All About Eve: Simply Terrific

As the saying goes, “those who do not know history are bound to repeat it.” I think that’s true in most cases. We, as humans, and nations, even, have a responsibility to learn from our mistakes not only from day to day but from generation to generation.

 

This is true in entertainment, too. Nowadays we have Netflix, Hulu, the Internet, and cable TV just to name a few. But when it comes to movies, cinema has a very simple history (in terms of going from point A to point B) than other mediums. The root of movies is the theater, especially Broadway. We see the fingerprints and the homages to Broadway sprinkled all throughout cinematic history.

 

In all honesty, though, we really shouldn’t be surprised. Just as many stars, writers, directors, set and costume designers were poached from the Broadway scene in the early days of movies, but that’s also true today. Many, many actors, in particular, jump back and forth from the stage to the screen.

 

We’ve seen tributes to Broadway in some films on our list, too, including The Broadway Melody, and Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. Broadway, in my mind, is as American as NASCAR and it has a place in our wider entertainment culture, too.

 

Sometimes, though, the life of a Broadway actor or director can be overly romanticized, glossing over the high-stakes game of their world as well as the long hours put in during rehearsals. This week’s film, All About Eve, starts as a highly doctored version of the Broadway lifestyle. The 1950 film directed by Joseph Mankiewicz starts as one adoring fan, Eve Harrington (played by Anne Baxter) and the star who is the subject of Eve’s obsession, Margo Channing (Bette Davis). By the end, though, our expectations are subverted in a classic film bait and switch and we find ourselves on the wrong side of a megalomaniac’s obsession with stardom, money, and power.

 

Now, for the rest of the film.

 

Plot

 

All About Eve starts out with Eve Harrington (Baxter) finding herself being introduced in front of a large audience to receive a prestigious award. The scene is narrated by newspaper critic Addison DeWitt, played by George Sanders and his internal monologue introduces us to every major character in the room. His pithy and sarcastic delivery reminded me of a classic noir film.

 

Anyway, the film then shifts to eight months earlier and Eve is just a woman who is dying to meet her idol, Margo Channing, the queen of Broadway at the height of her influence. When Eve finally does meet Channing, Eve enraptured everyone present with the tragic tale of her life: a poor child who loves the theater then lost her beloved husband in WWII. Channing takes pity on her and offers Eve a job as her assistant.

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Channing soon becomes jealous of Eve, who appears to be perfect, innocent, and one who doesn’t believe that she’s good. Eventually Eve, who saw each performance of the play that Channing currently stars in, worms her way onto the cast as Margo’s understudy. Through a series of events, Eve has to take the place of Margo one night and she is instantly a hit. 

 

Throughout the film, it’s told from a number of different viewpoints, except for the two main players, Eve and Margo. The start of the film is told from the point of view of two supporting characters: DeWitt, the film critic, and Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), the wife of the playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe) the people responsible for Eve’s meteoric rise. Much like DeWitt’s internal monologue helps guide us through the first scene (and the early stages of the movie), the attention turns to Richards and her memories of the events keep the pace going.

 

The interesting thing about All About Eve is that it’s story is strong enough and progresses so well that it doesn’t need this narration. However, the narrators spewing their thoughts out on the soundtrack gives us valuable insight into their minds and their own lives that we can only really get with a book. 1.

 

Writing

 

All About Eve was written for the screen by Mankiewicz and he based it off the 1946 Mary Orr short story “The Wisdom of Eve.” The film received no writing nominations.

 

The lack of nominations, though, does not mean that the film was a bad example of writing. It’s the opposite in this case. All About Eve is a brilliantly written piece of art that truly deserves some recognition. As has been the case with many older movies like Grand Hotel or It Happened One Night, or even Casablanca, the script relies on a series of great one-liners and funny comebacks. At first, it seemed like a breath of fresh air that All About Eve didn’t rely on these to help tell the story. The more you watch it, though, the more you realize that this film is no different than those others that I mentioned. But this is much more subtle. Peppering the script, too, are numerous metaphors that make me feel like I’m reading Michael Chabon.

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However, that is not what I noticed right in regards to the dialogue. All About Eve is all about conflict and the script is rife with it. Yet the conflict in this film, more than many others that I can think of, is so perfectly thought out and paced that I couldn’t help but feel amazed. The characters spitting fire at each other made the conflict feel like two tectonic plates grinding up against each other until the crust breaks and the earthquake erupts, sending shockwaves off the screen. 1.

 

Sound

 

Alfred Newman earned a nomination for Best Original Score at the 23rd Academy Awards. His score is like many others at the time, full, rich, and layered with strings. His score, though, is so impactful because of how rarely it’s actually used. As many video gamers will tell you, stuff is about to go down when the music starts and All About Eve is just the same. Saved for the most dramatic parts and some transitions, the score walks the tightrope between being too little and being too much.

