Davis is on prime, imperious form in All about Eve, imbuing acclaimed stage actress Margo Channing with the imposing resilience of a woman who’s made it to middle age in an industry that reveres youth. She’s the glamorous sun around which all her friends and fans orbit, commanding attention both off-stage and on. When the youthful, seemingly sweet aspiring actress Eve (Anne Baxter) enters the picture, loudly idolising Margo while quietly trying to claim her life as her own, the older actress is among the first to see what’s going on.
When she tries to tell her social circle, including her director boyfriend Bill (Gary Merrill, whom Davis would marry shortly after filming wrapped), they put her worries down to paranoia. They know she’s self-conscious about being eight years Bill’s senior, and assume she just feels threatened by the arrival of a pretty younger woman on her turf. Soon they learn that she was right all along, but while Margo’s been waiting for them to catch up, she’s been re-evaluating what she wants from life.
All about Eve encapsulates all that was magnetic about Davis as a performer. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s screenplay gifts her some of the most enduring lines in film history (‘Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!’), and she delivers them with the regal acidity that was her calling card. Margo may see through Eve’s sugary-sweet charade, but she’s still shaken by what she represents – how easily a bright-eyed newcomer could upset all she’s worked so hard for. There’s a real vulnerability beneath Margo’s spiky outer shell that allows Davis to play hard and soft simultaneously, and the result is a turn that deepens her established intimidating persona into a rounded, textured performance that stands as one of the greatest of her career.
Chloe Walker, bfi.org.uk, 19 July 2021
A contemporary review
Mankiewicz’s new film All about Eve makes a grandiose effect of being very cynical and very sophisticated about the New York stage, and it has been accepted at its face value by a large part of the American press and the American public. (Its chances at the British box-offices are perhaps not so good.) All about Eve cannot truly be compared with Sunset Boulevard, which looked detachedly at a tragedy of a silent film star who has outlived her fame, and wrung from it an acrid pictorial sort of poetry. Mankiewicz’s film is an emotional backstage drama from within, studded with glib Coward-Arlen epigrams and so starved of visual substance that nearly the whole weight of its 2 hours 18 minutes falls on the shoulders of one player – Bette Davis. It will leave nobody any wiser (or sadder) about the New York or any other stage.
The near opening shot of Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) receiving the Sarah Siddons award for the best acting of the year in a well-presented scene, is frozen while the five ‘friends’ she is about to thank in her speech take up in turn a flashback account of her career. This goes back to a year before, when, as a stage-struck fan in a cheap mackintosh, Eve is led wide-eyed into the dressing room of her idol and leading New York actress, Margo Channing (Bette Davis).
This first sequence of the recapitulation is promising. Margo, removing her make-up, scoffs viciously at the worshipping intruder until the latter shyly tells her sob-story of devotion and war-widowhood. The moment when the hard façade of the exhibitionist actress melts into sentimentality and tears contains a comment on theatre people not to be matched in any of the subsequent passages. It also establishes that authority that Bette Davis exhibits throughout the film.
Present and equally affected by this pathetic confession are Margo’s director and lover (Gary Merrill) her playwright (Hugh Marlowe) and his wife (Celeste Holm), the discoverer of Eve. Sole abstainer and heretic is Thelma Ritter, now typed for ever as a distiller of hard-bitten female repartee. Eve is established as Margo’s friend, secretary and helpmeet and it is clear to the initiated eye that she is a slut who will bite every hand that feeds her.
In next to no time she is attempting to seduce the director and getting herself fixed up as Margo’s understudy by a system of lying and blackmail that could hardly suffice in a milieu so jealously alerted to the stab-in-the-back. To substantiate the hypnotic powers of deception to which all her hardboiled victims pay such ready tribute, she should have for the audience something of the morbid lure of a Becky Sharp. Miss Baxter’s guile, after its first exposure, is transparent, tedious and repetitive. It is not within her power to salvage the part as Bette Davis so brilliantly does with that of Margo.
As the ageing actress fearful of losing her younger lover, the latter is jealous, tormented, hysterical and vain, full of theatrical emotion but always warmly sympathetic; perhaps too consciously ‘courageous’ in lending herself to unflattering lighting and make-up, but always in absolute command of a very great talent. This she demonstrates at its fullest when, without a word but with a whole range of expression, she moves about in the theatre foyer while the villainous dramatic critic maliciously extols the brilliance of the understudy she rightly suspects of designs on her lover as on her career.
The dramatic critic, played by George Sanders at his sleekest in an astrakhan collar, is a favourite Hollywood stereotype, and it is he who purrs out the juiciest epigrams while deliberately advancing the career of Eve, and in turn blackmailing her into accepting his advances: (‘We are very much alike, we have talent, unlimited ambition and no human feelings. We deserve each other.’) Not only does he consolidate the plushy unrealism of the atmosphere but, together with Eve, he serves to emphasise by contrast the essential golden-heartedness of a bunch of abnormally (for a film) articulate troupers.
They are, Miss Davis and the wisecracks aside, conventional film types, just as the film is a conventional backstage story, despite its pretensions. For Margo’s dream which underneath the grease-paint is just like any other girl’s – of a fireside and a man coming home to it – comes true; and Celeste Holm, who was highest on Eve’s list for liquidation, keeps her man, who was Eve’s most gullible customer. And to keep realism further at bay Mankiewicz has seen fit to annexe a clever-clever epilogue in which Eve, alone on her night of triumph with the Sarah Siddons trophy, is offered and falls for the exact line she worked on Margo by another young fan, also a slut, thus presenting us with poetic justice in action.
