Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz; Screenplay: Joseph L. Mankiewicz; Cinematography: Milton R. Krasner; Studio: 20th Century Fox; Director: Darryl F. Zanuck
Cast: Bette Davis (Margo Channing), Anne Baxter (Eve Harrington), George Sanders (Addison DeWitt), Celeste Holm (Karen Richards), Gary Merrill (Bill Sampson), Hugh Marlowe (Lloyd Richards), Gregory Ratoff (Max Fabian), Thelma Ritter (Birdie), Barbara Bates (Phoebe), Marilyn Monroe (Miss Caswell)
- "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night!"
This is a year that rivals 1939 for me in the number of worthy films that I have had to wade through. Usually, there are a few standouts that emerge from the pack and quickly narrow my decision-making process down to three or four logical options. In 1950 there are legitimately six Hollywood films that I feel would contend for top movie honors in any single year, and ones that I almost feel embarrassed at not being able to include with full-length reviews in this countdown. All of this is before even taking into consideration the fabulous films made outside of the United States by true titans of cinema like Kurosawa, Bresson, and Buñuel. Attempting to manage the sheer extent of these countless great films was nearly overwhelming, but it was an experience that I wouldn’t change. In going back through these old favorites, and also viewing some for the first time, I had an absolute blast.
Ironically enough, the entire project led me to the very same controversial decision that plagued those choosing the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1950. And while history has been kind to both Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve, conventional wisdom seems to be that the Academy got it wrong in this instance (which would be no shock considering some decisions that would be made in the years to come). Even disregarding honors and awards, it appears that most cineastes look upon Sunset Boulevard as the superior film. I don't want to be put into the position of having to downplay the greatness of Wilder’s masterpiece, as I consider it a nearly flawless film and the best movie ever made about the underbelly of golden era Hollywood. For me this choice is like splitting hairs, and one that I could go back and forth on depending on when you ask me. In the end, I cautiously reach the same conclusion as the Academy and side with the splendid All About Eve.
My instant affinity for the movie came as quite a shock to me, as I originally began watching it out of a feeling of obligation rather than genuine interest. As I began getting more and more into classic cinema, I realized that there were certain movies that every movie fan worth his salt simply had to see. So it was that I approached All About Eve, not expecting to enjoy it at all. I knew only the barest of plot details, but from these small tidbits it sounded like a movie that I would not like – the idea of listening to the whining of pretentious thespians bemoaning their charmed, lives sounded awful. Still, I decided that I would have to make it through the film at least once so that I could make the statement “I’ve seen it.” Then, the most amazing thing happened – I was completely drawn into the lives of the same characters that I was certain that I would detest. I quickly realized that the writing was so strong that it was impossible not to at least be entertained.
My first viewing of the movie was also done under ideal circumstances. My limited knowledge of the film and its storyline was perfect, allowing me to be completely drawn in by the Eve Harrington character. This added so much to the entire experience for me, because the transformation of the once timid Eve took me by surprise. The story hinges on the relationship between the young vagabond Eve (Anne Baxter), a wannabe actress, and her hero, the veteran star of the stage Margo Channing (Bette Davis). After attending every performance of the latest play Margo is starring in, Eve manages to get backstage one night and meet her idol. After telling Margo and her friends – director and boyfriend Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), director Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), and best friend Karen (Celeste Holm) – a story about her rough upbringing and her longing for the theater, she breaks the hearts of those listening. In response, the tight knit group opens up to Eve, allowing her into their inner-circle.
Margo takes young Eve under her wing, allowing the girl work as her personal assistant. Eve is obsessively attentive, catering to the diva’s every desire. She serves Margo breakfast in bed, stokes her ego concerning performances, and helps keep her life in order. But what started as an endearing fixation suddenly seems to be going overboard. Margo begins to suspect that Eve will not be satisfied with just being near her, but actually wants to become her. Some in the group of friends see the same thing, while others feel that Margo is just paranoid and being her usual narcissist self. Is Margo being overly sensitive or is Eve truly the ambitious manipulator that Margo believes her to be? That's the question that had me wondering, although I can understand if it was rather obvious to viewers more astute than myself.
Anne Baxter turns in a great performance as Eve, creating the believable persona of a wandering young girl who wants nothing more than to please her new friends. It was so believable to me, and Margo came across as so arrogant, that when I witnessed the transformation of Eve it was astonishing. Not expecting the character to do such a complete 180, when the true ruthless ambition of Eve Harrington was revealed in that first viewing, I was stunned. I’m sure this sounds completely naïve – particularly to those who saw the transformation coming right from the start – but I have be honest. It was something I did not expect.
Eve’s true personality slowly begins to emerge. She begins making unwelcome advances toward Margo’s longtime boyfriend and director Bill. Things truly fall apart between the two when Eve becomes Margo’s understudy and through a practical joke gets to stand in for Margo for a single night. In that one performance, Eve shines, prompting writer and critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) to declare her to be the future of the theater. From that lone performance, Eve manages to springboard her own successful career as an actress, beginning to move toward eclipsing the long-reigning queen of the stage – her former idol Margo Channing.
