As well directed as it is, All About Eve is a writer's picture. It starts like a drippy soap about personal sacrifice and the stage, but quickly spreads out into a full portrait of Broadway life, and then some. Aging star Margo Channing has doubts about her attractiveness - whether her friends and fiancee love her, or the bigger-than-life persona she acts on and off-stage. The writers and directors are concerned about simply making a living, or whether working in Hollywood will compromise their talent. There's a communal willingness to turn their personal get-togethers into 'scenes', and their fondness for cynicism is matched by an ironic susceptibility to phonies who talk a good line. Like the Devil, Machiavellian critic Addison DeWitt agitates the situation, friendless but always in fine company.
Innocent, organized, devoted Eve Harrington turns out to be a master games-player, worming her way into the good graces of the Broadway clique, and eventually clawing her way upward by deceitful means. She's someone everyone has met, the usurper who leapfrogs the merit path by exploiting a personal relationship, or who bags a plum assignment by intimidating key people. Eve manages to charm Margo's best friend Karen into both an introduction and a job. Eve's devotion makes Margo suspicious, and Karen takes up 'the kid's' defense. In the confusion, Eve is able to separate Karen from her better judgement, Margo from her fiancee and her high roost, and secure her own chance to become a sensational stage discovery.
There are lots of stories about 'killers' like Eve Harrington, but few as sophisticated as this. Nailing down Eve's exact crimes isn't so easy, as on the surface she just appears to be allowing others to help her. Eve's basic deceit, manipulating her employer's associates with the aim of taking her benefactor's job, is certainly how business works. Corporate meetings usually have undercurrents of company politics, jockeying for position, and who's Sleeping with Who. In Horatio Alger terms, Eve's ambition to rise quickly to the top generally meets with approval. Birdie Coonan (Thelma Ritter) is soon deeply suspicious of the liberties Eve takes with her intimacy with Margo. As soon as she sees her opening, Eve is in like a shark. And before she can be stopped, she has the opportunity she's been waiting for.
Showbiz bios are usually about the magical quality of talent, and whether it's Cary Grant pretending to be Cole Porter or Liberace playing himself, we're supposed to believe that divine justice always intervenes to reward the talented. All About Eve cautiously avoids showing anybody performing, and instead uses testimony to describe Margo's star qualities, and Eve's sensational breakthrough performance. The standard show-biz adage is that if a shark like Eve weren't talented, none of her machinations would get her anywhere. 1
Realistically, Eve is herself victimized by the bigger fish DeWitt, who knows her through and through and proposes a 'dangerous liason' between them as a price for his support. Cynics need love too, it seems. One wonders if this is how Adolf Hitler got started.
Perhaps the biggest contribution of All About Eve is that it codified the behaviors and practices of the theatrical version of the 'killer'. I don't know if the Stage is more cynical now or not; I remember a friend who went to New York to be a costumer told me that in her case, utter ruthlessness and the using of others was the norm. When I hear the same stuff repeated from kids backstage at High School plays, maybe the truth is that it has always been there. As suggested by its title, All About Eve zeroes in on females as the root of all evil.
The actors reading Mankeiwicz's smart dialogue all come off like champs. This is perhaps Bette Davis' best late-career performance, and she proves that her acting instincts are far stronger than her vanity. The role admits she's no spring chicken, and although she has the biggest scenes and the powerhouse part, she bows out at the end to let Anne Baxter wind up the show. There are no rewrites to keep Margo at the center of attention, as a Joan Crawford type would have mandated. Anne Baxter is icily 'warm' as the Eve Harrington character, and works up a nice Margo Channing-like hauteur for her third-act heights of hubris. But the play remains the thing, as Mankiewicz reserves the fadeout for the Next Girl in line, Phoebe. 2 Played by Barbara Bates, Phoebe is yet another calculating barracuda, waiting to backstab the star as soon as she lets down her guard. 3
Celeste Holm carries the intrigue of the show well, especially in those scenes where she realizes she's allowed herself to be compromised by her own instincts toward fairness. Likewise, George Sanders puts several levels of disguise into his acerbic critic. Deeper than the simply misanthropic Waldo Lydecker of Laura (hey Fox, where's that DVD?), Addison DeWitt is driven by his own intellectual distance from the rest of humanity. DeWitt recognizes and worships Eve's superior gamesmanship apart from sentimental considerations, because he's rationalized all relationships into a cynical Darwinism. You get the feeling that Addison DeWitt could carry on a perfectly honest conversation with Hannibal Lecter.
The thankless roles are those given the supposed leading men, Gary Merrill and Hugh Marlowe. Merrill is better than okay but not as convincing as a dynamic director should be; this is Marlowe's most charming and sensitively played part, and the only one Savant's seen where he shines. He's effectively Nixon-like in Day the Earth Stood Still, but his parts in things like Night and the City and Garden of Evil don't attest to any particular versatility.
Positively shining are Thelma Ritter and Marilyn Monroe. Ritter can be caustic and sentimental at the same time, and augments her handful of great lines with an equal number of priceless telling looks. Monroe nails her glorified bit, which fits into the show even more smoothly than her other standout in the same year's Asphalt Jungle (Hey, Warners', where's...). 4
Savant hadn't seen the film for almost 30 years, but remembered very well the perfect ensemble on Margo Channing's staircase, with Monroe sitting like a bon-bon on the bottom step. She's soon to explode into a phenomenon of the century, totally eclipsing all the notables around her. All About Eve sparkles with that kind of magic.
Fox's DVD of All About Eve has a stunningly transferred picture and clear soundtrack, and is a pleasure to watch, seeming much shorter than it actually is. Alfred Newman's score mixes bombast with a few sinister notes seemingly lifted from the sinister main theme of his Leave Her to Heaven, suggesting the evil lurking in the avaricious female heart. Milton Krasner's b&w lensing looks great, even in the other scene Savant remembered, a pitiful rear-projection shot of Baxter and Sanders walking down a sidewalk. It is so poorly coordinated, they look as if they're roller skating.
The main extra is a full-length AMC Backstory piece on the film, that probably contains a lot of interesting information. But Savant didn't get far enough into it to find out - like many of those docus, its takes too long to get beyond the superficial. Other short text essays in the special features menu are easier to digest. Also included are newsreel excerpts, and interviews from the time with Davis and Baxter, a restoration comparison and a trailer.
Informative commentaries are provided by Celeste Holm, Christopher Mankiewicz and two filmbbok authors, Kenneth Geist and Sam Staggs. There's so much to read about All About Eve in bios of Davis, Mankiewicz and others, that the prize of this DVD is just the excellent rendition of the film itself. Fox may be poky bringing out the riches of its vault, but the quality of their releases is worth waiting for.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
All About Eve rates:
1. Well, maybe on Broadway. In Hollywood, getting a role has more to do with 50 other factors besides
talent - not all of them underhanded. How many actors have we seen in their early careers, riding
on looks or a relationship, gumming up movies with one wretched performance after another. After
years of working, many find their feet and learn their craft. For other actors, it's a familiar
situation, as in any field. An unqualified peer is promoted over you, because of friendship factors.
As your superior, you basically do their job for them, and teach them what the business is about.
Then they are promoted again, while you are confirmed as the boring-but-reliable type. Maybe
the Eves are right, that if you want something in the world, you have to go out and grab it
from other people.
2. This is in line with Mankiewicz giving a lower eschelon cast member in
The Barefoot Contessa the film's plum line: "What she hasn't got, ..."
4. Randy Stuart, of The Incredible Shrinking Man fame, is also in
there somewhere, listed on the IMDB as, 'girl'.