The Last Gasp of the 1950’s, In Trashy, Sexy Cinemascope

Thanks to the auteur theory, instead of a lot of antiquated factory product and the studio P. and L. of yesteryear, we have the greats-Ford, Hawks, Lubitsch, Sturges, Cukor, Wyler, Lang, Wilder, Fuller, Hitchcock (and this is just a quick Monday-morning skim off the top of one’s head). And then we have near-greats, like Michael Curtiz ( The Adventures of Robin Hood, Casablanca, Mildred Pierce) or Mitch Leisen ( Swing High, Swing Low, Midnight, Hands Across the Table.) And then we have Jean Negulesco.

Negulesco is almost the anti-auteur, an illustration, as the film historian David Thomson has aptly put it, of the “power of the studios over minor talents.” Negulesco first made his name in the 1940’s as a director of Casablanca-style pictures for Warner. The best of these, The Mask of Dimitrios, is a bleak and densely plotted homosocial thriller matching Peter Lorre with Sydney Greenstreet. Negulesco cranked out half a dozen such pictures, roughly in the style of Curtiz, before moving over to Fox, where he promptly became an equally passable craftsman in the prevailing taste of that studio in the 50’s.

He then made his name all over again, dutifully splashing what we now call women’s fiction across the Cinemascope screen, saturating it in opalescent colors. Here Negulesco’s films are filled with everything but Negulesco: The source material, as well as the attitudes and atmosphere of the times, bleed through every underdirected frame. The most famous of the women’s pictures that Negulesco helmed is How to Marry a Millionaire. But the most diverting is surely The Best of Everything, a trashy bit of cinematic superannuation about a New York City on the verge of the 60’s, just out on DVD.

The time is 1959. Cars have fins like sharks, men wear hats, and the women-well, women wear hats, too, and now that you mention it, have fins like sharks. Their suits are cut to cut you back, with shoulder blades at knifing angles and breasts jutting like munitions. A great era of liberal consensus, affluence and sartorial propriety is dwindling to its overripe finale. Johnny Mathis croons to us over an aerial shot of the Manhattan skyline, already a little dusky with pollution.

A young, impossibly beautiful Hope Lange steps off a bus and holds up an ad, clipped from the morning paper: “Secretaries-You Deserve The Best of Everything.” In front of her stands the glorious Seagram building, of which we get many an eyeful. (It’s as if Negulesco is asking: What goes on in these big, cold, thrusting, Continental-style buildings?) With its aura of chintzy opulence, The Best of Everything catches exactly the last seconds of the 50’s, when America’s self-confidence had gone a bit off and words like “integration” and “blue jean” are about to upheave the lot. But it also comes before another word that changed life as we know it: “cubicle.” In those days, secretaries sat in a vast, open common space, known as the “pool,” surrounded by the firmly shut doors of management offices. Lange is a Radcliffe grad who starts at the bottom, firmly beneath the boot of Joan Crawford, an embittered, lovelorn editor.

The Best of Everything-with its pin curls, Schrafts and no Pan Am building-is a delight as a time capsule; but it’s also a question, to which our own little epoch has posed the answer “A bloody lot, thank you.” The question is: How much will the world trade on sex and naked, hot-eyed ambition going forward? The Best of Everything follows directly in the footsteps of Peyton Place, which had been a succès de scandale only two years previously, in testing the limits of Hollywood’s post-code patience. “And what about … fun?” asks the office masher, a 55-year-old alcoholic loath to get on tonight’s 5:42 to Westport. “Would you like to meet someone you could have some … fun with? Without necessarily being in love?”

The movie that follows is an encyclopedia of pre-feminist caddishness. Along with the masher, we get a young Robert Evans, a Sutton Place lizard in stocks and bonds who, we come to understand, has escorted more than one woman to the doctor; and Louis Jourdan, a famous theater director who delivers the now-universal sentiment perfectly: “I love you … approximately.”

Alas, the cynicism runs only so deep. Next to The Apartment, or certainly Sweet Smell of Success, The Best of Everything is a dandelion caught in a spring breeze. To us now, The Best of Everything is a delicious curiosity, the prequel to Sex and the City. That show was rescued from its own tendency to squalor by the sadness and amity holding the four women together as friends. At the heart of that friendship was a question posed here explicitly by Lange: “What is it about women like us that makes you hold us so cheaply?” And a wonderful salud, also offered by Lange: “Here’s to men! Bless their clean-cut faces and their dirty little minds!”

The Last Gasp of the 1950’s, In Trashy, Sexy Cinemascope