Retrospective: All About Eve (1950)

 ‘The Sarah Siddons Award for Distinguished Achievement is perhaps unknown to you. It has been spared the sensational and commercial publicity that attends such questionable ‘honors’ as the Pulitzer Prize – and those awards presented annually by that film society. This is the dining hall of the Sarah Siddons Society. The occasion is its annual banquet and presentation of the highest honor our theater knows – the Sarah Siddons Award for Distinguished Achievement…The minor awards, as you can see, have already been presented. Minor awards are for such as the writer and director [playwright Lloyd Richards and director Bill Sampson are briefly viewed] since their function is merely to construct a tower so that the world can applaud a light which flashes on top of it. And no brighter light has ever dazzled the eye than Eve Harrington. Eve. But more of Eve later, all about Eve, in fact.’

All About Eve, Eve Harrington. So, what is this movie from which I quote the entire opening passage, apart from being one my all-time favourite films, with one of the most amazing casts ever assembled including some of the great Hollywood actors from the period including Bette Davis, George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Thelma Ritter, Marilyn Monroe (in her first credited role) and Anne Baxter. All About Eve is one of the great Hollywood movies and was considered the great rival to Sunset Boulevard as they both dealt with similar topics, both had a great cast and both had extremely sardonic narrations from characters who were at the periphery of great women having problems with their age. Both films  used flashbacks and both had descriptions of the place and the people for outsiders to understand the importance of what has happened.

The opening of this movie is one of the great moments of cinema as its description and cutting cameras don’t make any sense until the film has ended, but it sets its tone perfectly, which is the alternately ass-kissing and backstabbing world of theatre, in particular big budget Broadway. We are introduced to all the important characters including the narrator. They are the young actress receiving the award, Eve (Anne Baxter), the narrator/critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders, if the name isn’t familiar he voices Shere Khan in the Jungle Book), Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is next followed by her friends and her husband. The film then flashes back a year and to a wet night…

This movie is a warning upon the powers groupies can have over stars if they are suitably ambitious and willing to backstab with glee. Margo is a broadway star and her best friend Karen, meets her besotted fan, Eve. Margo Channing is the biggest theatre actress around and Eve does her utmost to become indispensable to Margo, such as helping with her show and advising her, much to the chagrin of Birdy, her assistant (a wonderful Thelma Rittter who plays a similar role in Rear Window). This is until she starts attempting to break up the friendships and marriages of Margo’s group. Her methods are rather clever, using misinformation and deceit, as it’s revealed to the audience but not to the characters so you see the planning and scheming and watch her pull off a real coup de grace on these characters who seem as dysfunctional as the rest of us, if not more so.

The movie is best known for its quotability, in particular: ‘Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night´, which is said when we are also introduced to Marylyn Monroe in a fantastical awful party filled with aggressive sniping. Addison, the theater critic and narrator of the movie has probably some of the best quotes of the film and as with all the best film quotes, it’s all in the delivery which is so good in this movie.

All About Eve is interesting because it was shot on location, in fact I even recognise oneparticular New York restaurant. The usage of New York and New Jersey on location makes for a rarity in these movie, which were largely shot on soundstages. This adds a much greater authenticity to the proceedings as everything looks right. The importance of things looking right is important in any movie, especially one which is so self-aware of its nature and the environment these stars live in, with the underhand nature of it all.

This is one of the few movie in which I have no criticisms of any sort as it is simply a very clever drama. In regards to filming, there isn’t anything particularly noteworthy except that like other movies of this period there is an incredible sharpness to the images, which colour never seems to replicate, even with all the advanced filming equipment we have today. The cameras back then give such great outlines to the characters. The film’s real strength is in the great script. The acid put downs, the arguments and the narration are all great examples of the nature of stardom as well as all the usual stuff such as friendship, loyalty, truth and lies. One particularly good example of this is Karen doing a favour for Eve which backfires very badly but subsequent brings them closer together.

This movie is basically a character drama around self-absorbed people from the 1950s. I can understand people being put off by that as it hasn’t got the action or the mystery of Hitchcock BUT (and this BUT is capitalised for a reason), if you love Shakespeare, and any wordy dramas such as The West Wing or The Wire then this movie should appeal to you as its dialogue is very cleverly done. The movie has a perfect example of multiple character arcs with proper development for all the main characters, something that is a rarity nowadays in cinema.

Review by Harry Riedl


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