10: ALL ABOUT EVE: 1950. Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz. US. Melodrama. Bette Davis. George Sanders. Anne Baxter. Thelma Ritter. Celeste Holm. Marilyn Monroe.
Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, a drama written as well as directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, from a 1946 short story The Wisdom of Eve, by Mary Orr (aka Mary Orr Denham, 1910-2006, American actress and author), who sold the story rights to Twentieth Century Fox for $5,000. Although not credited, she apparently received the Screen Writers Guild award. Mary Orr says the inspiration came from an anecdote told her by the actress Elizabeth Bergner (1897-1986), when she was performing in the 1943/44 Broadway version of The Two Mrs Carrolls (originally written 1935 by ‘Martin Vale’, a pseudonym for Marguerite Vale Voiller). Bergner had taken pity on a young fan – referred to as “that terrible girl”, but who then attempted to take over her life. This story, still apparently without naming names, later featured in Bergner’s biography. However, another legend has it that the story’s origins lay in the rivalry between Tallulah Bankhead and her understudy, Lizabeth Scott, when performing the 1942 Thornton Wilder’s play The Skin of Our Teeth. Perhaps, as is so often the case, it was a happy combination of the two.
Duration is 138 minutes; the budget was $1.4million, and box office receipts were $8.4million – so a goodly profit! The characters are:
Margo Canning (Bette Davis) – big Broadway star, but “just turned 40”. One description was an “ageing, egomaniac grande dame.”
Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) – younger, scheming, ambitious, pretends to be Margo’s fan, becomes her understudy, then the next Broadway star with her eye on Hollywood – “outwardly docile, inwardly scheming” and manipulative. She constructs a fake backstory of being young Second World War widow, which almost everyone buys into – at first.
Birdie Coonan (Thelma Ritter) – Margo’s maid and confidante, who distrusts Eve on sight, and instinctively disbelieves her sob story.
Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) – the theatrical critic, and opening narrator, who soon discovers Eve’s true secret past. Aptly named, a perfect vehicle for Sanders’ dry, sardonic wit, described as a “powerful critic who reeks of malignant charm”. He eventually uncovers Eve’s real identity as ‘Gertrude Slescynski’, who was never married or with a deceased war-hero husband, but instead forced to flee her hometown after an affair with her boss. He is now able to blackmail her, telling her she “belongs” to him. Other cast include:
Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill) – Margo’s boyfriend, a director, eight years her junior, who Eve tried to seduce.
Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) – Margo’s best friend who introduced her to Eve.
Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe) – Karen’s husband and successful playwright, who Eve hoped to steal.
Miss Claudia Casswell (Marilyn Monroe) – younger drama college newcomer, and DeWitt’s latest squeeze.
Phoebe (Barbara Bates) – The younger, ‘high-school’ fan of Eve who will continue the cycle.
Once again, pre-production, a number of other names were being touted for the various roles, and especially for that of Margo. Mankiewicz had originally envisaged the role for Susan Hayward (1917-1975, born Edythe Marrenner), but she was deemed “too young”, while Marlene Dietrich was “too German”. Gertrude Lawrence (1898-1952) came with too many restrictions on how she wanted to act the role. Zanuck wanted Barbara Stanwyck, but she was unavailable. Tallulah Bankhead was also considered, as was Davis’s old rival, Joan Crawford, who was already working on The Damned Don’t Cry. Claudette Colbert almost clinched the role, but suffered an injury, and again Mankiewicz considered Ingrid Bergman, before eventually offering it to Bette Davis, who had just finished her 18-year stint at Warner Brothers. She read the script and loved it, deeming it one of the best ever. Subsequently the part was revised, making Margo more abrasive, less genteel. It was perfect, and is probably the best Bette Davis role and performance – Margo was Davis; Davis was Margo. Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan or John Garfield were considered for the role of Bill Sampson, before being offered to Gary Merrill, who was Mr Bette Davis anyway! Nancy Davis, as she was, before she became Nancy Reagan, was considered for the role of Karen. Thank goodness not! Both Angela Lansbury and Zsa Zsa Gábor (married to George Sanders from 1949 to 1954) were considered for the minor role of Miss Casswell, before it went to then unknown, Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962, born Norma Jeanne Martenson). Monroe, always rather mentally fragile, was totally intimidated by Bette Davis, who frequently “barked” at her, resulting in numerous retakes and Monroe being physically sick. It was probably not a happy memory for her. Anne Baxter (1923-1985), whose filmography was from 1940 to 1980, was the granddaughter of the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Barbara Bates, playing the role of Phoebe – George Sanders DeWitt drawling “Hello, and who are you?” – was, in real life, only two years younger than Anne, born 1925, died 1968.
