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Eve Arden: "Better to Remain Just Me"

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Posted: Wednesday, January 8, 2014 7:15 pm

In 1972 I did my first phone interview with Eve Arden, born Eunice Quedens on April 3, 1908. This was just after her agent had arranged a short phoner to publicize a festival of 25 of her films to be shown here in Canada on CBC-TV. Our little talk turned out to be a marathon. Despite pleas from husband Brooks West—"Please, Eve, come back to your dinner"—our talk went on for hours. The next year we hooked up in person at the old Brown Derby restaurant at Sunset and Vine. Other phone talks followed. For this article I’ve selected the highlights of our talks.

James Bawden: I saw you when TV showed Dancing Lady (1933)—you were a tempestuous Southern actress who walked by Joan Crawford in one sequence.

Eve Arden: The part was so small I didn’t get billing. Two days work, I think. And I received no further offers, so it was back to Broadway. When I reminded Joan Crawford of the scene twelve years later when we were doing Mildred Pierce she patted me on the shoulder and smiled, "Dear heart". I could tell she remembered zilch!

JB: So you went back to Broadway?

EA: I’d done the rounds of the movie casting directors. Too tall! Too angular! Not beautiful! So I got a gig in a low budget show that ran at L.A.’s El Capitan playhouse. The other unknown kinds included Tyrone Power and Kay Thompson. But producer Lee Shubert saw me on a good night and signed me for Ziegfeld Follies of 1934—Ziegfeld had just died. I took the name Eve Arden from a perfume bottle. And I was in the Follies with Fanny Brice, Jane Froman, Buddy Ebsen. Then I was in Parade which starred Jimmie Savo, and then came Ziegfeld Follies of ’36 with Fanny Brice, Bob Hope, Judy Canova. When I left that summer, Gypsy Rose Lee was my replacement! But I was back to Hollywood to make a test and then co-star in Oh, Doctor! with Edward Everett Horton. Eddie gave me a grand bit of advice: "Don’t act. Just say the lines with your unique accent and you’ll turn out okay."

JB: What do you remember about Stage Door (1937)?

EA: How all these unknowns later became famous: Lucy Ball, Ann Miller, me. And the stars, Kate Hepburn and Ginger Rogers, were feuding all the way through, particularly "Great" Kate. There was a lot of improvisation going on as Lucy and I tried to top each other. Director Greg La Cava liked what we were doing and let us build up our parts, although Great Kate protested. I had to bang out one liners with a cat wrapped around my shoulders and that cat didn’t like me—I had the scratches to show for it! This had been a Broadway hit but the movie was considered superior. But box office was weak because Hepburn was then considered box office poison. And while the two leads feuded, little Andrea Leeds walked off with the Oscar nomination [in support]. And you know twenty years later I’m driving through Hollywood and it’s been revived—only the marquee now reads "Lucille Ball and Eve Arden in Stage Door with Katharine Hepburn". I should have taken a photo.

JB: But it made you hot.

EA: As a freelancer. There were no long-term studio offers. Ginger got me hired at RKO for Having Wonderful Time (1938) where I met another newcomer, Red Skelton. He just plain liked funny people and recommended me for a job in his comedy Whistling In The Dark (1941). My forte was the one liner—enter stage right, drop the zinger, exit stage left. Lucy Ball and I competed for the same type parts. I did five of those parts in 1939 and I could do so because my parts were very small. I didn’t have to linger, I’d do my scenes and then go on to the next assignment.

JB: But you had a classic scene in At The Circus (1939).

EA: With Groucho Marx. I was Peerless Pauline. The scene people remember is when we’re upside down on the ceiling trading quips. I don’t have to tell you, the room was specially designed to be completely flipped so that the furniture on the ground could be nailed down. At the end the camera was merely flipped back. I had to wear a sequined cap or my hair would have given it all away, don’t you see? And did you know Fred Astaire copied that in one number where he dances on the ceiling [in 1951’s Royal Wedding]? Groucho phoned me and said, "Fred stole our routine". Life on a Marx Brothers set wasn’t fun—but hard work. Groucho was a deadly serious man who analyzed every joke and rode his brothers to do take after take. But with Thalberg gone there was nobody to protect them and this one was rather hurried in production. It was good, but not great like the others.

