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All About Eve
(Fox Studio Classics)

review by Anthony D.

 

 

Not Rated

Running Time: 138 minutes

Starring: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm

Written and Directed by: Chris Columbus

 

Studio: Fox

Retail Price: $19.98

Features: Audio Commentary with Celeste Holm, Christopher Mankiewicz and author Kenneth Geist, Audio Commentary with author Sam Staggs, AMC Backstory Documentary, Promotional Interviews, Movietone Newsreels, Restoration Comparison, Theatrical Trailers

Specs: 1.33:1 Full Screen, English Stereo, English Mono, French Mono, Spanish Mono English Subtitles, Spanish Subtitles English Closed Captions, Scene Selection (28 Scenes)

Released: January 14th, 2003

 

 

It is the most highly quoted film of all time. Nearly every single line of dialogue is well known. What Bette Davis impersonator worth his/her salt would "do" Bette without saying, "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night?" It is supposedly based on a true story told by Austrian actress Elisabeth Bergner. It is also supposedly (according to one of the commentators) a highly autobiographical look at life in the Makiewicz manse. It is a film which, like another bold film from 1950, was turned into a successful theatrical musical. (Although, to be fair, the creators of "Applause" were forbidden to use ANY of the film in translating it to the stage, but had to rely on the film's source instead). It is the most highly Oscar nominated film of all time, a record which would be eventually tied once computer-generated imagery and special effects took the place of believable dialogue. It is a bone fide classic, and it is Bette Davis' finest two hours plus. It is "All About Eve," the first in a promising series of "Studio Classics" from 20th Century Fox.

"All About Eve," for the unintiated, is the bitchy backstage story of a young woman, Eve, who lies, cheats and otherwise wrangles her way into the good confidences of theatrical legend Margo Channing, taking over her life, her career and, almost, her man. In short, it is the precursor to such trifle as "Single White Female;" but with class. Eve, as portrayed by silky-voiced Anne Baxter, is a duplicitious lady, who not only makes the other film characters believe her lies, but makes a first-time audience buy into her mendacity as well. With a lesser actress in this multi-layered role, the film could have easily turned into a dreary melodrama, but Baxter's take on the character, from seemingly pitiable to first-class bitch on wheels, is note-perfect every step of the way.

Eve first gains the trust of that least of all theatrical celebrities, a playwright's wife, who takes pity on the poor creature who stands in the darkened theater alley night after night, hoping for a single glimpse of her idol, Margo Channing. Karen Richards (Oscar nominated Celeste Holm) drags the trenchcoat clad Eve into Margo's dressing room at the theater, thus starting a chain of events which will forever change the lives of all concerned. Except for Margo's maid, Birdie (the always hilarious Thelma Ritter), everyone feels the need to protect this shy, unassuming young woman, in no part due to a heart-rending tale of heartbreak that comes complete with "everything BUT the hounds yapping at her heels." It is a moment at which one wonders why Birdie should know the truth about Eve so soon, and state it so emphatically, that causes a tad bit of doubt in audience expectations. Nevertheless, the film's other characters are swept into Eve's carefully rehearsed story, and take Eve to heart.