Thus it was that a tightly scripted story, an almost theatrical movie about the theatre, by a series of chances and accident, bought together the perfect actors for each part. Bette Davis was a talented, wholly professional, actress, frustrated by years of bad roles and worse scripts – perhaps factors she recognised in her portrayal of Margo, together with her long-running on/off-screen bitchy rivalry with Joan Crawford. George Sanders (born 1906 in St. Petersburg, Russia, died by suicide 1972), also suffered from what he considered to be mediocre roles beneath his skill and intellect – he spoke French, Spanish, German and Russian. In addition to movie, theatre and television acting, he was a singer, song-writer, musical composer, and author. Indeed, he rather regarded acting with lofty disdain – hence perfect for the role of critic. One biography claimed his father was the illegitimate son of a prince of the House of Oldenburg, with connections to pre-Revolutionary Russian nobility. Her certainly had German, Estonian and Scottish ancestors. His filmography was from 1934 to 1973, often – with his suave, upper-class English accent – playing villains. He – quite rightly – got an Oscar for his role of DeWitt. He played ‘The Saint’ – from the character by Leslie Charteris – from 1938 to 1940, and then, a version on the same theme, ‘The Falcon’ from 1941 to 1942, when he was killed off, and the role passed to the ‘Falcon’s’ brother – actually George’s real life older brother, Tom Conway (1904-1967). Like Davis, this was, without doubt, his best movie, although I liked him in the role of George Zellaby, in the 1960 British movie The Village of the Damned, the quite faithful adaption of John Wyndham’s 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos. He was married four times, and reputed regarded women as “strange little creatures”. With both his physical and mental health deteriorating, and the deaths of his mother and brother, he took his own life, leaving a suicide note that read: “Dear World. I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.” Afterwards, his friend David Niven, in his autobiography, claimed George had predicted as long ago as 1937 that he would die by taking an overdose of barbiturates at age 65. A spooky self-fulfilling destiny, if true, but Niven was apt to tell tall stories.
My own commentary as at 19/03/1989.
I remember seeing Bette Davis in a little film Fog Over Frisco (1934) which is one of these unsung gems – good-bad films. In All Above Eve (1950) she plays ageing actress Margo. Davis herself thought this film brilliant – script, director, fellow actors. And one cannot help feel that there is something of Davis herself in the Margo character, talented, ageing, brilliant, bitter and bitchy. The story (told initially from the rather smug critic’s viewpoint – played by George Sanders, he of the ‘Saint’ and ‘Falcon’ movies) tells of the meteoric rise of an obscure would-be actress Eve from mooning about Margo’s stage door to ousting her from the play and getting the theatre award. At the end the critic moves in for the ‘kill’, he knows her true past, her lies, her weakness and submits her to sexual blackmail (“You’re mine, Eve – forever.” Saunders has just the right voice, cultivated menace) but in her hotel room Eve finds yet another star-struck young thing as worshipful of her as she was of Margo (who has bitchily retreated in high dungeon), and when Sanders sees her (“Hello, and who are you?”) we know the cycle is about to begin again. In retrospect a clever and ingenious ending where the scheming deceitful Eve (Anne Baxter) will get her comeuppance, having evolved from sugar-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth to a rather haughty bitch herself. But it’s Davis who really steals the show – right from the first reel she dominants (as someone said it’s really “All about Margo”) and I’m trying to think of another film where one star does so, and so blatantly.
All About Eve (1950) was one of Bette Davis’ favourite films – an excellent intelligent script for a change, well directed, and with a cast of enthusiastic professionals. Davis is quite brilliant as the larger than life, but very vulnerable, theatre actress Margo Canning, unsure of her love affair with the younger director, and threatened by Eve, the rather creepy, snide, overambitious and contriving understudy, who not only tries to steal Margo’s part and fame, but even her lover, if unsuccessfully. At the end Margo gets her man without losing her fire, and Eve, after seducing the playwright and nearly wrecking his marriage, gets instead the equally slimy Addison DeWitt (super swathe George Sanders) the theatre critic. It’s a tight, very clever story with twists and turns, deception and revelation, surprises and a brilliant ‘mills of God’ ending. There are some good lines, especially Margo’s cynicism, and some home truths also. Yes, rates high. Marilyn Monroe makes a small, but unremarkable, part as the pregnant potential stand-in and DeWitt’s prodigy prior to Ann Baxter’s Eve.