JB: You once said you started out wanting to be one of the glamour girls then slowly changed your mind.

EA: I had an Eve Arden bit in Comrade X (1940) but Hedy Lamarr was completely frigid off and on camera. And then I was in for a few scenes in Ziegfeld Girl (1941) where I got to know Lana Turner a bit. But not Hedy Lamarr who was completely stand offish. Lana was a complete realist. Knew she was entirely a creation of the studio and she guessed [that] in time audiences would grow tired of her. She played cards with her makeup ladies between scenes and used rough sailor language. But there was no phoniness. With Rita Hayworth in Cover Girl (1944) I saw a very anxious young thing eager to succeed. Both girls had come up from poverty. Rita started out as a very young dancer in movies. Columbia shaved her hairline back and colored her hair a copper tone. She was given lessons on how to talk and out emerged this very sexy, if insecure, super star. Directors had to tell her how to do every movement. She was pliable. When she danced, it was magic. But her [singing] voice was always dubbed. I watched both Lana and Rita from afar and figured out it was better to remain just me.

JB: How did you get to Warners in 1941 for the Marlene Dietrich film Manpower?

EA: Hal Wallis personally phoned me up and offered it to me. I’d already done a Kay "Fwancis" film Women In The Wind (1939) and A Child Is Born (1940). I was dependable and Hal said I could be their next Glenda Farrell—which didn’t interest me. Said if I did well I’d be offered a long-term contract—which I definitely did not want. I was too busy freelancing right then. I wasn’t too fond of Marlene [Dietrich the female lead in Manpower] who never spoke much to the girls who were her buddies at the club. The director Raoul Walsh said she’d wanted only older women so she’d look younger—one of the tricks of the trade. Instead she got me, Lucia Carroll, Lynn Baggott and Joyce Compton, and she was the oldest one! She kept production on hold for hours while fiddling with her costumes, makeup and lighting. Once I looked up and she was way up in the gondola arguing with one of the electricians. Everything was for Marlene. She even provoked a brawl between George Raft and Eddie Robinson—you’re right, Raft won. Wallis told me it was an old favorite story of Jack Warner that had been used several times since Tiger Shark in 1932. She had a little mirror in her handbag and just before a shot, would check to make sure she had a shadow under her nose—she said von Sternberg had told her to do that. And Hal did come through with a contract offer, which I declined.

JB: But you returned in Warners in 1944 for The Doughgirls which I’ve never been able to see.

EA: You haven’t missed much. It was a huge Broadway hit which is where I first saw it. I phoned up producer Mark Hellinger and begged for the role of the Russian sharpshooter—Warners paid a record $250,000 for it and then promptly ruined it by cutting out much of the comedy. Mark said I’d get it if I signed a seven-year contract and I was ready. I had married, I needed stability. I was the celebrated sniper Natalia and I used a very broad accent. The girls were Ann Sheridan, Alexis Smith and Jane Wyman—originally Faye Emerson was going to get my part but comedy wasn’t her forte. Wyman and Jack Carson were the scatterbrained couple. The next year Jane made The Lost Weekend at Paramount and had a whole new career before her.

JB: Then you made Mildred Pierce?

EA: Not so fast! Next I made My Reputation with Barbara Stanwyck and George Brent. We completed it in early 1944, I think, and then it went out to servicemen all over the world. There was such a backlog of product, it was on the shelf domestically for two years. This one is Barbara’s favorite movie. She was a war widow and it was all very dignified and very, very slow. I was her trusted confidante. George at the end said this was the end of 13 years at Warners and refused to re-sign. For that offense—disloyalty—Jack ordered the credits be reshot and George was demoted to under-title billing. Jack was like that, very vindictive. Then came Mildred Pierce.

JB: You got your only Oscar nomination. What are your memories?

