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

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The Lady Eve (1941)

The Lady Eve – 1941

Director – Preston Sturges

Starring – Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, and Charles Coburn

Screwball comedies are a tricky mixture of absurdity and reason.  The absurdity gives these films their energy, their source of conflict, and it keeps the plot moving forward.  This is the defining element of the screwball comedy, and while absurdity can go a long way to tickling our funny bones, it ultimately can fall flat or fail outright if there isn’t some grounding element, some person, or people who play it straight.

Howard Hawks apparently once said that the flaw with his famous screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby, was that everyone was a screwball.  There was no gauge by which the audience could compare the antics of the crazy characters with those of a normal, functioning, human being.  Despite, or perhaps because of, it’s inclusion in the screwball genre, The Lady Eve works very hard to ground the film squarely on the shoulders of the straight man, Henry Fonda.  He is the lens through which the audience can clearly see, appreciate, and enjoy the madcap antics of the family of con artists and ne’er-do-wells that populate The Lady Eve.

The story is fairly simple, a young, rich, handsome, young man, Charles Pike (Fonda) who prides himself on his zeal for new experiences and adventure, begrudgingly learns first hand how naive he really is when he encounters a group of traveling hucksters (Stanwyck and Coburn primarily) on a steamship back from the jungles of South America.  Friendly, shy, and the object of desire of all the single women on the ship, he makes an ideal mark for Jean Harrington (Stanwyck), the devious, whip-smart, and capable con-woman who is determined to relieve him of his money.

She and her father, the delightfully underhanded (Coburn), go work almost immediately, isolating, charming, and seducing Pike in short order.  The surprise comes for Jean with the sudden realization that she has fallen for Pike’s subtle, earnest charms.  All that remains is to gently break the news of her background as a card-shark, and that is when the trouble starts.

While he is the foundation upon which the premise is based, the least engaging character is Fonda’s Pike.  He is by and large just another set-piece for the more interesting grifters to play against.  He is used as prop almost like someone might use a gun or a hat, to build upon and explore their character.

Stanwyck on the other hand, really has room to spread her wings.  Her role in Double Indemnity, as the murderous, money, hungry wife, may have been more iconic, but this one is far more developed and way more fun to watch her work.  During a con, Jean wears a mask, a different personality to blend in and follow the script that’s been written, never able to show her true self.  The irony is that the face she wears when she is being herself is also a mask to hide and protect herself from danger, like falling in love and getting hurt.  It’s when she finally realizes that she’s fallen in love with Pike that she starts to show her real personality.

When Pike learns of her past, and her deception, she has to develop yet another character, so she can win him back, and there you have the titular, Eve.  The gusto that she brings to the role of Jean/Eve is infectious, and quite frankly the best part of the film.  The longer we watch Jean work, the more we want to see, and the more we see, the more we like her.

The Lady Eve is packed with gags, all vying for the audience’s attention.  From Pike’s rough around the edges bodyguard mixing with high society, to the slap-stickish food based humor in the second half of the film, Preston Sturges really throws everything including the kitchen sink at us hoping to connect.  While that stuff is funny, it’s really an after thought as compared to the interaction between Stanwyck and Fonda, so much so that it can almost be distracting, and take you out of the movie.  Almost, but thankfully, not quite.

The Lady Eve gives me hope for screwball comedies.  It joins the ranks of “His Girl Friday” as being madcap, exciting, and genuinely funny, without seeming ridiculous and un-restrained.  The characters, while bigger than life, aren’t too big, too crazy, and they never become unbelievable, which is death for any movie character.  Definitely a good example of Screwball Comedy that is, itself, good.

“Men are dumb.” – Ashley