As Mayor of Dametown, dame lover and one of the biggest classic movie nerds around, I’m often asked who I think of as the “ultimate dame”. That’s an impossibly tough question; it’s like asking someone “Who’s your favorite child?” or “What’s your favorite Dorito flavor?” There are so many candidates – snappy “girl reporters” like Torchy Blane or Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday, Flo-Jo, Margo Channing in All About Eve, Ann Sothern in the Maisie movies, Rhoda Morgenstern, Jean Harlow, Florynce Kennedy, Joan Blondell, Wanda Sykes, Diane Lockhart in “The Good Fight”, just about anyone played by Thelma Ritter or Barbara Stanwyck . The list of real-life and fictional dames is endless. But there is definitely a classic Hollywood actress I can say is my most beloved dame.
I absolutely love, love, love Eve Arden. I’d love to be Eve Arden. She’s beautiful, but she always plays the heroine’s sidekick, the girl who doesn’t get the guy, because she has something more powerful than beauty. Timing. Her comic timing, her sardonic way with a line is potent. That lilting cynicism in her voice is priceless and no dame puts the wise in wisecrack or the zing in zinger quite like her. And when it comes to throwing shade, check out her asides to Zachary Scott in Mildred Pierce. (So good was she as Mildred’s sardonic pal, Eve earned herself an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Only Eve and Thelma Ritter get Oscar nods for small roles as wisecrackers, that’s how good at it they are.) As her eponymous website puts it, Eve Arden is an actress who “can express so much with a look and make you laugh, or zing someone with a sarcastic comment.”
Like Thelma Ritter, Eve Arden could steal a scene with one look or one line. Her seen-it-all wisecracks became such a part of her screen persona that, like Thelma, she proved you don’t have to be a leading lady to be a star. Unfortunately, Eve was so good at it that it became an actress’s albatross around her neck. She so excelled at that type that she was inevitably typecast. The very thing she was so great at, and that made people like me love her, was something she wanted to escape. “I just don’t like that dame,” said Arden in 1952, “She’s hard-boiled, unsentimental and not me.” While I personally never assumed a dame who can sling a zinger can’t also be a sentimental softie (like Ann Sothern’s Maisie character, for example), I can understand an actress not wanting to be pigeon-holed.
Eunice Quedens Makes Good
Little did little Eunice Quedens (her birth name) know that her future and fame lay in world-weary wisecracks. Raised by a single mother and her aunt, Eve was encouraged to perform in school plays and make her way on to the stage. She dropped out of school at 16 and joined a stock company. “I was dumped by my mother and aunt at the Henry Duffy office in San Francisco and told to get a job acting, which I did.” In 1934 she became part of the famous Ziegfeld Follies where Eunice Quedens was told to change her name. (I can’t imagine why, can you?) She got her new moniker by looking at the cosmetic jars on her dressing table: “I stole my first name from Evening in Paris perfume and the second from Elizabeth Arden.” Though tall, languid and lovely to look at, the newly-minted Eve Arden might have had a clue her future was in comedy when she became the understudy for famed “funny girl” Fanny Brice.
After she moved from Broadway to Hollywood, the caustic comedienne’s expert way with a throwaway line made her increasingly in demand, starting with the cat-draped wisecracker wannabe actress she played in 1937’s Stage Door, with Katherine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Ann Miller and Lucille Ball as co-stars. (They just don’t make dame-packed moves like that anymore. Sigh.) Eve Arden went on to act in over 100 movies, including the Marx Brothers’ At the Circus, Ziegfeld Girl, Cover Girl, Doughgirls, Whiplash, My Reputation, The Unfaithful, Anatomy of a Murder, and 1978’s Grease. (And 1982’s Grease 2, but the less said about that, the better.) Though our girl Eunice had been a “Ziegfeld Girl”, I think the film with the title that fit her best was 1941’s She Knew All The Answers.
Our Miss Brooks Was Ground-Breaking
Now, if you ask what comes to mind when you say the name ‘Eve Arden’ to anyone who was alive in the 1940s and 50s, they will absolutely answer “Our Miss Brooks”. First a hit on radio in 1948, then on television in 1952, then in an Our Miss Brooks feature film in 1956, the eponymous sardonic, sentimental, and self-deprecating English teacher was a national treasure. Though Our Miss Brooks was constantly trying to get married to her somewhat oblivious biology teacher beau, the character was unlike other female leads on radio and TV. While there had been other radio shows that featured female leads or co-stars, Connie Brooks was not scatterbrained, ditzy, or always getting herself into one crazy scrape after another. Eve’s character was a smart, sophisticated, witty woman who was tragically and comically the smartest person in the room. The character was warm, caring and courageous, standing up to her boss, and standing up for her students. Eve got to get laughs with her way with a sardonic line without coming across as caustic or “hard-boiled”. Arden earned an Emmy for the role in 1953, and she won a host of awards as a comedienne and from educational organizations for her portrayal of a super kind and competent professional. Our Miss Brooks was ground-breaking, and it must have been somewhat nerve-wracking for Eve, as for many years she was starring on both the weekly radio show AND weekly TV series. Such was Eve’s identification as the character that at the end of the radio and TV series’ runs Ms. Arden was actively recruited to be an English teacher for many real-life high schools. (For those interested in checking out the radio show, you can find them on your favorite podcast platform. FYI, the student with the high-pitched crush on Connie is played by Richard Crenna, and the biology teacher she’s trying to wrangle to the altar is IRL dreamboat and future movie star Jeff Chandler. She’s also in a wonderful episode of the radio thriller, Suspense, called “The Well-Dressed Corpse”, where she plays an atypical dramatic role.)
For me, Eve Arden will always be cinema’s chic, cool and caustic dame who was usually the smartest (and definitely the smartass-est) one in the room. Of course, I love her for being fun and funny, but in all her best-friend-to-the-heroine roles it’s always clear that she is the kind of compassionate, caring friend you want in your corner. In Mildred Pierce she goes from being Mildred’s boss to Mildred’s second-in-command who’s completely on to the horrible daughter and sleazy guys bringing the heroine down. Eve may have found her roles “hard-boiled” but I always saw them as more smart than tough. There’s a reason they’re called WISEcracks and the ultimate dame is one who’s kind and caring but who knows what’s what and is savvy about life and people. She’s tough when she needs to be, and it’s often in service of other women. My dame ideal is one who knows the ropes well enough not to get tied up, and who’s playful enough to navigate life with wit as well as wisdom. Whether she’s the delighted divorcee in 1947’s The Unfaithful or poised-when-put-out Connie Brooks, I know I can always look to Eve Arden as a role model – and someone who can make me laugh.