The Best of Everything is a rich chocolate sundae of Hollywood melodrama and mid-century modern design, with Miss Joan Crawford as the cherry on top.
Filmed and released in 1959, the movie is based on the 1958 novel of the same name by Rona Jaffe. The book is a really great read because it’s far more than a soap tale of 3 girls coming to New York City to find love and good fortune; it is a realistic snapshot of how post-WW2 cultural and corporate standards demanded the creation of Women’s Liberation.
The dramatic and/or tragic stories of the girls’ journeys through sex and career were obvious bait for Hollywood, who added spoonfuls of glamor sugar to make the medicine go down, and this lesson was clearly understood and aped by both Cosmopolitan magazine and, later, Mad Men. I’d make a bet that Matthew Weiner has seen this movie even more times than I have, if only for set design research purposes.
Along with Hope Lange, Barbara Lamont and Suzy Parker (above center), the Lever House should have been billed as a co-star, because it actually appears on screen as often as Joan Crawford. It appears so much because it’s caddy corner on Park Avenue to the building where our heroines work…
… the Seagram Building. So within the first 15 minutes of the film, you know you’re in for a rich and gooey mid-century modern treat.
The main character, Caroline Bender, comes to her first day of work as a typist and secretary at Fabian Publishing Company. She arrives early to absorb the place, and the camera pans over this Mondrian-like office set. The film’s art direction is primarily by Lyle R. Wheeler, who had already worked similar magic on films like The Long Hot Summer, Peyton Place, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and Bus Stop. For the Fabian Publishing set, he used door colors to signify which level each inhabitant occupied on the corporate totem pole and adhered to tight grids in the typing pool to symbolize the rigid class distinctions between executives and the female typing pool. If – without seeing the move – this set looks familiar to you, it may indicate that you…
…watch Mad Men. During the first few episodes of the first season, I was vaguely disappoint in how refined the sets were, until I realized that I was instinctively comparing their sets to The Best of Everything. The people responsible for the Mad Men sets have essentially created the accurate, real-world version of of Hollywood’s glossy interpretation of late 50s/early 60s corporate world.
Caroline Bender (above) has ambitions to become an editor but first assigned secretary duties to editor Miss Amanda Farrow (Miss Crawford, below right).
The Mad Men character Peggy Olson is a perfect compilation of these two characters. Peggy “before” is Caroline, all freshly scrubbed from a small town looking to make it in the Big City, and her quick learning curve and natural talent moves her quickly up the ladder. If you’d like a sneak peak at Peggy “after,” see this movie and keep an eye on the Amanda character. And look at those chairs!
This is the office of Fabian editor-in-chief Fred Shalimar, and dig the wall of built-in book shelves holding the paperbacks he’s overseen. As in Mad Men, actual work takes a backseat to drinking, smoking and carousing, so the office needs to be comfy and stylish.
Hollywood depicted the bustling employee cafeteria inside the Seagram building as a mod fantasy of vivid aqua, yellow and purple, which stood in stark contrast to the marble and glass lobby that couldn’t be glossed into submission.
When the action leaves the office, we get a wide sample of the different aspects of mid-century modern residential design. Above is the work-a-day kitchen in Amanda Farrow’s apartment, and below is the penthouse of rich playboy Dexter Key (played by Robert Evans) who will do terrible things to one of our heroines.
Eventually, Caroline becomes second-in-command at Fabian and gets this spacious new office. It does a better job of expressing the character’s reactions to her rapid rise than the actress does, which pretty much sums up the movie. As often happens, Hollywood sucks the soul out of a book for the sake of selling tickets. In the case of The Best of Everything, the sets and the costumes are the reason I watch this movie so often, and the reason I get an extra kick out of Mad Men.
Mid-Century Fetish: Down With Love