Our tour through Christmas past in La-La Land finds us in a rather unexpected spot in 1950. We think we know the woman above, though her true domesticated side was rarely given an outing in her film work. Those roles often found her playing everyone's favorite smart aleck--not a doting maternal figure. The trio in front of the holiday-themed hearth (complete with a Grandma Moses original) are found in the cozy, hilltop home of Eve Arden. They include Ms. Arden with her daughters Constance (left), and Liza (right), whom the actress adopted in the late '40s--on her own--as her eight year marriage to businessman Ned Bergen wound down. In reality, moments such as this were a more important part of Arden's life away from the cameras--as were the girls' eventual brothers Duncan and Douglas--especially after her 33 year marriage to fellow actor Brooks West began in 1951. Behind the scenes, she appears to have lived a richer emotional life, marked by creativity, long friendships, deep loves, and real laughs while maintaining a unique niche in filmdom--prompting one frustrated producer to remark that the "trouble with Eve Arden is that she's got the whole field to herself."
Reflecting on her priorities, Arden remarked that "I've worked with a lot of great glamorous girls in movies and the theater. And I'll admit, I've often thought it would be wonderful to be a femme fatale. But then I'd always come back to thinking that if they only had what I've had - a family, real love, an anchor - they would have been so much happier during all the hours when the marquees and the floodlights are dark."
That tall drink of water pictured above spent more than a few decades brightening the screen in 60+ movies, merely raising an eyebrow or slinging her sotto voce wisecracks over her shoulder in movies that were good, bad, and indifferent. While she rarely wrote her own lines, they truly belonged to her once she gave them her authoritative comic spin. Who else but Eve Arden could we imagine tossing off the observation in Mildred Pierce (1945) that "Personally, Veda's convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young"? When an erstwhile beau in another story asked if she had missed him when he was away, her character replied "No, I can always go to the zoo when you're away," without missing the implication or a beat. When faced with a dearth of male companionship, only Eve's skillful line reading could find a way to make the remark, "You know, I think I'll adopt a baby. A boy, about 21," sound funny, poignant, and yet naughty enough to deftly hint at the yearning and real loneliness inside that flippant wisecrack. Her characters may have been written too often in only one dimension, but her talent made them flesh and blood and welcome company.
Born Eunice Quedens in Mill Valley, California in 1908, the actress began honing her way with a withering look, a quip, and a level-headed approach to life during her childhood and early apprenticeship as an actress. The early divorce of her parents and absence of her father meant that Eve had grown up surrounded by hard-working, accomplished and beautiful women, led by her mother, who was a creative milliner and independent spirit. Fate had cast her early in life in the role of an only child who filled up the empty spaces in her heart and answered unspoken questions with her imaginative theatrical efforts long before stepping on a stage. At 7 years of age, the budding thespian was encouraged by her suffragette mother and aunt to pursue her muse. Little Eunice went on to win Women's Christian Temperance Union contest for her Italian dialect reading of "No Kicka My Dog," (no doubt this episode was highly incorrect, politically, though wouldn't it be fun to have seen her do this?) The girl also triumphed during a reading of a prologue for a production of "Snow White" staged by the Outdoor Girl Club in Mill Valley. After high school, she put off college (what would Miss Brooks say to that!), as Arden learned her trade with stock companies beginning at 16, and shared a stage with a very young Tyrone Power at the Pasadena Playhouse in the aptly named "Lo and Behold" in the early '30s. Spotted by producer Lee Shubert there, the actress was a bit of a smash in two revivals of the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway (A lovelorn Bob Hope introduced the Vernon Duke-Ira Gershwin standard, "I Can't Get Started With You" singing it to Ms. Arden in the 1936 version of the Follies show). The sight of a jar of Elizabeth Arden cold cream and a character named "Eve" in a novel she was reading supposedly inspired her name change, after it was suggested that her true name had, well, a bit too many awkward syllables for someone seeking a place on a theater or movie marquee.
Her first big cinematic impression came while making snarky and accurate remarks about the theatrical life in Stage Door (1937), much of it ad libbed at the behest of director Gregory La Cava. Arden's adroitly aimed verbal arrows were all delivered with a white cat draped around her neck in that film. Eve actually liked the cat, named "Henry," until discovering that he earned more than she for the movie role.
As a very chic but sharp-tongued dame, at 5'8" with naturally reddish blonde hair and green eyes, Eve Arden's allure and superior intelligence were inevitably overlooked in the movies by leading men such as Clark Gable, though the simpatico pair almost pursued something further off the set--especially one time when Eve found herself being gently but ardently propositioned by the actor while making Comrade X (1940). (Common sense led her to say "No, thanks," but the two remained fond friends).
On screen, she occasionally landed a reluctant Otto Kruger (Cover Girl), a distracted Tom Conway (One Touch of Venus), or dueled verbally with a slippery Jack Carson (Mildred Pierce, My Dream Is Yours). It always puzzled some of us that more of these bright boys rarely acknowledged her appeal--or were they daunted by her honest tongue and her astute insights? In other roles Eve was the truth-telling pal of the heroine, guiding (and sometimes needling) magnetic but somewhat clueless leading ladies like Joan Crawford (Dancing Lady, Mildred Pierce, Goodbye My Fancy), Barbara Stanwyck (My Reputation), Ann Sheridan (The Doughgirls, The Unfaithful), and even Doris Day (My Dream Is Yours, Tea For Two). While Ms. Day's cast-iron innocence evoked much droll eye-rolling from the expressive character actress, Arden's implicitly non-virginal presence ensured entertaining moments amid the flossiness of the plot.
