Monday, November 25, 2019

All About Eve

ALL ABOUT EVE (Mankiewicz, 1950)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Nov 26, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

Watching “All About Eve” (1950) for the first time in fifteen years, I was astonished at how faulty my memory of the film was. I mainly remembered a boozy Bette Davis staring daggers at the conniving Anne Baxter and the many caustic zingers (“Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night.”), all of which combine to form a scathing portrait of the cutthroat world of Broadway theater, all narcissism, backstabbing, and gossip.

Writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, loosely adapting Mary Orr's short story “The Wisdom of Eve”, encourages such an impression by framing the film's opening scenes through the acerbic narration of Machiavellian theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). DeWitt guides us through what turns out be the end of the story, a ceremony at The Sarah Siddons Society where newcomer Eve Harrington (Baxter) receives her Best Actress Award while her former mentor, Margo Channing (Davis), and Margo's friends seethe with resentment. DeWitt hypes up the juicy rivalries just as he would in his daily column, a throwback to an era when critics actually wielded considerable cultural power (Did such a thing ever really exist?) In short, “All About Eve” is all about cynicism.

That's how I remembered it anyway. Yet once the film flashes back to the beginning of the story, the Margo Channing we're introduced isn't a jaded star or a jealous diva, but rather a sympathetic listener. As young, wide-eyed Eve, the absolute biggest Margo Channing fan in the world, relays her sob story (a husband killed in the war, scraping all her pennies together just to go to the theater and see her favorite actress) Margo does, in fact, sob. Well, not quite, but she's sincerely touched as are a host of her fellow theater veterans, including playwright Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), his wife Karen (Celeste Holm), and Margo's crusty and trusty Gal Friday, Birdie (shameless scene-stealer Thelma Ritter).

Margo's so moved she takes Eve under her wing, which turns out to be a critical mistake. The doe-eyed girl allegedly from the boondocks has some secret schemes of her own, most of which involve being a star like Margo. Exactly like Margo, in fact. So much so she even makes a play for Margo's director and fiance, Bill (Gary Merrill, who would marry Davis shortly after filming.)

Davis is such an appropriate choice for the role of aging theater star Margo Channing, it's hard to believe she actually stepped in fairly late in the project after Claudette Colbert was injured shooting another film. If Davis was at her commercial peak in the early '40s in films such as “Now, Voyager”(1942), by the start of the new decade, some felt she needed a comeback to rekindle her career as a hitmaker (her talent, of course, remained at its peak). Davis also happened to be, in Hollywood terms, on the wrong side of forty and perhaps wondered how many leading roles the studios would still have for her.

Mankiewicz has often been described as one of the most literate of Hollywood's writer/directors, often grouped with the likes of Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges. With “Eve” he showcased his trademark wit in his most beloved setting, the theater. His script takes glee in demeaning cinema as the shameful inferior cousin of the legitimate the-a-ter while also poking fun at the various stage players, from writers to directors to the stars. Playwright Lloyd puts Margo in her place with the admonishment that “It's about time the piano realized it has not written the concerto!” But the super-savvy writer is putty in the hands of a resourceful ingenue like Eve.

“All About Eve” creates a convincing social circle in which the numerous complex interrelationships are fully fleshed out. Margo can be vain and selfish, but her insecurities, some related to being engaged to a younger man, are entirely relatable. Lloyd wants to be loyal to his star, but he really could use a younger actress for his next play. Karen cares deeply for her friend Margo, but wouldn't mind teaching her a little humility. Bill somehow manages to remain a true-blue faithful lover even while shuttling back and forth between Hollywood and Broadway. Eve is the intruder that threatens this whole delicate structure, but it may prove to be strong enough to endure even her assault. As for Addison DeWitt, well, he's the heel critic non-pareil, and Sanders was practically born and bred to play him.

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The “new digital restoration was undertaken by Twentieth Century Fox” and the 1080p transfer looks sensational with a thick grainy texture and sharp black-and-white contrast.Fox released a much-praised Blu-ray transfer of this film several years ago. I don't own that release and I don't know if this is sourced from a different restoration, nor can I compare the two. But I'm sure you've never seen it look better unless you've seen a 35 mm print.

The LPCM mono audio mix is crisp and distortion-free. Alfred Newman's score sounds great too. I've never quite figured out what to say about the audio on most Blu-rays unless there's a noticeable problem. No problems to talk about here. Optional English SDH subtitles support the English audio.

Criterion has pressure-packed this two-disc Blu-ray set with extras, almost all of which are on Disc Two.

Disc One includes the film (in maxed-out bitrate) and two 2010 commentary tracks that were both included on the older Fox release. The first commentary includes actress Celeste Holm, author Kenneth Geist, and Christopher Mankiewicz, son of director Joseph. The second commentary features Sam Staggs, author of “All About 'All About Eve.'”

Disc Two is so stacked, it's going to take a while to get through it all.

The producers of this disc went out of their way to shine a spotlight on writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and have provided three substantial features centered on him.

“All About Mankiewicz” (106 min.) is a 1983 documentary which consists almost entirely of extended conversations between the filmmaker and film critic Michel Ciment. The interviews take place both in Germany and in the director's home in Bedford, NY and cover his early childhood through much of his career. Mankiewicz is a gifted raconteur and entertains while narrating his own life at length. This is a real gem.

The disc also includes two related and sometimes overlapping features, one called “Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz” (26 min.) and the other “Joseph L. Mankiewicz: A Personal Journey” (26 min.) Both features consist largely of interviews with the director's sons Thomas and Christopher, the director's wife Rosemary, author Kenneth L. Geist, and others. Both features celebrate the director and provide some interesting insights and information. However, “A Personal Journey” offers one of the more glaring mistakes I can recall in a Criterion extra. One expert (who I won't name here) extols the virtues of Joseph's older brother, Herman, a gifted screenwriter best known for the script for “Citizen Kane.” This expert launches into an attack on critic Pauline Kael for taking credit for the script away from Herman and giving it all to Orson Welles. Considering that Kael's book “Raising Kane” is both famous and infamous for making the exact opposite argument, this attack is a wee bit misplaced.

We also get an episode of “Lux Radio Theatre” (60 min.), an Oct 1, 1951 performance of “All About Eve” with most of the film's cast except with Reginald Gardiner in place of George Sanders.

A few short features: Film costume historian Larry McQueen (18 min.) discusses the film's costumes. “The Secret of the Sarah Siddons Society” (7 min.) shows us the real society formed in response to the film's make-believe Sarah Siddons Society. Siddons was a real 18th/19th century English actress and this society has given out real awards to theater actresses for quite some time now. There's also a very short (1 min.) promotional film featuring Bette Davis on the set of “All About Eve.”

Not enough for you? Fine, let's keep going with two episodes of “The Dick Cavett Show” - an excerpt of the Dec 31, 1969 episode (20 min.) with Bette Davis in fine form, and then the full Jun 18, 1980 episode (29 min.) with actor Gary Merrill.

The collection wraps up with the gossipy “Hollywood Backstories: All About Eve” (24 min.) that can easily be skipped and then the more interesting “The Real Eve” (18 min.), which relates the story of German actress Elizabeth Bergner and her protege Martina Lawrence, the inspiration for Mary Orr's short story “The Wisdom of Eve.” Lawrence was, to say the least, not happy about having her life story adapted by Orr.

The 44-page insert booklet includes an essay by critic Terrence Rafferty and the Mary Orr short story “The Wisdom of Eve.”

Final Thoughts:
Criterion has put together a jam-packed two-disc set showcasing a sleek high-def transfer of one of Bette Davis's most beloved films. What more do you need to know?

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