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The real achievement is sound recording and sound editing. This film also received recognition from the Academy as it won the Best Sound Recording Oscar. One of the best examples of this are scenes with telephones. After telephones landed in every home in the 20th century, landline phones and cell phones continue to play a big role in films when necessary. This is especially true of movies that take place in the 20th century or were made during that time. In 1950, people spent a lot of time on the phone. When this is portrayed in movies, particularly in older ones with limited soundtracks, there’s not usually anyone on the other end. Sure the scene may jump back and forth between people on the phone in their homes or in a phone booth, but we only ever hear them when we are in their lives. This is not true with All About Eve. You can hear both sides of the conversation without a single edit taking place. This seems simple and obvious, but from the films I’ve seen of the era, this is an especially rare phenomenon. 1.

 

Set Design

 

Edith Head and Charles LeMaire walked away with an Oscar for Best Costume Design – Black and White at the 23rd Academy Awards. This award was well-deserved as the costume design had to touch on more than one world. On the one hand, the costumes had to be up to date and chic enough to portray an accurate version of America in 1950. But on the other hand, the costumes had to have an element of fantasy about them, particularly when it comes to the plays acted on the stage. These costumes are by no means as great and varied as other films like The Great Ziegfeld, but they’re good nonetheless. The duality of purpose for the costumes is what helps to send this film over the edge. 1.

 

Cinematography

 

Milton R. Krasner was nominated for Best Cinematography – Black-and-White but did not win. The cinematography is brilliant in this film, stuck between the 1930s and 1940s style of a camera showing off a boxy room, and the grander style of the epics to come later that decade and beyond.

 

First of all, the camera moves a lot in this film, adding layers to a generally boxy set. At various times in the same scene, the camera may change from one actor’s face to another in a single long shot. It’ll pan quickly from side to side or rise and fall with the action. This is a newer approach.

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Additionally, the film shows facial expressions perfectly with a number of long face shots on all characters. These are a great tried-and-tested method for showing emotion. But the shots are also punctuated with cigarette smoke. Smoking is VERY prevalent in this film and smoke in itself can be quite artistic. I’m always reminded of a classic noir movie when I see black and white film capturing wisps of smoke, curling away into the sky. The cigarette smoke is most likely insignificant, but I loved it. 1.

 

Acting

 

I’ve already lauded All About Eve for its good moments throughout the film, but this category and directing is where the movie becomes great, classic, and also very complex.

 

In the starring role of Margo Channing is Bette Davis. Davis, who was 42 at the time of the film’s release, found her own life parallels the life of her on-screen persona. Hollywood throughout most of its history has generally alienated both men and women, but most especially women, as they’ve gotten older. While ageism does not appear to be as prevalent in movies today, it’s still there, and it was certainly a thing in the 1950s. Young, sexy women do sell, after all.

 

Channing suffers from ageism in her own way, but she continually breaks through those barriers by remaining an independent spirit. Channing begins the film as sweet and caring and retains this throughout the movie. However, she also has a fierce side, and she won’t settle for being second-best. Her outright refusal at first to marry her lover, Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill) helps her independent fire burn brightly within her.

"All About Eve"Bette Davis

1950 20th Century Fox

** I.V.
“All About Eve” Bette Davis 1950 20th Century Fox ** I.V.

Channing does have a fall from grace after Eve’s plan is put into motion, but she’s headstrong enough to both recover from it and to not let it affect her too much.

 

I’d never seen Bette Davis on screen before and this performance of hers, one that earned her a Best Actress nomination, is one for the ages. It’s not that Davis is on the same level as say Meryl Streep, but that she’s just so damned magnetic. I couldn’t keep my eyes off her and her portrayal of the jovial, headstrong, and charismatic Margo Channing. She was truly brilliant.

 

On the other side of the coin is Anne Baxter who played Eve Harrington. Eve is the young up and comer who might be just a tad too obsessed with Margo. When we first meet Eve, she’s a shy woman with a soft voice and an unassuming demeanor. She tells her story of her personal tragedy so well that she’s made Margo’s assistant.

 

From there, Eve attaches herself to Margo’s hip, always popping up when Margo least expects it. She’s just like a silent cat, appearing suddenly in the doorway. Through the first hour or so of the film, Eve maintains her innocence, slowly working her way onto the cast of Margo’s current play by being her understudy. But from the midpoint on, we learn that Eve is a master of manipulation, turning all of Margo’s friends against her and bringing them into Eve’s camp. Once Eve seizes the role from Margo, she never lets it go, using critic Addison DeWitt (played by George Sanders who won Best Supporting Actor for this role) and other theatre critics to keep her in the role.

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After that, Eve blackmails who she can, and takes no prisoners during her rise to the top. Eve is presented as the innocent figure at first, but then she turns evil and calculating. Baxter, who was also nominated for Best Actress for this role, was Davis’s equal, commanding the screen when she could wrest it from Davis. 1.

 

Directing

 

Scoring an Oscar win for Best Director was Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz, the American-born director and writer of All About Eve adds an unbelievable dimension to the film, many of those layers I wasn’t expecting, nor did I pick up on until after the viewing.

 

First and foremost, from the perspective of Mankiewicz’s day-to-day job, his presence is most felt by the demands placed on his actors. Make no mistake, the film is as perfectly cast as any other film I’ve seen to date. There was not a weak link in the armor and he’s also able to get the most out of his actors. The film is the only one in Oscar history to have four female acting nominations, Baxter and Davis for Best Actress, and Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter for Best Supporting Actress.