Eve enters the world of aging, unmarried Margo Channing, who at forty is having quite the identity crisis. Davis' Margo wants it all: her career AND her romantic liaison with a much younger man, Bill Sampson. Eve wants Margo's charmed life. Lloyd Richards, the playwright, wants to hear the words he has written, rather than the rewrites Margo makes: "It is about time that the piano realizes that it has not written the concerto." Karen wants Lloyd to continue writing for Margo only. Eve wants to replace Margo, not only onstage, but in the arms of Bill Sampson. Bill could give a damn about any of the others' wants, he only wants Margo. At a birthday party secretly devised by Eve, all hell does break loose, and the quips and barbs fly. Margo is jealous of Bill's animated time spent with Eve. Karen is disturbed by Margo's shocking behavior, and decides that Margo should be taught a lesson. As the booze flows so does the witty, bitter repartee. Into the melee, comes a noted theatrical critic, Addison DeWitt (Oscar winner, George Sanders in all his reptilian glory), accompanied by a "graduate of the Copacabana school of acting," Miss Caswell. Miss Caswell (a very tiny role) is played by up-and-coming starlet Marilyn Monroe who shows some, but not enough, promise of what the 1950's held in store for her. Karen devises her plan for Margot's commeuppance, a move she will later regret. Eve surprisingly takes to the stage as Margo's understudy, inviting the slimy DeWitt, as well as other members of the press, to a performance that even the theater's management does not know will take place without Margo. A star is born, but a star who will find herself indentured to the snake-like DeWitt. With Eve's true colors revealed to Margo's circle of friends, happiness can once again be acheived - Margo will marry Bill, Margo will tour the country in Lloyd's play, Lloyd and Karen will reconcile any differences that Eve has infected them with, and Eve will go on to win one of the highest honors the theatrical world can bestow, The Sarah Siddons Award for the year's best performance by an actress. A brief epilogue that is superbly acted by Anne Baxter and Barbara Bates quelches any thoughts of a truly happy ending.

The lure of "All About Eve" is most assuredly its inciteful, incindiary dialogue from writer and director, and Oscar winner, Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Devoid of flashy camera work, Mankiewicz fills the cinema screen as if it were a stage - highly a propos for a movie about "The Theater;" instead Mankiewicz relies on his audience's ability to LISTEN. When you have marvelous acting, and brilliant, razor-sharp dialogue, do you really need camera trickery? It could be said that flashy camera technique is no replacement, or substistue, for good dialogue; and "All About Eve" has that good dialogue in spades!

As for the performers and their performances, there is not a single weak characterization in "All About Eve." Bette Davis is at the peak of her powers, allowing herself to be photographed twice in an unflattering, make-up free manner. Davis literally bites the words, spits them out with a venomous intensity unlike any actress has ever done, or likely, or ever will again. Celeste Holm daintily treads the line between too-good-to-be-true and cold-hearted bitch with dexterity. Gary Merrill comes through with a fine, nuanced performance as the object of Margo's (and off-screen, Bette's) affection. His scenes with Margo have an intimacy rarely captured on camera. George Sanders would never be better, and Addison DeWitt is truly a remarkable creation. One wonders if anyone could have brought anything more to this performance, Sanders is that perfect. Much has been made of Anne Baxter's characterization of Eve, some citing it as a weak performance. It is far from weak, it may be a quiet performance, but, it is hardly weak. Baxter's performance is delivered mostly through her body language and her eyes, Eve isn't given any of the choice lines that the script has to offer, so it is up to a highly skilled actress to make her intentions clear with her voice, her eyes and her body. Baxter delivers on all counts - listen to the way her voice is used, softly, silkily and almost never at a fevered pitch. It is a performance of quiet desperation, one that could almost make the audience feel sorry for her.

 

Presented in a sterling full-framed aspect ratio, it would be hard to believe that "All About Eve" is a fifty-two year old film. And Margo thought that she had problems turning forty! "All About Eve" boasts a stunning black and white picture, the likes of which I've not even seen in my many repertory house experiences with the film. Detail is simply jaw-dropping. Contrast is excellent ranging from the rich, deep blacks to the perfectly stable whites. The restoration work done on the film is simply marvelous. I noticed only one, count it, ONE, film flaw in the entire 138 minute feature: for those who really need to know these things, it is a second unit shot near the very end of the film. Following the Sarah Siddons Awards ceremony, a taxi cab is seen letting the doubles of Ann Baxter and George Sanders out at the hotel; the right side of the frame has an inherent flaw, which I guess no restorator could fix.

