All About Eve (1950)

All About Eve

All About Eve – 1950

Director – Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Starring – Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, and George Sanders

It’s rare that a film, good or bad, can be boiled down to a single sentence.  All the complexities and nuance that goes into the crafting of the story, the acting, the production value, or in the case of some films that just get it all wrong, the lack of these things, makes a film a difficult thing to summarize.  Harder still, is boiling down the power of these works still further to describe it in terms of only one word.  Though it doesn’t give any detail about the plot, or characterization, it speaks volumes of the impact these raw elements have had on the final product.  So how, you ask, does this film boil down? In the case of, All About Eve, all I can say is…wow.

Despite this being more than a decade after the revelation of film architecture that was Citizen Kane, Eve borrows to great effect the re-arranged timeline, dramatically changing how we see the three main characters at the beginning as compared to how we see them at the end.  Though the central part of the movie plays out in a very linear fashion, the film is bookended by a scene that gains vast amounts of context from when it opens the film to when it closes it.  The middle portion of the narrative periodically skips and jumps forward to flesh out the characters fully and fill in the questions asked at the beginning. Not only do we see the characters evolve, and grow, but we the audience steadily gain an awareness of each of them, their motivations, and their back-stories.  With each turn of the corner, more of the plot is revealed.  We come to find that what we thought we knew, was wrong, and that the truth can be far more dismal and malicious than the fiction we had been invested in.

The most contentious of these characters, played by Anne Baxter, is the titular Eve Harrington.  A rather meek, yet still rather suspicious woman, she is obsessed to the point of stalking with a well-respected and seasoned theater actress, Margo Channing (Bette Davis).  Eve spends so much of her free time idolizing, and brown-nosing Channing, that Margo, eventually begins to buy into the hype so much so that she hires on the young sycophant as her personal assistant.  At first her actions and motivations seem innocent enough, but as the film progresses her agenda seems increasingly dubious.

The tide really turns when the smarmy theater critic (also the occasional narrator) begins trying to manipulate the situation in an effort to exercise some control over both Margo and Eve.  The relationship becomes strained to such a degree, as it does with all of her important relationships, that Margo is nearly ready to cave.

Our second character, Addison DeWitt is the aforementioned culture critic for the newspaper and also functions as our narrator for the film.  The sardonic, unflattering commentary he delivers, immediately paint him as a wounded and more than a little bitter.  DeWitt credits himself for a good portion of these actors success, due to his favorable (or unfavorable) reviews, and is clearly upset that his view is not shared by them.  When he sees in Eve a chance to exercise some control over those he deems in his debt, he makes grab for it, spinning a web of deceit matched only by the one that is being spun around him.

Finally we have Margo, played by the legendary Bette Davis.  Her scowl wreathed in cigarette smoke that are delivered within the first 30 or so seconds of her screen time are enough to convince us that we fully understand her relationship with Eve.  She seems a cold, cunning and angry person.  Although, as the film progresses we see Davis paint Margo Channing as a completely fleshed out person, not simply the one-dimensional character portrait we get from some films of this period.  She is at times cocky, at others she is scared of growing old, or blindly angry at what she perceives as a slight.  Davis is each of these things, and all of them at the same time, delivering one of the best performances I’ve ever seen.

Beneath the glitzy New York theater setting, the backstabbing, and the drama, All About Eve is really the story of a woman, Margo, peeling away the facile, superficial elements of her life (not by choice, mind you) and seeing what it is that she really has.  The film seeks to determine the value of what you have left once you lose the extraneous things that populate your daily life, and by comparing these two women, Eve and Margo, it is obvious which has the better foundation.  Not only is this film an extraordinary example of the quality of work that came out of the studio system of Hollywood in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, it is also a remarkable achievement that it deals so frankly and honestly with the aging process from a female perspective.  This era can easily be described as somewhat of a boys club, so it is refreshing to see some diversity (I’m still waiting to stumble upon a film from this era that tells the tough as nails story of a gay, African-American, scientist, who is also a post-op transgender individual.)

