Jeff Kallman's excellent The Easy Ace: A Journal of Classic Radio
is a wonderful place to spend hours on end, rediscovering the Golden Age of Radio
as it's meant to be discovered and celebrated. Article after article
is filled with a wonderful new vignette about Golden Age Radio History.
---The Digital Deli Online.

[I]n his matchless on-this-day approach to chronicling “yesteryear,”
he easily aces out a less organized mind like mine,
which promptly lapsed into a more idiosyncratic mode of relating the past.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

"I Figured I'd Better Shut Up While I Was Ahead"

A quarter century after school let out forever for Our Miss Brooks, Eve Arden was introduced to new filmgoers playing that with whom her most famous alter ego usually butted heads---a high school principal (in the Grease films) just as clueless but only half as incendiary as pompous Osgood Conklin.

A KNUS (Denver) radio host and eventual classic radio encyclopedist, John Dunning, hooked up with Arden as the veteran actress/comedienne planned a house party combining castmates from Our Miss Brooks and her later television exercise, The Mothers-in-Law. She acknowledged fans still tended to tie her earlier film roles to Connie Brooks; they likely identified the more familiar image of Arden as the wisecracking best friend to the put-upon heroine. But in the same patient movement she dispelled the tie, as gently firm as Connie might dispel Conklin’s bombast or bashful biology teacher Philip Boynton’s indifference.

"I did a lot of pictures that were off the beaten path," Arden said. "I did Dough Girls, in which I played a Russian, I played Night and Day and played a French actress in that . . . Dark at the Top of the Stairs. A lot of things that were quite far." She also played Peerless Pauline in At the Circus, having the honour of telling Groucho Marx's J. Cheever Loophole, "I've waited so long to find someone like you," to which she had the honour of Groucho's Loophole retorting, "Oh, someone like me---I'm not good enough for you, eh?"

So, Dunning asked, just whence hailed Miss Brooks? "I think Miss Brooks was closer to being an extension of me than anything," Arden replied. "I can't explain that too well, except that when I grew up I knew a lot of teachers, they were friends of my aunts, and I think that had a lot to with what Miss Brooks became." They must have been transcendent of time, place, and remuneration; Shirley Booth had the first crack at auditioning for Our Miss Brooks and flunked---as producer Harry Ackerman noted, she couldn't see past the era's underpaid teacher to find and have fun with the character.

Dunning steered Arden toward David Shipman's book, The Great Movie Stars, a chapter of which was devoted to Arden, whom Shipman credited with saving many a film; her first appearance on the screen, Shipman had written, “always caused an appreciative buzz" sincet she "could do more with a glance, suggesting surprise, disapproval, distaste, all at the same time," as Dunning transcribed Shipman's assessment.

That proved news to Arden, who couldn't bring herself to see her own film work until much later in her life. "I had a great complex because I had an extremely beautiful mother who had been in the theater for just a short time," she replied, "and I grew up thinking I was some kind of monster, because people would say, 'Isn't it too bad she doesn't look like her mother?' So I had a rather bad feeling about myself, and I couldn't stand to go and sit at rushes, or go to premieres, you know. Only when the studio forced me did I go to one."

Arden was never unattractive. Bob Hope sang "I Can't Get Started" to her in The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 (the song eventually became ill-fated jazz virtuoso Bunny Berigan’s calling card); she looked like she might have been itching to get to the Rainbow Room because you were finally going to work up your nerve to ask her to dance. Two decades later, as a TV Guide solo cover (she’d also done a cover with Gale Gordon, who played Conklin on radio and television), Arden resembled Lucille Ball’s more commonsensible but no less anxious sister. (A nice irony, that: Lucy herself turned down Our Miss Brooks to stay with My Favourite Husband--—but she recommended Arden for the part.) And, somewhere between Follies ’36 and TV Guide, there lurked sets of Arden among the movie star paper dolls in many a young girl’s collection.

What a difference several decades made. "I'm beginning to see these pictures, occasionally on The Late, Late Show," Arden crooned. A half wry, half shy chuckle. "And, of course, now it's quite pleasant. I think, 'Well, that gal isn't that bad at all. She looks rather lovely'."

At the time she spoke to Dunning, Arden was struggling to finish her eventual memoir (The Three Phases of Eve) while working on theater tour with her husband, Brooks West. (They married while both debuted on series television, he in My Friend Irma--—also birthed in radio--—and she on Our Miss Brooks.) "Every place we played, people brought me little cassettes of the radio show," she said. "And of course I adored doing the radio show." Between recordings of the radio version and the film copies she kept of the television version ("That wasn't really work; we actually did Miss Brooks for TV in two and a half days"), her four children got to know their mother's signature role after she had departed it.

For all that she kept the show close to her heart, Arden needed time enough before she became comfortable with Our Miss Brooks as her eternal signature. Dunning at the outset asked about it, and Arden didn’t flinch, considering she had left the comely, witty teacher behind when Grease and Grease 2 fans were barely alive.

"Well, I'll tell you," she said, staccato chuckle punctuating the cadence. "I originally loved the theater. I still do. And I had always wanted to have a hit on Broadway that was created by me. You know, kind of like Judy Holliday and Born Yesterday. And I griped about it a little. And someone said to me, 'Do you realise that, if you had a hit on Broadway, probably a hundred or two hundred thousand people might have seen you in it, if you'd stayed in it long enough. And this way, you've been in Miss Brooks, everybody loves you, and you've been seen by millions.’ So, I figured I'd better shut up while I was ahead."

Revealed at last. Connie Brooks’s real prize pupil.


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