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Mankiewicz’s writing also helps to pace the film. As I said above, All About Eve is perfectly paced and the film’s 138 minutes fly by in the blink of an eye. By the time I reached the end, I stared at the credits for several seconds, digesting the brilliance that I just saw.

 

The film, however, was an early Cold War film, and like other films from the 1950s, the movie reflects many Cold War sentiments, as well as reflections of American society as a whole. First on this list is the societal expectation of the rule of the patriarchy.

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This one requires a little bit of backstory. It’s a well-known historical fact that while the US was at war from 1941 to 1945, there was a shortage of workers in manufacturing and other areas of war production or traditionally male jobs. So millions of women went to work, helping to support the men abroad. It’s no secret that the US won a war on two fronts (with a BIG help from the Soviets in the European theater) for a number of reasons. One of those primary reasons was the fact that the US just had more tanks, more bullets, more planes, and more ships than the enemy. The war awoke a sleeping giant of American manufacturing that was asleep during the Great Depression.

 

After the war, enormous pressure was placed on women to return to the home, to their more traditional domestic roles. I don’t like those labels, but it was a different time. However, women moving from the factory floor, doing a job, earning a paycheck, and making a real difference on a grand scale is a hard thing to give up. The expectation was that the women would get married, have children and be stay-at-home moms for the rest of their lives. Again, different times, but this idea is part of a larger, and much more complicated societal expectation. This coincided with the general expansion of the American dream following the war.

 

Margo Channing falls victim to this idea. Initially, she’s resistant to marry her love Bill, citing her career or other reasons for turning down his proposals. As the movie goes on, though, Margo realizes that she’s had her fun, in a sense, on Broadway and it’s time for her to settle down. At one point, she laments that she can’t really be a true woman until she has a man by her side. All About Eve only furthers this idea of the patriarchy that still has its grips on our society today.

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Being a Cold War film, though, we can’t help but talk about communism, but the commentary was much more subdued to me, and it’s not one that I picked up on until I was reading about the film for this already very long blog post. I’ll just say it, Eve and Addison DeWitt are homosexual characters. I didn’t know this nor was it overly apparent to me. But, to an audience in 1950, their homosexuality may have jumped off the screen. Eve and Addison are partners in crime for a time, and Eve uses him to get what she wants before he turns on her near the end of the film. The pair are also apparently loveless and sexless.

 

Heterosexual couples in the film are portrayed as being happy and jovial, whereas Addison and Eve are both stone-faced, cold, calculating, and manipulative. Homophobia went hand in hand with anti-communist sentiment at the time. Gay characters are the communists in this film. Gay equals bad in the same way that communism equals bad. And while Eve nor Addison really get their comeuppance at the end of the film, their roles in the movie are enough to inspire fear and a belief that the characters are genuinely bad people.

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I’ve thought long and hard about how to feel about this film, following the previous two revelations. I don’t agree with the idea of the patriarchy, nor do I want to shame homosexuals and communists. So I can’t like Mankiewicz for his stance on those two issues.

 

Again, though, I do have to put it into perspective. Communism was a perceived threat to an American way of life and that was driven primarily by fear of the bomb, feature of the general rise of communism. Homophobia was accepted and the idea of the housewife was so ingrained in the consciousness of the American society that it’s almost preposterous to imagine domestic life being anything different at the time.

 

Additionally, All About Eve is just too damn good. 1.

 

Bonus Points

 

I’m going to give a bonus point to the writing, and two to acting. The second point belongs to Marilyn Monroe. All About Eve is generally regarded as one of the first major roles in the career for the actress formerly known as Norma Jean. Monroe is a fascinating titan of American show business whose career and untimely 1962 death continue to arouse debate in certain circles today. The woman who was aggressively marketed to exude sexuality in a very sex-conscious world led a very difficult life, from poverty as a young woman, to being exploited all throughout her modeling and acting careers. I feel like the triumph and tragedy of her life deserves a point.

 

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Final Score: 10/10

 

Oscar Facts

 

All About Eve won the 23rd Academy Award for Best Picture on March 29, 1951, at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles. It beat out Born Yesterday, Father of the Bride, King Solomon’s Mines, and Sunset Boulevard (one of my favorite films) for Best Picture. The award was presented by Ralph Bunche and accepted by producer Darryl F. Zanuck. All About Eve is one of only three films to be nominated for 14 Academy Awards (joining Titanic and La La Land), winning six.

 

Other winners of the night included José Ferrer winning Best Actor, Judy Holliday winning Best Actress, and Josephine Hull winning Best Supporting Actress. Sunset Boulevard is one of only three films to have an acting nomination in every category but to not win. The ceremony was hosted by Fred Astaire.

 

Final Thoughts

 

Next week, I’ll stay in the 1950s with 1955’s Marty. After that, it’s Chicago, Going My Way, Spotlight, 12 Years a Slave, American Beauty, and All Quiet on the Western Front.

 

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