Monday, July 19, 2010

"Fasten Your Seatbelts" . . . All About "All About Eve"

"We're a breed apart from the rest of humanity, we theatre folk."

Director Joseph Mankiewicz had always been interested in the theatre. He had an idea about writing and directing a film that told the story of an actress' rise to stardom. However, he needed an element that would be unique. It wasn't until 1949 when a studio story editor found a short story called "The Wisdom of Eve" that Mankiewicz turned his dream into reality. After six weeks of writing, Mankiewicz submitted the story to Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck, who was so enthusiastic that he decided to personally produce the film. Zanuck's feedback mainly consisted of two concerns. First, that the audience should not realize that Eve was the heavy too soon in the film, and second, that a series of scenes between Eve and Lloyd Richards be cut. Zanuck thought that they slowed and dirtied the picture, preferring the power of suggestion. The main goal was to keep the film moving and not let it get bogged down by unnecessary scenes. After the first draft was completed, there were not many revisions and the production moved forward.

"Fasten your seatbelts . . . it's going to be a bumpy night"

Few could imagine anyone better than screen legend Bette Davis as Margo Channing, the aging star whose career is put in jeopardy when she befriends a young "fan". However, when Fox Studio head Darryl Zanuck and Director Joseph Mankiewicz began casting, Bette Davis was not their first choice. Actually, not even the second! They originally planned the role for Susan Hayward. However, as they continued to work on the script, it was decided that, as the plot revolves around Margo turning 40, Miss Hayward was too young, being only 31 at the time. Marlene Dietrich was suggested, but decided against. Finally, Claudette Colbert was cast. However, while filming another movie, she sustained a serious back injury, and as filming was beginning in a little more than a month, they had to replace her. Their second choice was Gertrude Lawrence, but a suitable arrangement could not be reached. Finally, Zanuck and Mankiewicz agreed that Bette Davis had what they were looking for in the actress to play Margo. Miss Davis was in a career slump, having left Warner Bros. after eighteen years and had several flop films. However, Bette Davis and Zanuck had not spoken to each other since a disagreement in the early 1940s, so Zanuck sat on his pride and personally called her, explaining the problem. After reading the script, she accepted the part and her current film production was hurried so that she could make the starting shoot date for "All About Eve".

"No brighter light has ever dazzled the eye than Eve Harrington. Eve . . . but more of Eve later. All about Eve, in fact."

Zanuck's choice for the role of Eve Harrington was Jeanne Crain. However, Mankiewicz was not impressed with her previous film performance. Contract player Anne Baxter was finally settled on when Miss Craine backed out after finding out that she was expecting. The only other large change in casting was that the original choice for Addison Dewitt was Jose Ferrer. However, George Sanders was ultimately signed and went on to win an Oscar for his performance as the cynical critic.

Before filming with the principal players began, Mankiewicz and a camerman flew to New York and New Haven to film the exterior opening shots of the theatre, 21, and the apartments. Back in California, they decided on filming inside a real theatre, eventually renting the Curran Theatre in Los Angeles for ten days at the beginning of the shoot. Bette Davis lost her voice, before filming, due to stress and traffic noises were heard inside the theatre, requiring most of the dialogue to be rerecorded in the sound studio after filming.

The scene between Margo and Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) in the car (after it has run out of gas on the way to the station), where they are really cold, was actually filmed in early Summer and between the weather and the lights it was over 100 degrees while they had to film this scene! Also, Celeste Holm could laugh on command, a skill that Bette Davis admired when filming the scene in the Cub Room, stating that she herself could not even try to do that.

"For those of you who do not read, attend the theatre, listen to unsponsored radio programs, or know anything of the world in which you live, it is perhaps necessary to introduce myself. My name is Addison Dewitt. My native habitat is the theatre. In it, I toil not. Neither do I spin. I am a critic and commentator. I am essential to the theatre."

"He was a brilliant actor, but he wasn't much fun." That was costar Celeste Holm's opinion of character actor George Sanders. He was accustomed to napping in his dressing room between every take. Anne Baxter, who shared many scenes with Mr. Sanders in the film, didn't mind this until it came time for the climax where Addison tells the true story of Eve's past. In her autobiography, she tells the story. The scene "required a gamut of emotion, building to and culminating in hysteria and ending in acrid defeat. I am a starting gate actress. From the moment I climb into the makeup chair my mind is prancing . . . George yawned his way through rehearsals. I was spiraling through them. That first take was an opening night." Director Mankiewicz took her aside, encouraging her to take it easy. She continues, "I tried, but by take five I was a rag. Understanding Joe called a short break and took George aside. I walked around, taking deep breaths and trying to relax and yet maintain my emotional juices. Take six. Take seven - and George went off like a rocket."

"And this is my dear friend and companion, Miss Birdie Coonan"

The incomparable Thelma Ritter was cast as Margo Channing's companion, Birdie. A rather thankless role. Birdie is more of a plot device than a character. She is the one who sees through Eve from the very beginning, while the principle characters are wrapped up in her sentimental story. One of my favorite scenes in the film is after Bill's birthday phone call, when Margo is talking to Birdie and suddenly realizes that Birdie was right about Eve. Margo stares as Eve leaves the room, turning to Birdie after the door is closed. Birdie meets the gaze and slowly exits, still looking directly at Margo, who remains in bed looking at the closed door. Fabulous acting! Thelma Ritter has NO trouble keeping up with Bette Davis in any of the scenes where she appears. Sadly, after Margo has realized the extent of Eve's infiltration, Birdie is dropped from the film, making her very understated exit holding a sable coat after talking to Karen at the end of the party.

Shooting for "All About Eve" finished in June 1950, and in October the film premiered in New York. The film was nominated for 14 Academy Awards, a record that it still holds as a tie with "Titanic". Both Bette Davis and Anne Baxter were nominated for Best Actress. Anne Baxter had insisted on being nominated for Best Actress instead of Supporting. Voters, therefore, the Academy had to choose between "Eve" actresses and the votes were divided between Bette Davis and Anne Baxter with the result that Judy Holliday garnered enough votes to win for her performance in "Born Yesterday". However, in the end, the film won six Oscars including Best Picture of the Year, Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor for George Sanders.