EA: That Barbara was first choice but passed because she didn’t want another mother role. Then Bette Davis passed. Joan Crawford was third choice and was not wanted by director Mike Curtiz. He’d scream at her to get rid of her shoulder pads. And she was so wound up she’d cry and rage and run off. She knew how much depended on this one being a hit. Curtiz was basically concerned with lighting and shadows. He never gave much direction. Because Joan was so frantic, the set was kept frigid so she wouldn’t sweat. Everybody around tested for her daughter—I did one test with Joan Leslie. Then they got Ann Blyth from Universal. People still quote those lines back to me. Like: "Alligators have the right idea—they eat their young." I thought it might succeed on curiosity value and be a hit. Joan had been away for two years. Then it just grew and grew and became this monster smash. I lost as best supporting actress to Ann Revere and just a few years later she got blacklisted. Joan got her Oscar and a new dressing room at Warners and was now queen of the lot. Of course, once you work with Joan you’d get Christmas cards every year. Once I sent mine out early because I was going to be away, and she sent me back a thank you note! For Christmas! That did it. I never sent her another!

JB: In Night And Day you were a French chanteuse.

EA: I was always asking for a different kind of part. And I got it. Only they added some wisecracks for good measure. I was Gabby and Cary Grant was Cole Porter, and if you believed that you’d believe anything. I thought I was okay. This was Mary Martin’s last movie—she’d done fine here and Jack offered her a contract and she had to decide between Romance On The High Seas, and South Pacific on Broadway. Guess which she chose! Her replacement at Warners was a new girl, name of Doris Day. Jane Wyman was playing a silly show girl by day and in the afternoon was over at [MGM] making The Yearling. For which she won her first Oscar nomination.

JB: What did you think of The Unfaithful (1947)?

EA: Director Vince Sherman sent over a script and I read it and telephoned him. "Vince, this is a rewrite of The Letter, right?" And he went berserk for a few moments—because I was right. Look, I have no knowledge why Jack Warner continually saddled Annie [Sheridan] with such heavy melodramatics. Here she was an unfaithful wife, Lew Ayres was the lawyer and Zachary Scott the husband. We shot a lot of it out on the streets and in a new subdivision where Annie’s house was supposed to be. Oh, I was very mean and self centered there, a new divorcee living high on Wilshire Blvd. in a smart penthouse apartment. The scenic designers outdid themselves and when Zachary who was my cousin dropped in on a Saturday night I was lying on the sofa reading a book and drinking white wine! It was a different character for me to explore.

JB: Then came The Voice Of The Turtle (1947).

EA: Every year I journeyed to New York to catch the new plays and the biggest hit was The Voice Of The Turtle with Maggie Sullavan, Elliott Nugent and Audrey Christie as an outrageous actress type. When Warners bought it I was ecstatic and got the part of Olive. Then Irving Rapper was signed to direct. Bad idea. He did well in Bette Davis women’s films but wasn’t adept in comedy. Warners wooed Sullavan and she even made a test in New York, but Jack wanted her under long-term contract and she hesitated. So he picked Eleanor Parker and in one press release it was mentioned Ellie was a decade younger. Well, Ellie is brilliant in drama but they even made her up to look like Maggie—complete with bangs! And the leading man wasn’t Nugent but Ronnie Reagan and he was hopeless at comedy. Plus the script needed rewrites because in the play it’s obvious the couple are living together. I got good personal notices. And that’s it—it wasn’t the anticipated box office hit.

JB: Around this time you debuted on radio as Our Miss Brooks?

EA: Well, I’d always been doing radio. I was on The Ken Murray Show in 1936 and then I was a regular on The Danny Kaye Show on CBS. Then I replaced Joan Davis on Jack Haley’s show called Village Store. He left and Jack Carson took over and that’s when I really got tired of Jack Carson. Verna Felton was on it, too. Then in 1947 CBS sent me the script for Our Miss Brooks written for Shirley Booth who had passed [rejected it]. It was agreed we’d try it out in summer stock—summer on CBS. A new, unknown actor, Jeff Chandler was the biology teacher, Phil Boynton, and Gale Gordon was the principal Mr. Conklin, Gloria McMillan was Harriet, and Dick Crenna was high-pitched Walter Denton. Jane Morgan was my landlady, Mrs. Davis. I was the man-hungry English teacher but I was also a working woman. It just worked and we got a full year’s contract—we were on Sundays at 6:30 p.m. which meant we did it in L.A. at 3:30 p.m. Jack Warner couldn’t complain—it was my one day off a week.

