In the early eighties, all the girls I knew pined for large hoop earrings, curly hair, and tight pants just like the changed Sandy in Grease. We piped “You’re the One that I Want,” with its requisite “oooh, oooh, ooohs,” imagining we could lure Danny into the sky with us.
Grease had a staying power thanks to the number of times it was replayed on TV. Although my attention was drawn to all of the figures who rocked leather, one of the administrators made an impression too. Something about those ringing tones of Principal McGee’s (Eve Arden’s) reached me. Her combination of idealism, exasperation, and cynicism echoed adults I knew as she alternately disciplined and inspired Rydell High’s seniors. In a throwaway part, this actress had developed a fully realized character, one for whom I could imagine a history of victories and frustrations with students. She made an impact even on the beauty-enthralled kid that I was.
I didn’t make the connection years later when I listened to Eve Arden’s verbal wizardry in Mildred Pierce (1945). But I looked her up on IMDB, hoping to find her elsewhere, and knew then why Principal McGee had affected me. This was Eve Arden, people, the master of the one liner, the woman who could annihilate a victim with one breath of her scathing tongue. Of course she could match wits with teenagers. Of course they couldn’t fool her and thus convert her into another of the anonymous adults in teen flicks. She was humoring them. She was holding back. She was—dare I say it—so much cooler than they were.
Take the scene when Sonny (Michael Tucci) decides he’s going to stand up to her when he inevitably lands back in her office. “This year she’s gonna wish she’s never seen me,” he tells his buddy. “I just ain’t gonna take any of her crap, that’s all, I don’t take no crap from nobody.”
“Sonny?” she interrupts.
“Hello, ma’am,” he says, all bluster gone.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in homeroom right now?”
“I was just going for a walk.”
“You were just dawdling, weren’t you?”
Even funnier are her remarks and reactions to her incompetent and slightly insane assistant, Blanche (Dody Goodman). Her resignation when Blanche overreacts to the coach’s pre-game enthusiasm is just one example of her understated genius.
I think I fell for her from the start of Mildred Pierce, but I didn’t realize I had until near the end of the film.
Ida’s humor is evident from the start, as when she agrees to give Mildred a job as a waitress just after she separates from her husband. “Kind of a nervous gal, aren’t you?” Ida observes. “Well, you wanna watch that, it’s tough on dishes.”
Ida is the ultimate sarcastic sidekick; her dry delivery is a great foil to Crawford’s sentimental, feminine performance. “When men get around me, they get allergic to wedding rings,” Ida explains when asked about her single status. “You know, big sister type. Good old Ida, you can talk it over with her man to man.”
Ida smirks. “Laughing boy seems slightly burned at the edges,” she observes to Mildred. “What’s eating him?” In fact, every scene between Carson and Arden makes me wish for more, as when Ida gives Wally orchids to put away, saying, “Here, muscle.”
Ida’s critiques of Mildred’s boyfriend, Monty, are always amusing too, even though the man (and actor) is no match for her. When the aristocratic Monty says, “Oh, I wish I could get that interested in work,” Ida drawls, “You were probably frightened by a callus at an early age.” Later, after he’s been milking Mildred and expresses surprise that she might have business problems, Ida retorts, “Don’t look now, but you’ve got canary feathers all over your face.”
I’m not sure why it took me that long, but that’s when I knew for sure I’d found an actress I’d never tire of watching—and more importantly, hearing. I think we can all be thankful Arden was never a huge star, as it meant she would wring everything she could from each line, each expression, and never stop making us laugh.