Eve also came to represent a possible alternative in life for female audience members who could not imagine themselves as one of those impossibly glamorous leading ladies. Later, people discovered Arden at center stage in the highly popular radio, television show and movie, Our Miss Brooks, when she played a put-upon, but mildly man-hungry high school teacher who was clearly brighter than just about everyone, but hampered a bit by her inherent niceness. Much later, a new generation discovered her again in the series The Mothers-In-Law, and as the harried principal in Grease (1978) and Grease 2 (1982).
Never at a loss for words, the actress created off-center characters who were too often doomed to singleton status while sporting a great wardrobe, (Eve later confessed that some movies, such as The Arnelo Affair (1947), were chosen only because of the chance to wear duds designed by Irene) and she often found her character's shifts odd, especially after script tinkering sought to build up her welcome presence, (In The Unfaithful (1947), her character goes from divorced harridan to vicious gossip to sincere, consoling cousin in less than 109 minutes--but the Travilla clothes were to die for!) Her characters usually had substantial career success for the time, often as advertising and publishing execs, and, of course, as blisteringly efficient right-hand gals. Still, most of them seemed to have had an emotionally impoverished or simply unknown private life.
|Above: (Left to right) Husband and father Brooks West, children Liza, Duncan, Douglas, and Constance West with their mother, Eve Arden. (Douglas and Constance are seated on Molly B., the family's donkey).|
Fortunately, that last bit of fate was not true-to-life for the actress, who became the mother of four, and the loving wife of her husband, Texas-born Brooks West, who had an extensive theatrical career and worked with his wife most notably as the DA in Anatomy of a Murder (1959). After buying a working ranch in Hidden Valley, California, the family moved there after their outspoken daughter, Liza, placed a request for "some flat ground" at the top of her Christmas list, explaining that her desire to ride her bike near her home was frustrated by her mother's admonition to never cycle around the circuitous roads near their hilly home in Beverly Hills. The solution was West Haven, a spread that had been previously owned by Ronald Colman and Benita Hume, forty miles away from LA's studios, where Arden and her husband reportedly observed the Christmas season by tying sleigh bells around the neck of their animals with bright red ribbon to share good cheer with all creatures, even those beyond the human inhabitants..
Soon, it gave her brood room to grow, and also became a refuge (at least for a time) for various animals as her fame grew to its height during the Our Miss Brooks years on television. Beset by reporters and columnists searching for copy about the newsworthy star, Eve confessed in 1957 that it was common practice on their farm to name their livestock after fellow celebrities.
"Those poor Gabor sisters," Eve mused one summer within earshot of a reporter, "It's so hot these days--and they have all that fur on them." Asked to expand on this cryptic remark, she explained that "Zsa Zsa, Eva and Magda Gabor are the names of our best sheep. And we had to shoot Marilyn Monroe. She was such a lovely heifer, too." The reason why the prize golden Hereford version of MM met this unfortunate fate? "She swallowed some baling wire, I think," was Arden's confession, ingesting far more than metal than she could carry in her three stomachs.
In addition to these starry names doled out among the family's menagerie, another lovely golden heifer was named after Monroe co-star, Jane Russell [Russell appears to have been the only actress who reportedly found this singular honor amusing, even flattering, strangely enough]. Yet another particularly lovely half-Angus, half-Hereford heifer was black "with a lovely white blaze down her face and unbelievable black eyelashes--Liz Taylor, of course. We named them because of their lush beauty, but," Eve confessed in her autobiography, "were embarrassed when several movie gossip columns picked it up."
Rounding out the star power extended to West Haven's residents were a trio of roosters, who were named after noted playboys Aly Khan, Porfirio Rubirosa, and Elvis Presley, respectively. Due to an excess of strutting and crowing, and a few exhausted-looking hens, the newly rural couple soon found homes for all but one of the creatures. Clearly, that gift for seeing the irreverently funny side of life never left Eve Arden--just as enjoyment of her continued celluloid presence never wanes in classic film. Regrets seem to have been few for the actress, who could shift so nimbly from riotous comedy (especially in 1944's frantic The Doughgirls, one of my favorite guilty pleasures, made delightful by Eve's warrior queen, Natalia Moskoroff, a sharp-shooting Soviet Sergeant and hero of the people) to the far too little known dramatic role as a bigoted, middle-aged wife that she played with such eloquent restraint in William Inge's The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960).
Btw, in the spirit of the season, I can't resist sharing this example of imaginative entrepeneurship posted some time ago on the delightful blog, Six Martinis and the Seventh Art:
For more posts in The Christmas Album on this blog, please click here.
Arden, Eve, Three Phases of Eve: An Autobiography, St. Martin's Press, 1985.
Carroll, Harrison, "Behind the Scenes in Hollywood: Christmas Spirit," Warsaw Times-Union, December 20, 1955.
Thomas, Bob, "Arden Closes Book on '3 Phases of Eve,'" The Palm Beach Post, May 29, 1985.
Wilson, Earl, "Eve Arden Shot Marilyn Monroe," The St. Petersburg Times, August 10, 1957.