Home Video Hovel: All About Eve, by David Bax
From the opening narration by George Sanders, a dazzlingly loquacious bit of verbiage in which he, ironically, makes fun of the character on screen for being long-winded, it’s clear that Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve is going to be a fiercely hilarious comedy. What’s not at first revealed–though it is hinted at by the guns mounted on the walls in that beginning scene, almost as if they are pointed at every character’s backs–is the utter darkness that lies in the movie’s sardonic heart.
In that scene, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) is being presented with an award for acting on the stage. In the audience are fellow actor Margo Channing (Bette Davis), director Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill), playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlow), his wife Karen (Celeste Holm) and theater critic Addison DeWitt (Sanders). From there, the bulk of the film flashes back to show us how young Eve came to meet this group of friends and enemies and how, with a little bit of luck and a whole lot of ruthless scheming, she got to where she is.
All About Eve is known as one of the greatest films to come out of Hollywood and is probably best remembered for its screenplay, adapted by Mankiewicz from a short story by Mary Orr. “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” ” You won’t bore him, honey. You won’t even get a chance to talk.” And my personal favorite: ” Bill’s 32. He looks 32. He looked it five years ago. He’ll look it twenty years from now. I hate men.” Fittingly for a movie about the theater, all of these lines are highlighted by sharp deliveries and classical blocking.
But, more than anything on the page, it’s the cast, especially its female members, that make All About Eve memorable for its depth and not just its wit. Davis burns the brightest as a woman whose insecurities about not being taken seriously as she gets older are not taken seriously because she’s getting older. She also pulls off some absolutely hall of fame drunk acting. Holm is terrific as Eve’s first Broadway friend; it’s not hard to find interpretations of the movie suggesting Eve is a lesbian but I found myself wondering if it’s Karen who’s secretly pining. It would explain the repeated lapses in judgment she makes that allow Eve to keep moving up the social and professional ladder. Meanwhile, Thelma Ritter was nominated for an Oscar for her turn as Margo’s assistant. But it may be Baxter who has the hardest task. In a movie in which everyone is preoccupied with learning all about her character, she remains alluringly, dangerously unknowable.
Criterion’s Blu-ray features a restoration done by Fox from a 35mm fine grain, which also supplied the mono audio. There’s nothing whatsoever to reasonably complain about. The movie is free of dirt and scratches and the image remains stable throughout. The audio is loud and clear with no hiss; you wouldn’t want to miss any of that great dialogue. My only reservation with this release is with the packaging. The rubber circles that hold the discs in place against the cardboard are sticky and quite annoyingly adhere to the booklet inside.
The bountiful special features, requiring a second disc, include two commentary tracks, one with author Sam Staggs and one featuring Holm, author Kenneth L. Geist and Mankiewicz’s son, Christopher; a feature-length documentary about Mankiewicz; two episodes of the Dick Cavett show; a new interview with costume historian Larry McQueen; a 2001 making-of featurette; two additional featurettes about Mankiewicz; a featurette about Orr’s short story; a featurette about a real life society inspired by the fictional one that gives Eve an award; a 1951 radio adaptation; a promo with Davis produced for the film’s initial release; and a booklet including Orr’s story and an essay by Terrence Rafferty.