It’s All About Eve Arden when Grease is the word…
Eve Arden in a principal role at Rydell High, in the first of the Grease musical movies.
Grease (1978) – Trailer, MovieTrailerMonkey and photos from Paramount Pictures
Teachers in television and movies can be seen in all sorts of ways. Be they inspirational, as who can forget Robin Williams as John Keating in Dead Poets Society (1989) telling his class to seize the day. Or supportive as Margaret Colin’s English Teacher in Pretty in Pink (1986) coming to Molly Ringwald’s Andie’s aid against her bullies. A teacher who also providing comfort also seen with John Heard’s Father Timothy in Catholic Boys (aka Heaven Help Us ) (1984).
Alternatively, teachers can provide much-needed humour as Kimble in Kindergarten Cop (1990). Or teachers can be stern, strict or fearsome, such as Paul Vernon in The Breakfast Club (1985). But long before the boys in the TV series, The Inbetweeners (2008-10) were terrified of Mr Gilbert, and just before Principal Ed Rooney tried to outwit skiving Ferris Bueller (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)) there was Principal McGee in both the Grease movies. This headteacher encompassed all these attributes.
Principal McGee’s qualities were shown in what was only a small role for this character in the original film and its sequel. However, this post will concentrate on this role in the first of these movies, Grease (1978). Principal McGee played in both films by Eve Arden, a Hollywood veteran of such movies as No, No, Nanette (1940) and Mildred Pierce (1945). Her TV roles included The Love Boat (1980) and Hart to Hart (1980).
In Grease in her role, Arden provided more than a few well-remembered moments. She shone in her double comedy act with co-star Dody Goodman who played McGee’s secretary and Arden gave on-screen support in scenes with other cast members.
This wee but pivotal role made an impact on me throughout with Arden’s wonderful portrayal of this jaded, caustic but ultimately caring woman. With much more of Arden and her role later in this post. But first a wee bit of the plot of this seventies film, but set in the fifties.
The film begins with a lovely wee montage of Danny and Sandy, a loved up pair in their late teens. The montage featuring Danny and Sandy’s summer fling on the beach. There’s crashing waves, sunsets and silly photoshoots to the tune of Love is a Many Spendoured Thing in this prologue to the story.
On meeting the couple, their relationship appears to be coming to an end. Sandy (Olivia Newton John) tells her holiday romance Danny (John Travolta), she’s returning home to Australia. She’s upset the relationship is ending and he reassures her it’s not. And Danny tries to take things further as some boys do, but Sandy objects as she’s not that kinda gal.
We then cut to the opening credits with a groovy seventies cartoon with caricatures of the cast reinforcing Danny As a cool dude with slicked back Elvis inspired hair, a black leather jacket. We find out he is also one of the T-Birds, a wee clique of lads at his school.
Sandy seems as innocent as Disney’s Snow White. The cartoon tells us how Grease is the word, covering both the gunk you put in your hair and the other similarly named stuff you put in your car and this titular song written by Barry Gibb aka one of the Bee Gees.
Then the movie starts on a new school year at Rydell High School.. we meet the T-Birds and Pink Ladies all in their final year of High School. Sceptics however will notice however the average age of this younger cast is at least early to mid-20s and yet this not noticed by my 9-year-old self.
This of course when I saw this film back in 1978 at the cinema. And yes, I was one of those girls with all the Grease paraphernalia, way back then. For this reason, this film (unlike its sequel) has not ended up in the Guilty Pleasures pages.
Danny hangs out with his wee gang of five leather-jacketed dudes (with T birds emblazoned on its back) and tells them he met a girl on the beach. The others ask if she put out, as I’m sure boys of a certain age do. Danny is second in command to Kenickie (Jeff Conaway), the coolest kid in the school. The three others, Doody, Sonny and Putzie all hindering rather than supporting these obviously much funkier dudes.
Meanwhile, the Pink Ladies have also arrived at school headed by Rizzo (Stockard Channing) – on-off girlfriend to Kenickie – and her BFFs Marty and Jan. Literally seconds behind the T-Birds also making her way to school is Sandy who is the new girl at school. Sandy has been befriended by Pink Lady, Frenchy (Didi Conn).
