The Corrosive Effects of Power and Ambition in ‘All About Eve’

Eve of ‘All About Eve’ is to the theatre world what capital is to society in Marxist analysis, an unstoppable force that is immune to sentiment and remakes the world to suit its own needs.

The first thing you notice about Twentieth Century Fox’s Blu-ray release of All About Eve is the book-like slipcase, an eminently suitable form of packaging for this most literate of films. The disc fits solidly in a slot in the back cover, preceded by 24 pages of notes and commentary as well as some great production stills and publicity photos recalling the keepsake programs which used to be sold in conjunction with roadshow movies. It’s a fitting presentation package for this superbly-restored 950 film which was a blockbuster success (14 Oscar nominations, six wins) in its day and remains a must-see among cinephiles today.

It’s tempting when looking back on the recent past to embrace simplifying assumptions so the postwar years become the age of the confident male breadwinner, the happy homemaker, and endless Doris Day movies. Real-life is never that simple: Disney’s Cinderella was the top-grossing US film in 1950 and MGM’s Annie Get Your Gun and Father of the Bride were in the top ten, but so were All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard, suggesting that American filmgoers of the era had an appetite for dark satire as well as sunny comedy. Mankiewicz’s film delivers the latter in spades, providing an acerbic look behind the glitzy façade of show business and unflinching analysis of power relations which suggests that postwar America had not yet achieved the moral perfection it so wanted to claim.

It’s hard to know what to say about All About Eve because the truth—it’s one of the greatest films of all time—sounds like hyperbole. But it really is one of the all-time greats and so rich in themes that if you showed it to ten different people each could come up with a different interpretation of what it is really “about” and all could be right.

Some reviewers have emphasized the similarities between the lead role of Margo Channing (Bette Davis) and Davis’ own situation as an aging actress beset with insecurities at a low point in her career, seeing the film as a commentary on Hollywood’s cult of youth. Others have emphasized the contrast between the “healthy” heterosexual relationships of the two lead couples (Davis and Gary Merrill, and Celeste Holm and Hugh Marlowe) and the “unnatural” read-between-the-lines queerness of the ambitious Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) and newspaper critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders, who took home the film’s only acting Oscar). Many cherish the literate script above all and All About Eve has a substantial fan following who feast on the film’s crackling repartee (author Sam Staggs calls it “the bitchiest film ever made”) and many quotable lines including the famous “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night!”

All About Eve is primarily a study of power and ambition and their corrosive effects on human life. Over the course of the film, we see the progress of Eve from an apparently pitiful waif hovering outside the stage door to a successful, in-demand actress, and we also get to see the stack of bodies accumulating in her wake. There is nothing modulated about Eve and her ambition: she is to the theatre world what capital is to society in a Marxist analysis, an unstoppable force that is immune to sentiment and remakes the world to suit its own needs. Well, almost unstoppable: the scene where Eve finds out that she’s misjudged her position relative to one of the film’s key characters (the key character, in my opinion) is absolutely terrifying yet also perfectly delicious to observe from the safety of your favorite comfy chair.

There are many great performances in All About Eve and the fact that four of the actors were competing against each other for Academy Awards (Davis and Baxter for Best Actress, Holm and Thelma Ritter for Best Supporting Actress) almost certainly reduced the film’s overall Oscar haul. Marilyn Monroe has never looked better or been wittier than in her small role as the aspiring actress Miss Caswell (introduced by Sanders’ character as “a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Art”). The black-and-white cinematography by Milton Krazner is superb (he lost the Oscar to Robert Krasker who shot The Third Man, to give you an idea of the quality of competition that year) as are the Oscar-winning costume designs by Edith Head and Charles Le Maire and the art direction by Lyle R. Wheeler, George W. Davis, Thomas Little and Walter M. Scott (who lost out at Oscar time to Hans Dreier and company for Sunset Boulevard).

Fox provides a splendid package of extras beginning with two informative commentary tracks. The first features Mankiewicz biographer Kenneth L. Geist, Chris Mankiewicz (Joseph’s son), and Celeste Holm (who barely gets in a word edgewise—in fact, it sounds like her contributions were cut in from a separate interview) who mainly discuss Mankiewicz’s life and approach to filmmaking. They make a good pairing with the commentary of Sam Staggs (author of All About All About Eve) on the second track which is focused much more on the film itself while also providing ample helpings of gossip.

There are also two featurettes about Mankiewicz, one about “The Real Eve” (Martina Lawrence, whose victim was actress Elisabeth Bergner), an AMC Backstory feature on the film, an isolated score track, a short piece about the Sarah Siddons Society, the trailer and several clips from Fox Movietone News and other promotional materials. Most of these features were also included with the 2008 DVD set and the package could be improved by adding a commentary track by a film scholar discussing the film’s technique but the quality of the Blu-Ray image alone makes this release worth a look. There’s nothing like the depth and texture of an old-school black-and-white Hollywood film and this is one of the best.

RATING 9 / 10
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