the ever-harried school teacher dealing with hipster students and a demanding principal, all while trying to maneuver a marriage proposal from Mr. Boynton, the shy, clueless biology teacher. (It was the 50s, after all.)

To me, she was funnier than Lucy. (I know that's blasphemy, but what can I say?) And again, as I found with Mr. Brennan, the best was yet to come as I discovered the Eve Arden who had entertained audiences on the big screen from as early as the 1930s.

In over 60 movies and for 50 years, she was the wise-cracking best friend to some of Hollywood's greatest actresses. Joan Crawford won an Oscar for her performance in Mildred Pierce, and Eve was nominated as best supporting actress in the same film. “Supporting actress” was the perfect job description for her. Among her dozens of outstanding performances there was her role as secretary to defense lawyer James Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder. She added a slightly lighter touch to this ground-breaking film that focused on murder and rape, without compromising the seriousness of the subjects.

She never seemed to get the guy, though, which always puzzled me because as far as I was concerned, Eve Arden had it all. Beauty, wit, sophistication (but never too much sophistication) and an amazing ability to put blowhards in their place (a valuable skill in any era).

Commenting on the Soviet Union's press policy in Comrade X: “Probably the government has decided that from now on all foreign correspondents must be blindfolded and led around by seeing-eye dogs.”

In response to Jack Carson's line “I hate all women, thank goodness you're not one of them,” in Mildred Pierce: “Laughing Boy seems slightly burned at the edges. What's eating him?”

In waiting room at police station from the same movie: “Well, what is this, a class reunion?”

In real life she was nothing like her acerbic characters. Except that she was a good friend. Long before it was true of Sarah Lee baked goods it was said that “Nobody doesn't like Eve Arden.”

She was devoted to her family, as evidenced by her decision to basically retire from acting to raise her children. But being a nice person sometimes brings good karma and at a time in her career when she might have been the subject of any number of “Whatever Happened to” articles, she re-emerged into the public consciousness as the befuddled Principal McGee in Grease and Grease 2.

Just as an aside, Eve Arden was so popular that when she appeared on What's My Line, she had to use a buzzer to answer yes or no to the blindfolded panel trying to guess her identity. Why was that? Because there was no pitch or register or accent that could disguise the voice so familiar to millions.

That's a lot of fame for one of the great "character actors" ever.

1 comment:

  1. She also had a great TV series with Kay Ballard known as The Mother's In-law.