Totally and completely worth it’s spot on this list, All About Eve blew me away.  After the film was over, for days and weeks afterwards, I found myself thinking about it.  Even though I had never had any interest in her before, I am very excited to see more of Bette Davis’ work.  When watching this film, you should indeed buckle your seat-belt  it will be a bumpy ride!

“Fuck. Bette Davis can act her ass off!” – Ashley

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

The Magnificent Ambersons

Director – Orson Welles

Starring – Joseph Cotton, Delores Costello, Anne Baxter, and Tim Holt

Often compared as a bastard sibling to the widely praised Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons is the second of Orson Welles’ two picture deal with RKO Pictures.  While he was away filming another feature in Brazil, Ambersons was taken away from Welles by the studio who felt the picture was too slow and somber.  RKO cut roughly 50 minutes of footage from the end, and tacked on a happy ending to appease test audiences who, since it was released after the attack at Pearl Harbor wanted something a bit more cheerful, and with laughs.

Ambersons tells the story of a spoiled little rich kid, George Amberson Minaver, played to cruel, selfish perfection by Tim Holt.  George (apparently based on the somewhat spoiled Orson Welles) is so caught up in himself, and his worries, that he doesn’t allow anyone else in his family the opportunity of their own happiness.  Seeing the affection between his mother, Isabel, and Joseph Cotton’s character Eugene Morgan, as a threat, he firmly plants himself in between the pair willing to go to great lengths to keep them apart.  The families reliance on their seemingly endless wealth threatens to teach them some hard life lessons.  From this brief synopsis, you can see where the story is going, but rest assured you won’t see the abbreviated ending coming.

Despite the new happy ending, The Magnificent Ambersons, as it exists today is incomplete.  The editor, Robert Wise, a director in his own right (The Haunting, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music) was put in charge of cutting the film to its current length.  While salvaging as much as he could of the story, the film still seems to end abruptly, destroying the our investment in the characters as well as the weight and importance of the story.  The cut footage was rumored to have been destroyed to prevent Welles from protesting and producing another cut, all though officially it was to clear space in the studio’s vaults.

Since we will never fully know what this film could have been, it is unfair to say it is as good as Citizen Kane, nor is it fair to put it on the list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, especially since it isn’t commercially available on DVD in the United States (I watched a decent quality AVI file that I happened upon).  That being said, what is present in the version that I saw, was a prime example of why Orson Welles was (and still is if you ask me) such a revered filmmaker.  The ensemble acting is the quality you might expect of the Mercury players, everyone does a great job, not only of playing their parts, but also of supporting their fellow actors in their roles.

A class could be taught on the cinematography of this film alone.  Stanley Cortez replaces Gregg Toland as Welles’ cinematographer of choice, but none of the elegance inherent in Citizen Kane was lost.  Unlike a lot of films from this era, Welles isn’t afraid of using shadow to dramatic and atmospheric effect.  Character’s, especially female characters, in most american films seem to always find that same pocket of light that illuminates them in just such a way.  In Ambersons, not only is there plenty of darkness, but it is nearly a character all its own.  One that each other character interacts with, and plays against (both physically with the shadows in a scene, and metaphorically with their own motivations and intentions).

Another interesting element deserving of mention is the mammoth estate in which the Amberson’s dwell.  The sense of foreboding and expectation carried by the physical structure that houses this indomitable family affects the story as much as any other element in the story.  The cavernous stairway is host to as many romantic kisses as it is to malicious eavesdropping and tense stand-offs.

Finally it is important to point out the resonance this film has had with one of my favorite films of all time, The Royal Tenenbaums.  Similar to The Magnificent Ambersons, Tenenbaums deals with the perceived mythology of a family of spectacular characters, and juxtaposing that ideal against the reality of the dysfunction that is inherent in family.  Similarities range from the small (the titles are similarly grand) to the grand (the main conflict in both films comes about when love and relationships are threatened by jealousy and depression).  Wes Anderson, to his credit, has managed to finish what Orson Welles was never able to.  With The Royal Tenenbaums he manages to bring closure to the wonderful story that has had a false happy ending on it for nearly 60 years.

Is The Magnificent Ambersons great?  No, not as a whole, but what it’s made of, what it was going to be, and what it has inspired, is far more than great!  It’s Magnificent!