 

The soundtracks presented for "All About Eve" are remarkably similar. With the film's newly fangled stereo track, there are merely a few instances when the sound is not as centered as the sturdy, original monaural track. This is one of the more naturalistic soundtracks I have come across, rarely does it seem that director Mankiewicz had to rely on looping or post-production dubbing of any kind. The dialogue comes through just as nicely on either track, but I would stick to the original mono with future viewings. The froeign language tracks, both mono, are typical for Fox: French and Spanish, though "All About Eve" without Bette Davis' signature voice is unthinkable to me. The disc has been faithfully closed captioned; Spanish and English subtitles also appear.

 

"All About Eve" is blessed as well as cursed with two very different audio commentaries. To begin with, let's say that both comentaries are every bit as bitchy as the film itself. In the first, non-scene specific, commentary, Celeste Holm chimes in every now and then with an off-the-cuff remark with voice which makes one wonder about this octagenarian's state of health, she sounds quite ill. According to friends in the theater, Ms. Holm no longer has a thyroid, somewhat freezing up her vocal chords. Yet she still continues to entertain at benefits, where she'll sing a song or two. None of the commentators appear to be in the same room, and there is hardly a shared reminiscence between them. Christopher Mankiewicz, son of the director and screenwriter, is probably the most fascinating participant with his no holds barred family tales. Christopher's honesty is a welcome relief; he says he actually prefers another director's work over his father's, while taking several pot shots at "All About Eve" and other Mankiewicz films. His personal tales are enlightening and enjoyable, but like many commentaries nowadays, there are ample moments of dead air. The third commentator is Kenneth Geist who penned the definitive book on Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and who opens the commentary with a sly potshot concerning another author, Sam Staggs. To be frank, I haven't read Staggs' tome, "All About All About Eve;" but I am a major fan of his "Close-Up on Sunset Boulevard." It is Staggs who holds forth court on the second, more chatty and catty, audio commentary. Staggs is certainly a gifted story teller, as his commentary track demonstrates. I'm almost certain that whatever information Staggs shares comes from his book, but, there is nary a moment of dead air once Staggs starts to talk. Unfortunately, Staggs also dispenses some trivial misinformation, but I would recommend this track slightly more than the less film-oriented former commentary.

AMC's original documentary, "Backstory: All About Eve" is far less than the sum of its gossipy parts. Running close to a half an hour, "Backstory" features some rare footage of "All About Eve's" cast in late-life interviews, but mostly tries to find the real, behind the screen bitchiness. Purely fluff, but entertaining.

I adored the short, sweet and simple promotional clips for "All About Eve;" each features one of the leading actresses being interviewed about "Eve." Bette Davis and Anne Baxter are both obviously having a grand time taking their interviews to heart, and this is just the kind of promotional material one doesn't see anymore.

The four Movietone Newsreels are short, but sometime unitentionally funny; take a peek at the LOOK Magazine Awards clip to see how to be unprepared at awards ceremonies. For some strange reason, "All About Eve's" theatrical trailer (post Academy Awards) appears in this section. Trailers for the second and third titles under the Fox Studio Classics umbrella, "How Green Was My Valley" (the film that beat "Citizen Kane" at Oscar time) and "Gentlemen's Agreement" might present just enough information on the films to warrant purchase, but, enclosed in the slipcase itself, is the real reason to pick up these other two Studio Classics. Here one will find a valuable "Exclusive Offer" enticing the viewer to buy and three of the Studio Classic titles, and get F. R. Murnau's classic "Sunrise," (yep, the one that gained Janet Gaynor the very first Academy Award) for FREE! (The remainder of the Fox Studio Classic line-up for the year is included in the booklet, for those in no hurry to make it to "Sunrise").

Several text frames accompany the superb Restoration Comparison, though this is nothing new to those of us who have seen, and loved the work done on Fox's Marilyn Monroe "Diamond Collection" discs.

 

20th Century Fox has delivered a true film classic, a "Studio Classic," that I cannot say enough good things about. The film is perfect, the print is perfect, the dialogue is delightful, the acting is outstanding. Although it still cannot be " had for the price of a cocktail, like a salted peanut," at $19.95, one should have no trouble at all supplying one's own handful of peanuts, or cocktails, for that matter.