Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Film of the Week: All About Eve, 1950

Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.
-Margo Channing

Joseph Mankiewicz wrote and directed this 1950 triumph which not only revived the career of Bette Davis, but also inspired generations of writers and filmmakers. Based on “The Wisdom of Eve,” a 1946 short story by Mary Orr, All About Eve tells the tale of an aging Broadway star and the young woman who tries to take her place in the spotlight.

Mary Orr’s story was actually inspired by the real-life tale of stage actress Elisabeth Bergner. While starring in the Broadway production of The Two Mrs. Carrols (later made into a film with Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck), Bergner found herself taking pity on a young fan whom she invited into her home and employed as her personal assistant. Her generosity was punished when the young woman tried to undermine Bergner’s career. “The Wisdom of Eve” is based on Bergner’s story.

Mankiewicz had already planned on writing a screenplay about an aging actress when he read “The Wisdom of Eve,” and realized that the addition of a conniving younger character would heighten the drama. Changing the name of the main character from Margola Cranston to Margo Channing, adding new characters and removing others, Mankiewicz crafted an intelligent and sophisticated retelling of the story. He presented the idea to Daryl F. Zanuck at Twentieth Century Fox who liked the plot, but thought it was too long and lacking in dramatic punch in some areas. Zanuck cut the script by fifty pages and gave the project the green light.

As Mankiewicz was writing the film he called Best Performance (which Zanuck changed to All About Eve, taking the title from one of the film’s opening lines), he envisioned Susan Hayward as Margo Channing. Executives at Fox thought that Hayward was too young to play the forty-something Margo. The leading choice was Claudette Colbert. Unfortunately, Colbert badly injured her back and had to step out of the production. Several names were thrown about to replace her: Joan Crawford, Tallulah Bankhead, Ingrid Bergman, Gertrude Lawrence, Marlene Deitrich and Bette Davis. Even Donna Reed was considered for the role of Margo! But, the clear favorite was Bette Davis. The character of Margo was re-envisioned to accommodate Davis’ more abrasive overtones, and a legend was born.

The film was an important one to Davis, not only reinvigorating her sagging career, but also introducing her to her next husband—Gary Merrill who played Margo’s lover, Bill Samson. Jeanne Crain had been the original choice to play the treacherous Eve, but Crain couldn’t shoot the film because of her pregnancy. Anne Baxter won the part that transformed her career. Hugh Marlowe was cast as Lloyd Richards, the author of Margo’s plays, and Celeste Holm was cast as his supportive wife who is taken in by Eve’s seeming helplessness. Rounding out the cast is Thelma Ritter as Margo’s faithful maid, Birdie, George Sanders as the unctuous theater critic Addison DeWitt and a young Marilyn Monroe in one of her first film appearances as Miss Caswell, a tarty starlet from “The Copacabana School of Dramatic Art.”

All About Eve is a tale of treachery and triumph. It’s a story about love—not just the love between people, but the love that one feels for one’s career. It makes you question what’s really important in life, and casts a light on the natural fears all of us have about our place in the world as we age.

With crisp, brilliant writing, top-notch performances and some of the most quotable lines in film history, All About Eve is a film that we should know all about.

No comments: