“The Best of Everything” and “Imitation of Life” were made in 1959 and cost $2 million apiece. Although the former was a product of Fox and the latter Universal, they might be mistaken as coming from the same studio. A casual viewer might even mistake them as the work of the same director. but a closer look reveals some of the differences between an assembly line soap opera and a masterpiece.
To be sure, plenty of those purporting to admire the work of Douglas Sirk simply enjoy the type of movies with which he is associated, and aren’t concerned with his qualities as a director per se. Such an audience will consume “The Best of Everything” in the same meal as “Imitation of Life” without experiencing indigestion.
Jean Negulesco was a capable studio director who made several decent pictures. “The Best of Everything” is one of them. Most anybody who enjoys a good soap opera of this period is bound to enjoy it. It is something like a “Valley of the Dolls” for the paperback book industry. There is even a memorable line in it in which the publisher claims that he is restoring literacy to America by producing cheap copies of good books with sexy covers. And he was right. In the days when such books filled racks in every drugstore, both classics and best sellers were bought by just about everyone who knew how to read. Who even knows what today’s best sellers are, let alone reads them?
So “The Best of Everything,” in addition to satisfying the required dosage of romance and ambition in the lives of three room-mates who work in the publishing industry, today offers a little nostalgia for the average suburban housewife’s reading list of 1959, which probably included “Doctor Zhivago,” “Lolita,” “Anatomy of a Murder,” and “Exodus.”
But what the movie doesn’t have is memorable direction. And there are several perplexing aspects of the picture that make it impossible to confuse with the work of Douglas Sirk. First, Negulesco feels it necessary to include roughly a dozen establishing shots of the building in which the publishing company is located. Most directors are confident that one such shot is enough to establish the location when a scene taking place in the work area is to follow. Negulesco not only pans up the building at random moments in which the women arrive at work, but also pans down the building a few times when the women leave work. The unnecessary shots reveal a weak directorial sensibility.
Most of the picture is constructed with a lazy eye. When Negulesco exercises his imagination, the result is usually ludicrous, as one sequence, a conversation between two characters, is shot from three angles, three quarter rear, straight on, and three quarter front. The general position does not change. We re always looking at two people sitting across from each other, but in one shot we see the back of the woman’s head, in another her profile, and in the third most of her face. The flow of the shots is irritating, and the lack of real variety gives the impression that he is cutting to the same shot, albeit at slightly different angles that are repeated for no intrinsic reason. Maybe he just didn’t trust the scene to hold our attention. If so, he might have found a way to enhance the scene by finding more ways to give it variety. Sirk certainly would have never shot a scene so stupidly.
In “Imitation of Life,” everything is intelligently designed with an eye to the whole. In the early scenes, during Lana Turner’s struggling years, the art direction is drab. There is very little color, and furnishings are scant and utilitarian. By the end, the film has been brightly painted in luxurious colors and furnishings. Everything Sirk does is done for the deepening of the characters and their relationships both to their environment, alien environments, and the other characters. When Lana Turner first meets with the slimy agent played by Robert Alda, his office almost breathes with corruption. In contrast, when the lecherous Brian Aherne makes a pass at the virginal Hope Lange, his office does not reflect his base personality. It is simply a room.
But in one respect Jean Negulesco proves the equal of Sirk. I do not like Lana Turner at all, yet Sirk directed her with such perfection that her every move is meaningful. Hitchcock did the same thing with the atrocious Kim Novak in “Vertigo” and the even worse “Tippi” Hedren in “The Birds.” But Negulesco achieves more than these superior directors in his handling of one of Hollywood’s most intense stars. As Amanda Farrow, the bitch-on-wheels executive who hold her underlings captive to her every mood swing, Joan Crawford hold down the center in an emotional whirlpool of petty and fatal operatics. The cast, which includes promising ingenues Hope Lange, Diane Baker, Martha Hyer, and Suzy Baker, could easily have over-run a lesser actress than Joan Crawford, and made the stoty all about themselves, as most movies of this nature are. But Crawford, small as her role is is in terms of lines and screen time, gives the deepest and richest performance of a very fine group, holding the center as the various dramas unfold,and ultimately taking the cake as the most sympathetic character.
From the beginning of the film, the audience is warned about the monstrously cold Amanda Farrow, but Crawford shows us the holes in that emotionless exterior right from the start, and the holes get bigger as her performance grows. Most actresses take these “guest star” roles in stride, walking through them with a concealed bitterness that their best days are behind them. But Crawford, like other Hollywood eternals such as Katherine Hepburn and Gena Rowlands, use the stalwartness of age to their advantage, creating some of their most interesting characters at a time in life when lesser actresses would have thrown in the towel. “The Best of Everything” may lack the total control a director like Sirk might have rendered over it, but it does have the absolute authority of star Joan Crawford.And that is enough to bring it up to the level of other, more acclaimed soap operas from the magical fifties.