All about Eve is in essence a play fabricated into celluloid with absolutely no feeling for pictorial style or form. Yet one is not surprised to hear Mankiewicz cited as the writer-director of the year. The film has just the sort of surface glitter that dazzles the eyes of the selection committee of the Academy of Motion Picture Art. It will undoubtedly add to Darryl Zanuck’s conviction that Art pays off.
Richard Winnington, Sight & Sound, January 1951
ALL ABOUT EVE
Directed by: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
©/Production Company: Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation
Produced by: Darryl F. Zanuck
Written for the screen by: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Based on the short story ‘The Wisdom of Eve’ by: Mary Orr
Director of Photography: Milton Krasner
Special Photographic Effects: Fred Sersen
Editor: Barbara McLean
Art Direction: Lyle Wheeler, George W. Davis
Set Decorations: Thomas Little, Walter M. Scott
Wardrobe Direction: Charles LeMaire
Costumes for Miss Bette Davis Designed by: Edith Head
Make-up Artist: Ben Nye
Music: Alfred Newman
Orchestration: Edward Powell
Sound: W.D. Flick, Roger Heman
Production Manager: Max Golden
Unit Production Manager: Robert Snody
Location Manager: W.F. Fitzgerald
Assistant Director: Gaston Glass
2nd Assistant Directors: Hal Klein, Jerry Braun
Dialogue Director: Flo O’Neill
Script Supervisor: Wesley Jones
Camera Operator: Paul Lockwood
Camera Assistants: Bud Brooks, Al Lebovitz
Grip: James Lavin
Grip Best Boy: Joe Robinson
Crane Grips: Jack Richter, Rex Turnmire
Gaffer: Vaughn Ashen
Best Boy: Charles Edler
Electrician: Jack Dimmack
Stills Photography: Ray Nolan
Effects: Jess Wolf
Property Master: Fred Simpson
Wardrobe: Merle Williams, Josephine Brown, Ann Landers
Make-up: Frank Prehoda, Gene Romer
Body Make-up: Beatrice Gardell
Hairstylists: Gladys Witten, Kay Reed
Sound Recordist: Zoe Cummings
Boom Operator: Paul Gilbert
Cable: Harry Roberts
Publicity: Grady Johnson
Bette Davis (Margo Channing)
Anne Baxter (Eve Harrington)
George Sanders (Addison DeWitt)
Celeste Holm (Karen Richards)
Gary Merrill (Bill Simpson)
Hugh Marlowe (Lloyd Richards)
Gregory Ratoff (Max Fabian)
Barbara Bates (Phoebe)
Marilyn Monroe (Miss Casswell)
Thelma Ritter (Birdie Coonan)
Walter Hampden (aged actor)
Randy Stuart (girl)
Craig Hill (leading man)
Leland Harris (doorman)
Barbara White (autograph seeker)
Eddie Fisher (stage manager)
William Pullen (clerk)
Claude Stroud (pianist)
Eugene Borden (Frenchman)
Helen Mowery (reporter)
Steve Geray (captain of waiters)
Bess Flowers (woman congratulating Eve) *
BETTE DAVIS: HOLLYWOOD REBEL
Of Human Bondage
Sun 1 Aug 12:40; Thu 12 Aug 18:00
Mon 2 Aug 18:15; Fri 13 Aug 21:00; Wed 18 Aug 18:10
All about Eve
Tue 3 Aug 14:30; Sat 14 Aug 20:25; Sun 29 Aug 15:00
Tue 3 Aug 18:10; Thu 12 Aug 20:40; Sat 14 Aug 14:45
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Wed 4 Aug 14:15; Wed 11 Aug 20:30; Mon 16 Aug 18:00; Sat 28 Aug 17:20
Wed 4 Aug 20:40; Sun 15 Aug 15:30; Fri 27 Aug 18:00
Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte
Thu 5 Aug 14:15; Fri 13 Aug 17:40; Wed 18 Aug 14:30; Sat 28 Aug 20:30
All about Bette Davis
Thu 5 Aug 18:10
Fri 6 Aug 14:15; Mon 23 Aug 18:00
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex
Sat 7 Aug 15:00; Sat 21 Aug 11:40
Sun 8 Aug 15:45; Tue 17 Aug 17:50
The Man Who Came to Dinner
Sun 8 Aug 18:20; Thu 19 Aug 20:40
The Little Foxes
Mon 9 Aug 18:00; Mon 16 Aug 20:30; Thu 19 Aug 17:40
The Whales of August
Wed 11 Aug 14:30; Thu 26 Aug 20:30; Tue 31 Aug 18:10
Wed 11 Aug 17:40; Sun 22 Aug 15:30
Sat 14 Aug 17:10; Sun 29 Aug 11:30
Sun 15 Aug 18:30; Wed 25 Aug 20:45
Fri 20 Aug 17:45; Mon 30 Aug 15:20
Tue 24 Aug 20:45; Mon 30 Aug 12:40
With thanks to Martin Shingler
Grab a Bette Davis inspired cocktail specially made with Sipsmith gin at BFI Riverfront this August.
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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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