JB: By day you toiled at Warners.

EA: In 1949 I was Doris Day’s room mate in My Dream Is Yours, and Jane Wyman’s best bud in The Lady Takes A Sailor. I didn’t want to be a room mate any longer. We were just finished filming with Jane when she got her Oscar and everybody ran to see it and it was awfully corny. Bette Davis had just left the studio so Jane got her dressing room and ordered it repainted and fumigated—Bette smoked like crazy, you know. I told Jack formally I was quitting and made my last in 1951, a Joan Crawford comedy called Goodbye My Fancy. Joan did not have a funny bone in her body. She loved to suffer. It had been a huge Broadway hit for Madeleine Carroll but the censors cut the red meat out of it. One day Joan stops me and says, "Eve, they say you are going into television. So sorry." So I read her my contract which made me very wealthy, and she had bug eyes. She never did get to a series because like Bette Davis she was too big for the small screen. Me, I was sick of wise cracking dames. I craved respectability.

JB: What happened to Warners? The studio seemed to be sinking like a stone.

EA: You’re telling me! As soon as an actor’s contract was up he or she was out. Sheridan, Lupino, Flynn, it happened to them all and many were at an age they found freelancing tough. The economic model changed—Warners stopped making a movie every week for release. People were moving out to the suburbs where there were no movie theaters. And then TV came along. And it was like a state of panic. I did a terrible movie called Tea For Two (1950), a bad remake of No, No Nanette just because the studio owned the music rights and could make it cheaply. But it did make some money because Doris Day was the big new star.

JB: How did the TV version of Our Miss Brooks differ from the radio version.

EA: Well, we had to ditch Jeff Chandler because he was a red hot movie star by then. Bob Rockwell replaced him but for the next year we still did the radio version separately and Jeff stayed on for that. As I recall we used completely different scripts. After the last radio show he told me I was something special in his life and he regretted we were married to other people. And I never saw him again. It was all so crazy.

A lot of TV hits came from radio: Father Knows Best, Life Of Riley, Burns and Allen. We’d get the new script on a Friday and do a rough block and on Monday more rehearsals and then do it before a studio audience. Then on Tuesday we’d film touch ups. So we did two episodes a week which was heavy. Don’t forget the order was for 39 half hours. Plus the radio show! I always thought the radio shows were better because listeners had to imagine so much. Look, we’d all been doing it on radio, except Bob, so we somehow got through it and I got all kinds of awards from teaching associations. In 1953 I did get the Emmy and that was a real thrill. In 1954 I had my first child, Douglas, who was born in September before filming started on a new season. I always thanked him for that. We ended filming at Desilu in 1957-58. The show was bad that last year. They moved me to a new school and it didn’t take, so they brought in all the old gang and we somehow got through it.

JB: You returned to Warners in 1956 for the movie spin-off Our Miss Brooks.

EA: Definitely a strange experience. Everybody from my era had left except Jane Wyman whose last film [Miracle In the Rain] was just going into release and it was her last WB—and Virginia Mayo who was making westerns. A lot of the crews had been laid off. I don’t know why they made this one at the end of the TV series run. It should have been when the series was at its peak. We were all in it: Dick Crenna, Gale Gordon, Bob Rockwell, Jane Morgan, but it wasn’t a sitcom at all. It was more of a drama and I had a sort of romance with Don Porter who was in Ann Sothern’s TV series. And I got a note from Jack Warner to have lunch in the studio’s executive restaurant. He was one lonely guy—kept complaining there was nobody left to fight with.

JB: You once told me your favorite series was The Eve Arden Show (1957).

EA: CBS threw money at me to immediately return as a book lecturer, and it was so different I took it. But audiences loathed me as a mother and a thoughtful individual. They wanted the wisecracks. We had a good cast including Allyn Joslyn and Frances Bavier who then went to Andy Griffith as Aunt Bea. Audiences just tuned me out. Bob Young had the same problem—he returned too soon in a stinker called Window On Main Street which also sank like a stone. Also a little show called Wyatt Earp was against us. I was wearing all these pretty clothes and nobody wanted me. What a disaster!

JB: After that series ended you made a dramatic appearance in Anatomy Of a Murder (1959).

