Wireless Women, Clueless Men: Eve Arden, Class(room) Act

I am up north for a weekend in Manchester, England, which, for the past twelve months or so, has been some kind of ersatz New York City, a Manhattan in miniature.  Not that the three-and-a-half hour journey from here in Mid-Wales is exactly a subway ride downtown. Before spending an evening among strangers, I am going to listen now to another familiar voice as I continue my tribute to female performers in radio drama. It’s a feature coinciding with the first broadcastellan quiz, which you are herewith encouraged to take. Now, the wireless woman I am commemorating today knew all about quizzes—and smart answers. For about a decade she was America’s schoolteacher: Eve Arden, the mistress of the well-timed one-liners.

Before hitting it big in radio and finding the role with which she became so closely identified thereafter, Arden had been a supporting player in a great many Hollywood films. Nominated for an Academy Award (a small but memorable part in Mildred Pierce), she invested even the sparsest and weakest of lines with caustic wit. On Our Miss Brooks (previously discussed here), Arden got ample opportunities to demonstrate her infallible comedy timing.

With Our Miss Brooks, the situation comedy reached maturity, a sophistication only excelled by the smart, sentimental, and at times socially profound Halls of Ivy. Replacing the rather tired and generic he said/she said routines of vaudeville, the sitcom placed a small group of regular and roughly outlined characters (or caricatures) in more or less outrageous scenes designed to test their clearly defined strengths and weaknesses. Now, Connie Brooks had one prominent weakness: Mr. Boynton, the clueless biology teacher.

Much of the humor in Our Miss Brooks derived from the central character’s attempt to balance her responsibilities as an educator with her not so secret passion and her desire to escape the academic hierarchy, to be as giddy and goofy as a teenager. Mingling with her charge rather than ruling over it, Miss Brooks formed a close bond with one of the students at Madison High, the similarly lovelorn Walter Denton.

However ardent a teacher, Miss Brooks was also Eve; and the apple of her eye was always tantalisingly close. According to sitcom logic, however, she never got very far in her pursuit of Boynton, which, much to our amusement, was destined to go pear-shaped.

Perhaps, Arden identified so closely with her role that she was drawn to a man whose first name matched her on-air persona: fellow actor Brooks West. No need to put Eve on the psychiatrists couch, though. I’m just happy to sit in the back of her class, and listen.

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