All About Eve (1950) Written and Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, Gary Merrill, Celeste Holm, George Sanders and Marilyn Monroe (138 min)

An ageing (forty!)Broadway powerhouse begins to regret admitting a meek acolyte to her inner circle.  Witty and sophisticated, winner of Best Picture, Writer and Director Oscars, it’s been called the bitchiest film ever made.  Davis said, “Mankiewicz is a genius–the man responsible for the greatest role of my career. He resurrected me from the dead.”

“Male behavior is so elementary. All About Adam could be done as a short.”–Joseph L. Mankiewicz

All about Eve won the Best Picture Oscar in 1950. Mankiewicz won both for writing and directing, as he had in 1949 with A Letter to Three Wives. No one else has ever matched that feat. The film got 14 Academy Award nominations, the only other films to do that are Titanic. and in 2016, La La Land. The Academy Awards must figure in any discussion of this film, but the Oscars are often the result of politics and popularity more than merit. The Best Actor of 1950 was Jose Ferrer in Cyrano de Bergerac, a comparatively uninteresting prestige film of the kind so often favored by Academy voters. And, DeMille’s lavish Samson and Delilah with Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr was box office champ, easily outgrossing Eve, Sunset Boulevard, The Third Man, Adam’s Rib, The Asphalt Jungle, and Father of the Bride, films that are considered classics today.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz

All About Eve was adapted from a brief 3 /12 page story, “The Wisdom of Eve” by Mary Orr, and published in Cosmopolitan magazine (which is different from the current magazine with the same name). Orr had been told a story by “The Garbo of the Stage,” Elisabeth Bergner, about an ambitious fan (Bergner called her “that terrible girl”) who had insinuated herself into her life. Mankiewicz’s adaption uses the story’s cynical tone, but all the dialogue and most of the characters are his.

Claudette Colbert was set to star, but ruptured a disc in her back right before filming started. Ann Baxter had been cast as Eve because she physically resembled Colbert.  When Colbert withdrew, few actresses, including Marlene Dietrich, Tallulah Bankhead and Gertrude Lawrence, wanted to step into the part of a has-been, especially since originally Margo’s part initially was a supporting one. Bette Davis, her career in decline after a final break from her long standing Warner Brothers contract, gratefully took over. She wrote in her autobiography, The Lonely Life: “Margo Channing was a woman I understood thoroughly. Though we were totally unalike, there were also areas we shared. The scene in which–stuck in the car–Margo confesses to Celeste Holm that the whole business of fame and fortune isn’t worth a thing without a man to come home to, was the story of my life…Hunched down in the front of that car in that luxurious mink, I had to work to remember I was playing a part…and keeping the tears back was not an easy job.” His direction was simple.  He told her Margo” ‘treats her mink coat like a poncho’ Pow!  Lightning struck!” (FIR Haun 79).

Celeste Holm, Davis and Hugh Marlowe

Davis was a perfectionist about her costumes, but her figure was hard to fit, especially since she refused to wear a bra.  Charles LeMaire, head of wardrobe at 20th Century Fox, designed the clothes for all the cast except for Davis, who asked for Edith Head.  He certainly did not want to share such a plum assignment, but he knew Davis could be difficult, and it was no easy task to glamorize her. Scheduling and studio politics (Head was at Paramount) complicated the situation.   Eventually, he gave in. “Over the years it galled him to no end that he had to share the Academy Award for this film with Edith” (Chierichetti 114).

Head recalled in her memoir, “The off-the-shoulder dress for the party scene was an accident.  My original sketch had a square neckline and a tight bodice.  I had extremely high hopes for this dress, because the fabric, a brown gros de Londres (a heavy silk) photographs magnificently in black and white, and it was trimmed in a rich brown sable.

“Because we were working on such a tight deadline, the dress was made up the night before Bette was scheduled to wear it.  I went in early the day of the filming to make sure the dress was pressed and camera-ready.  There was Bette, already in the dress, looking quizzically at her own reflection in the mirror.  I was horrified,  The dress didn’t fit at all. The top of the three quarter length sleeves had a fullness created by pleats, but someone has miscalculated and the entire bodice and neckline were too big.  There was no time to save anything, and a change would delay the shooting.  I told Bette not to worry, that I would personally tell Joe Mankiewicz what had happened.

I had just about reached the door, my knees feeling as if they were going to give out, when Bette told me to turn around and look.  She pulled the neckline off her shoulders, shook one shoulder sexly and said, “Don’t you like it better like this anyway?’” (Head and Calistro 93).

Baxter, Davis, Monroe, Sanders

This is the copy of the party dress that Edith Head used in her popular fashion shows. (Jorgensen)

Costume check photo with Edith Head’s (?) notations. Davis wanted a blouse with softness near her face, so if her scripted insults were shot in extreme close-up there would be a contrasting feminity in her attire.

As it appeared on screen.

The cast never doubted they were making a memorable film although some off-screen relationships were rocky. Celeste Holm won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Gentleman’s Agreement opposite Gregory Peck in 1947. This is her most famous on-screen role, and shortly after, she left Hollywood to return to the theater, weary of what she felt was her typecasting as the wise-cracking best friend. She detested Davis; they got off on the wrong foot and never spoke when the cameras weren’t rolling. Holm considered movies far beneath her more dignified theater career; she once said, “Hollywood is a good place to learn to eat a salad without smearing your lipstick.”

It was exactly the opposite for Davis and co-star Gary Merrill. They began a torrid affair on the set, much to the embarrassment of the cast and crew. They soon divorced their current spouses, and began a tempestuous ten-year marriage, the longest of Davis’ four.

