Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Review: "All About Eve" (1950)

What makes a movie great? I have heard that, because film is primarily a visual medium, all films should be able to be enjoyed and understood just as well with the sound off. I can see where this argument is coming from, but I don't quite agree with it. The film making process has morphed into so many different forms over the years, and narrowing it down to one style or one method simply isn't possible. Besides, where would the screenwriters of the world be without sound, and there are certainly some screenwriters and scripts so good that they should survive until the end of time.

With "All About Eve", it's easy to fall into fawning superlatives. The story in brief: Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is a popular stage actress surrounded by good friends and a good life, yet her advancing age makes her somewhat insecure. Enter Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), a starstruck fan that worships the ground Margo walks on. Because of Eve's rather sad little life, Margo agrees to help by hiring her as an assistant. Eve is incredibly grateful and Margo enjoys her ego being stroked. But Margo soon starts to suspect that Eve has darker motives than she lets on.

"All About Eve" has rightfully earned a place in moviegoers hearts for its dialogue. Here is a sampling of some choice lines:

Margo Channing: Bill's thirty-two. He looks thirty-two. He looked it five years ago, he'll look it twenty years from now. I hate men.

Addison DeWitt: You're maudlin and full of self-pity. You're magnificent!

Lloyd Richards: How about calling it a night?
Margo Channing: And you, pose as a playwright? A situation pregnant with possibilities and all you can think of is everybody go to sleep.

Lloyd Richards: You've developed a certain cynicism since you've been married to me.
Karen Richards: I developed that cynicism the day I discovered I was different from little boys!

(My favorite line, which is prompted when a depressed and drunk Margo requests a funerary song be played for the fifth time at Bill's birthday party)
Bill Sampson: Many of your guests have been wondering when they may be permitted to view the body. Where has it been laid out?
Margo Channing: It hasn't been laid out, we haven't finished with the embalming. As a matter of fact, you're looking at it. The remains of Margo Channing. Sitting up. It is my last wish to be buried sitting up.

(And then there's everybody else's favorite line)
Margo Channing: Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night!
When I said it's great dialogue, you'll notice that I didn't say "natural". For that later category, you would want to turn to such revered scripts as "Chinatown". Rather, "All About Eve" is filled with clever dialogue spouted by clever people. Since these characters work in the New York Theater, we can believe them as real characters who are also constantly witty. The same could be said for the more recent "Wonder Boys", where the verbose characters are mostly part of academic and literary circles. Both worlds are presented in a believable fashion, so we can accept them, their characters and their words.

The actors are all fine in their roles. It is said Bette Davis had a lot in common with Margo Channing, particularly in her insecurities. Davis will always be remembered for this role, and it is a perfect showcase for the intelligence and charisma that was unique to her. One other actress that is often noted is the very young Marilyn Monroe in the supporting role of Miss Caswell. Like the art-imitating-life situation with the Davis role, Monroe plays a gorgeous and somewhat vapid actress just starting out. However, those that may giggle at the similarities between Monroe and her character should watch her in this film before judging. She displays a superior talent at comedy that we would later be seen in "Some Like it Hot".

The film does have a few faults. One has to laugh at the rear screen projection work they use for the simple scene of two people walking down the sidewalk (the title for best film with worst rear screen effects, however, will always be held by "The African Queen"). Also, some modern audiences will automatically think that something is up with Eve when we first hear her gush at Margo. In all other respects, the tone and sensibility of the film holds up as something that could have been made yesterday. In fact, it seems that at least once a year I hear a story about a remake being planned. Without that dialogue, though, any remake would be severely lacking.

The film is a classic. It features charismatic people speaking brilliant dialogue and all I can do is smile whenever I watch it. You will, too.

Ten out of Ten

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