(American, 1950, 138 minutes, b&w, 35mm)
following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers
Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies
at Pennsylvania State University:
For brilliant, irascible Joe Mankiewicz, ALL ABOUT EVE was one of a clutch of stylish and thoughtful films he wrote and directed for Twentieth Century-Fox in a remarkable six year period. Beginning with DRAGONWYCK's American Gothic rumblings in 1945, there followed the Back Bay soliloquy of THE LATE GEORGE APLEY, and the splendid country-club intrigue of A LETTER TO THREE WIVES, a film which verged on being a rough draft for ALL ABOUT EVE. Then there was HOUSE OF STRANGERS, a sort of King Lear of the Lower East Side, and NO WAY OUT, a fevered indictment of redneckery and racism. Mankiewicz's scripts were talky, wry, and always, finally, deeply caring portraits of America. But ALL ABOUT EVE gathered all of Joe Mankiewicz's beliefs about the American drive to succeed and focused them closely on a miniature world he loved, the theater.
ALL ABOUT EVE was based (as were many dramas in Hollywood's golden age) on a magazine story, Mary Orr's 1946 Cosmopolitan tale, "The Wisdom of Eve." Mankiewicz found gold in this lightly-written story of a would-be actress who claws her way up and over several new friends. He saw the story not so much as an expose of the theater, but a parable for America, a land fascinated by the self-made man. By putting the lust for fame in the eye of a female character, Mankiewicz's criticism of the ethos of self-making became subtler, less trite. (Too subtle, perhaps. Mankiewicz inadvertently deflected film historians away from comparisons between ALL ABOUT EVE and his brother's script for CITIZEN KANE. Each was a film told from several perspectives about a maddeningly opaque central character who rises to the heights of his/her profession and achieves national celebrity.) The theater had long been one of the movies' favored landscapes for cautionary tales about the emotional costs of a successful career for women. In films as recent as MORNING GLORY (1933), STAGE DOOR (1937), THE VELVET TOUCH (1948), and THE SAXON CHARM (1948), playacting on the boards had been ironically contrasted with the search for personal authenticity in romantic and social relationships. ALL ABOUT EVE makes the same comparison, but goes farther, suggesting that Eve's pathology may be a distinctively American one. As the film's "Karen Richards," Celeste Holm, wisely observed, ALL ABOUT EVE -was in fact "the exploration of a neurosis." Clearly, Mankiewicz is fascinated by the predatory Eve; in quieter moments, he wondered if Eve's all-consuming ambition wasn't a little like his own.
Mankiewicz's collection of "theater types" doubles as a catalog of American types. Each faces the "bitch-goddess, success," personified by Eve Harrington. There's "Margo Channing," played like a combination of rolling thunder and old lace by Bette Davis (famously, a last-minute substitute for Claudette Colbert); Margo, an old hand at the success game, who finds herself outdone by the diabolical Eve Harrington and her Machiavellian scribe, Addison De Witt. "Bill Sampson," (Gary Merrill) is Margo's lover-director, alternately hard-boiled and passionate, a sucker for the theater's multiple entrancements, even, for a moment, Eve. "Karen Richards," Radcliffe-educated, the adoring wife of the playwright, has never had to confront searing ambition like Eve's. Interestingly, it is she who comes to understand Eve's power more clearly than anyone else. Her husband, "Lloyd Richards" (Hugh Marlowe), is the emotionally sluggish playwright who can't tell that he's the tool of someone else's schemes. "Birdie," played by the indispensable Thelma Ritter, is a Greek chorus with a Brooklyn accent. She's trouped on the vaudeville stage, where she "closed the first half" for years, and her years of hard experience in tank towns and boarding houses make her the first to be suspicious of Eve's devotion. Marilyn Monroe's pneumatic "Miss Caswell," "a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Arts," a would-be Eve without the stomach for it, suggests that behind every theater's fire curtain, there lurks yet another applause-starved actress, ready to murder for a good part. Monroe's air of being out of the intellectual loop in the film was apparently not an act, and her scene in the lobby of the theater took twenty-five takes to complete. And then, there is "Phoebe".…
"Eve Harrington," as played by Anne Baxter, though, provides the film's core of menace. Breathy, wide-eyed, agonizingly helpful, constantly fingering a stiletto; watching the mousy kid from, god forbid, Wisconsin, turn into a gargoyle is one of the film's great masochistic pleasures. She is abetted by "Addison DeWitt," columnist, boulevardier, and professional character assassin. Addison is incarnated by George Sanders in a manner that became such a trademark that he patented it; for many years, the role of an elegant, acid-tongued social sniper was known as "the George Sanders part." Years later, he would title his autobiography The Memoirs of a Professional Cad, and when he killed himself with an overdose of sleeping pills in 1972, his suicide note said that boredom with life had finally overwhelmed him. Sanders' laconic ill-temper was also not much of a stretch. He spent most of his time off camera napping in his dressing room, and Mankiewicz had to constantly rouse him from his torpor to play DeWitt.
Mankiewicz makes Shubert Alley a film noir thoroughfare, a street of nightmares as well as of dreams. Eve Harrington, like everyone in the film, is exaggerated, but justifiably so, for this is the theater. Mankiewicz's universe is as exuberant as it is cynical. Here, every emotion is felt deeply and expressed noisily and wittily, and everyone plays to the balconies. ALL ABOUT EVE tosses aside the earnest realism of the decade's other great film about theater, THE COUNTRY WIFE. Yet, ALL ABOUT EVE is no mere operatic confection. It is a caustic burlesque on success, for each of the sympathetic characters -- Karen, Lloyd, Bill, Margo -- have found success in more acceptable ways than Eve. Eve's machinations make them each wonder how much more they might have been willing to do to get to the top, if they'd had to. Not surprisingly, Anne Baxter remembered filming as "like a delightful group therapy session, and Mankiewicz was the psychiatrist: We're all just glass to him, and he sees everything that makes us tick."
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
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