George Sanders, who we will see again in a couple of weeks in Voyage to Italy, plays critic Addison De Witt. His character was modelled on that of one of American’s first media celebrities, Alexander Woollcott, whose vitriolic reviews made him the most well-known theater critic in America. He was fawned over and feared. A member of the famous Algonquin Round Table, without him “the vicious circle” would not have existed. He was inescapable in print, on the radio, and caricatured in famous movies, here and as Waldo P. Lydecker in Laura. Sheridan Whiteside, The Man Who Came to Dinner was blatantly Woolcott. He devised the “Shouts and Murmurs” column, still published weekly in the New Yorker. He was the first on-air book reviewer, creating overnight successes like James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, a broadcasting power untapped until Oprah. He appeared in advertisements endorsing products and in movie trailers. He was a frequent White House guest, and had his favorite drink, the Brandy Alexander, named after him. He was loved and loathed for his waspish tongue.

Marilyn Monroe shimmers in her brief appearance, though at the time few reviewers even noticed her. This role, and her one just before in The Asphalt Jungle, were responsible for the upward trajectory of her career.  Her part is a small, she’s a beautiful girl on the make, which many equated to her own position in Hollywood at the time.  Miss Caswell is a va va voom version of Eve, both on the outside, using their attributes to get on the inside. Mankiewicz interviewed other actresses, in spite of her having a couple of powerful sponsors promoting her, but he decided after all she was perfect for the small part.  She was paid $500 for a week’s work.  George Sanders appeared in both scenes. He said “she was very inquiring and very unsure—humble, punctual and untemperamental.  She wanted people to like her, and her conversation had unexpected depths.  She showed an interest in intellectual subjects which was, to say the least, disconcerting.  In her presence it was hard to concentrate” (Spoto 169).

I love costume check photos! Here is Monroe in her party dress by Charles LeMaire

This is a 1951 publicity shot of up-and-coming stars Patrice Wymore, Marilyn Monroe, Mitzi Gaynor, Leslie Caron, Tony Curtis and John Derek

Marilyn is clearly wearing a dress designed by Oleg Cassini (on right) for his then wife Gene Tierney in Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950).

Anne Baxter horrified her family (she was Frank Lloyd Wright’s grandaughter) by her youthful acting ambitions. Of her grandfather she said, “Like many famous men, my grandfather had been too busy to be a good father. But, he was a charming grandfather. He designed plans for me for a doll house” (FIR 449). She’d been on stage since she was 13 smitten with the acting bug after watching Helen Hayes on stage. Kay Brown, David O. Selznick’s New York agent thought she might be right for the lead in Rebecca, but she looked too young next to Laurence Olivier. Joseph Cotten remembered her from the pre-Broadway trials of The Philadelphia Story (she was replaced as Tracy Lord’s sister out of town) and suggested her for The Magnificent Ambersons, directed by Orson Welles. But, she was dissatisfied with most of the parts she was offered, the head of 20th Century Fox, Darryl Zanuck, thought of her as “the librarian.” All About Eve was different. “It was a charmed script we were handed. There were a few changes once we got going. Bette and Gary Merrill really thought they were Margo and Bill Sampson, and that was an aid to authenticity. George Sanders was very much like Addison. I patterned my performance after my first understudy on Broadway at 13 who was nice to everybody but me and would always be in the wings watching me like a hawk. In the movie, I tried to follow Bette around with my eyes to get that feeling across” (FIR 454).

“Anne Baxter may be eccentric, but it all adds up to her being one of the best young actresses in Hollywood.”

Merrill, Baxter, Davis

Wry Thelma Ritter was a stage actress who lucked into a showy bit as an exhausted mom waiting in line for Santa in Miracle on 34th Street.  She got 6 Oscar nominations in 12 years including for Eve, although she never won. You may remember her best as James Stewart’s salty caretaker in Hitchcock’s Rear Window.  She was born in Brooklyn and toiled on stage in her youth as a workaday actor, retiring after marrying and having two children with a fellow actor turned advertising executive.  She had once lived next door to director George Seaton, and he remembered her when casting Miracle, and suddenly, at 41, she was a film actress.  During the six years of her Fox contract, during which she played most of her signature roles, she only worked 18 weeks out of the year in Hollywood. Mankiewiecz said he wrote the role of Birdie with Ritter in mind.

Judy Holliday’s sharp comic timing resulted in her winning the 1950 Best Actress Oscar for Born Yesterday. Perhaps, Davis and Baxter did split the Eve vote, and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard was robbed. But in hindsight, Davis and Swanson were both playing assertive women lusting after younger men, and Holliday, as brilliant as she is, reinforces the socially repressive post-war status quo, in which she owes everything first to one man, and then another.  All About Eve had a long life in film revival houses, due to the strong affinity of gay audiences for the film. Not only because of both Anne Baxter’s Eve’s and George Sanders’ Addison de Witt’s ambiguous sexuality, but strong audience identification with glamorous Margo Channing’s fear of aging, fierce courage and savage wit.

All About All About Eve, by Sam Staggs will certainly answer any other questions you may have.

Edith Head’s Hollywood by Edith Head and Paddy Calistro, Edith Head by David Chierichetti, Edith Head by Jay Jorgensen, The Lonely Life by Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe by Donald Spoto, Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress by Carl R. Rollyson, Jr., Young Marilyn: Becoming the Legend by James Haspiel, Actresses of a Certain Character by Axel Nissen,”Anne Baxter” by J.E.A. Baldwin in the October 1977 Films in Review, “All About Eve” by Harry Haun in March/April 1991 Films in Review.

c.Moviediva2001 Revised 2002 and January2017