There is nothing ground-breaking about the way in which director Joseph L. Mankiewicz shoots the film. There are no real technical innovations or virtuoso camera movements or lighting. This film is put over because of the same ingredients that make successful productions in the theater world in which it is set – an amazing script and equally amazing performances. As exceptional as the various actors are, for me the true stars of the movie are Makiewicz and his script. Mankiewicz was wise enough to realize that his material was strong enough to make such technical skills and wizardry pointless. He simply needed to put a camera in place and allow the audience to watch events unfold. So the irony is that in this film about people of the theater, the film at times actually feels like a stage play rather than a movie. But this does nothing to dampen the effectiveness.
As I said, the material is incredible, and I think that a sensible argument can be made that this is the finest dialogue ever written in Hollywood. It is witty, biting, and at times laugh out loud funny. The thing about the dialogue, though, is that it’s unique. The nature of it is different from the way that the speech in, say, noirs is biting. In noirs, the acidic nature is due to lead characters playing the cool, tough-guy roles, firing off one-liners that are stinging. And this is not rapid-fire speech, with every character talking over one another and as fast as they possibly can, which mars many otherwise well-written screwball comedies for me. This speech feels real and takes no imagination or suspension of belief to picture real people talking this way. It is a rare movie that is so well-written that you could simply close your eyes and listen to it and still enjoy things. The other important aspect of Mankiewicz’s screenplay that is remarkable is how well he writes for women. The women truly are the driving forces of the movie – whether it is Margo, Eve, or even Karen. How he was able to write so naturally for these female characters still amazes to me. Mankiewicz deservedly was awarded the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
With such strong material, it would be easy to attribute the brilliance of the performances in the film to the script. To do so would be to overlook the highpoints of many stellar careers. It is no exaggeration to say that Bette Davis’s role as Margo Channing is the finest of her illustrious years in Hollywood. She was ideal for the role of an aging starlet, struggling to remain in the forefront of her field, as her own life mimicked just such a situation. By 1950, her career was on a downturn, having been released by Warner Brothers after a 19-year partnership. In hindsight, it would appear that the role of Margo was actually tailor-made for Davis, but incredibly she was nowhere near being the first choice of Mankiewicz or producer Darryl Zanuck. Mankiewicz apparently envisioned Susan Hayward as Margo while he was writing the screenplay, while Zanuck would push for other established stars like Barbara Stanwyck. The duo even cast Claudette Colbert in the role, but she was forced to step down prior to filming due to injury. Such are those unforeseen yet fortuitous breaks that litter the history of Hollywood, as Bette Davis would step in and positively shine. Both Davis and Anne Baxter were nominated for Best Actress, the irony being that neither of them, or the equally outstanding Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, won the award. The argument has lived on as to who actually turned in a better performance in 1950 – Davis or Swanson as Norma Desmond. Fortunately, that’s beyond the scope of this countdown, so I won’t even try and answer!
The great performances go beyond the two leading ladies. Celeste Holm as the loyal wife and friend, also manages to give Karen a bit of a scheming personality. Thelma Ritter is hilarious as the cynical, know-it-all assistant to Margo. Gregory Ratoff is equally funny as producer Max Fabian, a man who tries to be a serious businessman but continually comes across as a lovable Teddy Bear type. Arguably the best performance of the entire film is turned in by the always reliable George Sanders. No actor has ever been able to infuse a callous character such as Addison DeWitt with such style. Addison is a man who senses that he can wield great power with his pen, and revels in doing so. He has no compunction about lashing out at stars like Margo Channing or manipulating people like Eve in order to boost his own ego. And he does all of this with a cigarette holder in one hand and a smug grin on his face. Addison always remains genteel as he does his dirty work.
Other Contenders for 1950: The close runner-up should be quite obvious from reading the rest of the review. Sunset Boulevard is a magnificent film and I would probably call it my favorite in director Billy Wilder’s impressive list of achievements. I would not fault anyone for choosing it as their #1 of 1950.
At the same time, there are a number of other Hollywood films that I also would not fault anyone for choosing. Nicholas Ray is best remembered for the landmark Rebel Without a Cause, but I don’t think he ever made a finer film than In a Lonely Place. And I also don’t know that Humphrey Bogart ever gave a finer performance than in this film. His Dixon Steele character is about as dark as Bogey ever got. John Huston also had a storied career in Hollywood, but I find The Asphalt Jungle to be my favorite film in his entire body of work. This was one of the first noirs that I ever saw and was something of a springboard in getting me to further explore the genre. While others might not consider them as good as I do, I think that Anthony Mann made two great westerns in 1950. In the first of his western collaborations with Jimmy Stewart, Mann made Winchester ’73, and I think this is the best that the duo ever made. His other one of this year I feel is incredibly underrated – The Furies. Gauging the response I have seen elsewhere, I probably rate this one significantly higher than most other people, but I think that I might actually rank it as my favorite Mann western. Finally, while not on the same artistic level as the other films mentioned here, I have always had a personal love of Otto Preminger’s Where the Sidewalk Ends and Rudolph Mate’s D.O.A.
I also cannot overlook the many great films made outside of the United States. Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon may have lost some of its impact due to the ungodly amount of imitators who have copped its storytelling technique, but it is still very good. I’m not sure whether Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest is actually 1950 or 51 – everything I see has it premiering in 1951, but over at WitD, Allan has it listed as 1950. Since Allan has infinitely more movie knowledge than me, I’ll go with 1950. Bresson films are always somewhat difficult for me to grasp, but this is certainly among his best.