She played the smart, quick-witted archetype. Never ruffled and always on-top-of-it, actress Eve Arden proved how versatile she could be in front of the camera by performing both dramatic offerings and comedy. Today, fans of Eve Arden know her best as sassy Connie Brooks, lovesick schoolteacher of Madison High, in the weekly sitcom Our Miss Brooks. Miss Brooks taught English to tenth-graders and was loved by real schoolteachers and students who listened in each week and could relate. Apparently incapable of temperament, she found herself trying to resolve comical situations at Madison High, usually clashing with Principal Osgood Conklin, played by versatile actor Gale Gordon, who would later gain greater fame as Lucy’s boss Mr. Mooney.
Born Eunice Quedens on April 30, 1908, Eve Arden dropped out of school at age 16 to pursue an acting career. By 1934 she was cast in the Ziegfeld Follies, and soon film offers followed. Prompted by advice from producer Lee Shubert, she changed her name to Eve Arden claiming she was inspired by two cosmetics bottles in her dressing room, one labeled “Evening in Paris” and the other by “Elizabeth Arden.” Her numerous roles on celluloid include At the Circus (1939), where she played the acrobatic Peerless Pauline opposite Groucho Marx, walking on the ceiling in an effort to thwart his naughty notions. Arden was also the Russian sharp shooter in the rarely talked about comedy The Doughgirls (1944). For her role as Ida in Mildred Pierce (1945), she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Arden also had a strong part in Anatomy of a Murder (1959), along with her real-life husband, Brooks West, who played the local prosecutor who challenges defense attorney James Stewart.
In an era when Burns & Allen, Jack Benny, and Milton Berle dominated television screens, Eve Arden successfully carried the lead on Our Miss Brooks with a comedic persona that was truly an original. Peers in her field were usually either the straight woman or the comedian, but Arden successfully combined both. She played the role of a high school teacher without denigrating the profession.
In my interviews with regular cast mates Richard Crenna and Gloria McMillan, I learned Eve Arden never really liked playing the role of Connie Brooks. Anyone who interviewed her knew she purposely avoided discussion of the program. With a reported income of $200,000 per season, the actress apparently swallowed her pride and accepted the renewal option of her contract. In later years, she confessed to friends that the role wasn’t “half-bad,” according to Crenna, and perhaps she looked down on the role too harshly.
Arden was not the first person considered for the role of Connie Brooks when the show initially began as a radio broadcast. In January 1948, freelancer Don Ettlinger was hired by CBS to write the audition script of the then-titled radio show, Our Miss Booth, with stage actress Shirley Booth (later TV’s “Hazel”) recording an audition/pilot for the network. When the development of the pilot did not pick up enough speed before Booth signed a contract for a new stage production in New York, the lead role in Meet Miss Brooks (now re-titled), was again open. In May 1948, realizing it would take a screen actress to have a flexible schedule for a radio comedy, the second proposal was intended for Joan Blondell, who was unavailable. Executives then offered the role to Lucille Ball, who had to pass because she was under contract as star of the radio series My Favorite Husband. Wanting to help, Ball suggested Arden for the role, according to Greg Oppenheimer, the son of Jess Oppenheimer, who was the producer and head writer of I Love Lucy. Ball’s recommendation led to an audition. CBS signed Arden as the lead in what was eventually Our Miss Brooks; the sitcom would span nine years on radio and four years on television. The rest, as they say, is history. Ironically, it would be Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s company, Desilu, that would later become the production company for the Our Miss Brooks TV series.
Joining the barnyard antics at Madison High was Walter Denton (Richard Crenna) the student who was trying to leave his mark on the world. Whether he was starting a campaign to improve the food in the school cafeteria or pushing to have Miss Brooks named “Teacher of the Year,” he rationalized the practical applications to Miss Brooks, who agreed to help his causes. Walter’s relationship with Principal Conklin’s daughter Harriet (Gloria McMillan) was disdained by Conklin, who took every opportunity to blame Miss Brooks for the pairing.
Miss Brooks had eyes for Philip Boynton (played on radio by Jeff Chandler and Robert Rockwell and on TV by Rockwell), the bashful biology teacher, a science nerd who never took time to learn about the birds and the bees. In one episode, Miss Brooks starts a quarrel with Mr. Boynton so a loving reconciliation can take place. Her efforts are in vain when the biology teacher proves he only has eyes for his pet frog, McDougall. In another episode, Walter has an interesting idea; get Mr. Boynton in trouble and let Miss Brooks take the rap for him. This will make Mr. Boynton grateful enough to accept a favor from the lovesick teacher. Of course, the plan backfires and Miss Brooks is again left to deal with the blustery Principal Conklin.
After three years on television, Our Miss Brooks began slipping in the ratings, and in desperation, the setting was changed. Madison High was torn down for a highway project, and Miss Brooks found a new job at Mrs. Nestor’s Private Elementary School. For reasons that were never disclosed, Osgood Conklin transferred to the same school as the new principal, and many of her former students were still on hand to establish the comical situations. Mr. Boynton was replaced with a young physical education teacher, Gene Talbot, played by Gene Barry, who chased after her in the same manner she had chased Mr. Boynton. The new format never worked; after polling the viewers, the producers brought back Mr. Boynton for the final weeks of the program.
In 1956, Warner Brothers released a big screen movie based on the radio and television program, with most of the television cast reprising their screen roles. The movie featured an origin for Miss Brooks when she first arrived at Madison High, and closed with Miss Brooks succeeding in capturing the affections of Mr. Boynton, resulting in a wedding between the school teachers. Sadly, the radio and TV program never had this union.
If a CBS press release can be believed, Arden accepted speaking engagements to educational groups and PTA meetings and received more than a dozen offers of positions as an English teacher at real high schools. Arden was awarded two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — one for radio and another for television.
When the television show ended, Arden tried another comedy sitcom, The Eve Arden Show (1957). As novelist Liza Hammond, Arden continued to play the role in a manner similar to Connie Brooks. Critics were quick to state that it was Miss Brooks all over again with a different setting. The series was based on the autobiography of Emily Kimbrough, but viewers did not see it that way and agreed with the opinions of the critics. After just 26 episodes, The Eve Arden Show was cancelled.
During the ’60s, Arden raised a family, even naming one of her three daughters “Connie.” In 1967, she made her comeback with The Mothers-In-Law, another situation comedy that was successful enough to run two seasons. Arden, typecast for the role of a high school teacher, now played a housewife. Arden followed this with a number of unsold television pilots, made guest appearances on other television programs, and pleasantly surprised moviegoers when she appeared in the role of Rydell High School’s Principal McGee in Grease (1978) and Grease 2 (1982).
Arden published an autobiography in 1985 titled The Three Phases of Eve which detailed her 50-plus-year career. On November 12, 1990, Eve Arden passed away from cancer and heart disease at her home in Los Angeles at the age of 82.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons
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