EA: Otto Preminger called me up and offered me the job of Maida, Jimmy Stewart’s secretary. The whole shebang was going to be photographed in northern Michigan. I told Otto I wouldn’t accept any shouting from him but I was lucky since all my scenes were with Jimmy. And Otto never yelled at the star—he wouldn’t dare. But he did go after others. Like Lana Turner who had been signed as the murder defendant’s wife. He screamed so much at her for wardrobe choices, she simply quit and was replaced by Lee Remick, and Otto ordered the press release to mention the fact she was 18 years younger than Lana. I spent eight weeks in Ishpeming, Michigan, we were all holed up in the same hotel. Arthur O’Connell was wonderful as the drunken assistant. It was George C. Scott’s first movie, and Jimmy helped him a lot. And even my husband, Brooks West, had a good part. Jimmy later told me he got so much flak from fans about the adult language he never again accepted such a daring part, and I think that damaged his later career.

JB: Then you did The Dark at The Top Of The Stairs (1960).

EA: Delbert Mann saw Anatomy of a Murder and offered me the big part of Dorothy McGuire’s sister Lottie which Eileen Heckart had done on the stage. It was a very depressing story, very true of small town life in the 1920s. I remember talks with the playwright Bill Inge. Bob Preston was too hammy in the lead, if you ask me. But I thought Angela Lansbury fine as the blowsy hairdresser who takes him in. I had this delicate balancing act—Lottie is a wisecracker but there’s also a sadness, she and her husband, wonderfully played by Frank Overton are not sexually compatible and she openly talks about that. Not a sympathetic character, she’s anti-Semitic in a casual sort of way as many small town women were at the time. I knew it would not be popular and it was not, but I’m glad I did it.

JB: You still did a ton of TV.

EA: It was where I was a star. And I needed big bucks. Still do, by the way. So I did a lot of guest spots. I did a lot of Red Skelton, but you’ll notice I never was on Bob Hope—he just never phoned. Heck, I even was in a Frankie Avalon movie [Sergeant DeadHead]. In 1965 I did a CBS pilot where I was a busybody widow constantly visiting relatives and getting them all stirred up. I was grateful it did not sell. The next season CBS asked me to return to series TV in The Mothers-In-Law to be executive produced by Desi Arnaz. Ann Sothern was to co-star until she decided the parts were too similar so Kaye Ballard came in. We did a pilot and CBS floored Desi by passing. So he shopped the thing to NBC which bought the show and put us opposite Ed Sullivan at 8:30 on Sunday nights. That was part of the reason we flopped. Another was Desi’s temper—he’d rage and the NBC executives had no history with him and they’d shout back. We suddenly got a renewal form, but in the second season we switched my husband to Richard Deacon and nobody noticed which meant nobody was watching.

JB: But you did another pilot.

EA: You’re speaking of the Hildegarde Withers TV movie I made for ABC, called A Very Missing Person. You know the movies starred first Edna May Oliver, and then Helen Broderick. But they made her too smart alecky. I thought it had potential to be part of the Sunday murder mystery wheel. So I just went back to guest work. And all the theater I was doing all along.

Note: In 1979 we did another telephoner and I asked Eve about her smash success in Grease.

EA: My biggest ever hit. When they offered me Principal McGee, I wondered why. Then I realized it was the Connie Brooks connection. In my mind it was Connie finally getting to occupy the principal’s office. And that’s the way I did it. Had wonderful scenes with Sid Caesar. Not a funny man off camera. Quiet. Thoughtful. On camera wildly inventive. Just takes one along on a wild ride. And it got me a whole new audience which was great for me—and Joan Blondell. Then I did Dream Merchants and the director was old Vincent Sherman as feisty as ever. So I think I’ll go on a bit longer.

Author’s Note: In 1983 Arden co-starred in Grease 2, and for her final acting gig in 1987 she was a guest on Falcon Crest opposite old pal Jane Wyman. Born in Eunice Quedens in Mill Valley, California in 1908, she was married to Edward Bergen from 1939 until their divorce in 1947, and to Brooks West from 1952 until his death in 1984. She died Los Angeles in 1990 of heart complications at the age of 82.