Sandy (and Danny) are both unaware the other attends the same school. We meet significant others including teachers, class geeks and annoying girly types. There are a few veteran actors in the cast – which includes Sid Caesar and Joan Blondell – supporting the younger high school senior acting talent.
At lunchtime, Danny and Sandy separately enthuse to their pals about their summer romance. Her in a wholesome sort of way, him as a holiday romance but with a wee bit of innuendo for the benefit of his pals. This is sung about in Summer Nights, a much-loved Number 1 seventies chart hit. It was at the number one spot for what seemed to be almost as long as Four Weddings and a Funeral‘s theme tune from Wet Wet Wet.
Afterwards, Sandy tells the inquisitive Rizzo, her summer love’s name and this name Danny Zuko strikes a chord with the girls. With Rizzo slyly telling Sandy she might meet Danny again one day. Sandy is obviously still besotted… Rizzo reintroduces Danny to Sandy at a football game and surprises both of them.
Danny seems initially as excited as Sandy. However, after realising he’s got to be cool in front of his friends, he ridicules her. Sandy’s hurt and stomps off. This then leads to a will they won’t they, on-off romance… more songs, the school featured in a dance-off in a TV Special and a car race with the T-bird rivals (that could only be remade by the Rock and his Fast and Furious crew).
Let’s take a trip back into the film to tell you more of how Eve Arden made Principal McGee, a much-loved inspirational, supportive, fearsome yet comic teacher… in just a few of her scenes.
We first meet her as Sonny, tries to impress the T- Birds in how he won’t put up with any of the crap from McGee in their final year. The Principal – you guessed it – hearing every word as she materialises by his side. Immediately Arden as McGee’s stern imposing, demeanour – right down to her eyebrows and towering presence – makes him try to retract this statement. He’s almost like a cat caught in the headlights.
Arden is a delight here delivering her lines in such a dry manner – to the obvious amusement of his friends – but this is lost on Sonny and his fear increases. Arden’s facial expressions, convey this headmistress is well used to this complaint, providing apt ironic retorts as he tries to squirm out of what he’s said as he digs himself in deeper.
Her support with the younger cast is also seen, as she meets Sandy briefly to give her enrolment papers showing her in an efficient headmistress role. This is also seen with a few fun but more than sarcastic, deadpan comments with her hapless secretary Blanche (Goodman), when Blanche provides her with the wrong papers.
Her relationship with Blanche, a fun double act seen throughout the film. These are seen at their best as McGee makes announcements over the school tannoy. Blanche providing a wee jingle on the xylophone. The contrast with the teachers is seen with Arden’s jaded character wearily attending the yearly ritual football rally is almost puzzled by Blanche’s constant enthusiasm in her support of these events.
But in a charming scene at the School dance-off, McGee joins in the final steps with the winning pair, shows Arden as a nifty wee dancer in the process. However another of her more moving and touching scenes, McGee gives a lovely sweet, motivational speech for her final year students.
Here she instils hope and optimism her students need on their final day. This is as she talks for the final time over the school tannoy system. The speech reducing Blanche to tears…and then herself with this also having a stirring impact on the pupils.
Arden makes her character one of those headmistresses that you so would have wanted back then compared with some of those other more frightening film or TV teachers. It makes me want to see more of this character as McGee so convincingly portrayed by Arden. This despite the sequel being…erm… So if you want me to tell you more about Grease 2 (1982) and you’ll be there as quick as I can say Greased Lightening.
Weeper Rating: 😦 😦 /10
Handsqueeze Rating: 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂10
Hulk Rating: /10
The Eve Arden Blogathon 2017, No 59
This post was written for Phyllis Loves Classic Movie’s Eve Arden Blogathon. Eve Arden also starred in episodes of two reviewed TV Series The Love Boat and Hart to Hart. Other films with this cast include her with Dody Goodman and Didi Conn in Grease 2. Jeff Conaway in The Eagle Has Landed. Didi Conn also stars in Three on a Date. Olivia Newton John also features in Xanadu. Stockard Channing stars in Heartburn.