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TNR Film Classics: ‘All About Eve’

Once a year, Hollywood relaxes the lollypop diet on which it sustains a large but jaded public, and serves up one dish of acidulous sophistication. Or to be more precise, about once a year Joseph Mankiewicz at Twentieth Century-Fox does this under the indulgent eye of Darryl F. Zanuck. The last chef’s special was Letter to Three Wives; the new one is All About Eve, the bitchiest fabrication since Mrs. Luce’s The Women.

It is not true, as you may have heard, that All About Eve is a great picture and proof that Hollywood has grown up overnight. Its highly polished, often witty surface hides an unenterprising plot and some preposterous human behavior. What makes the picture seem so good (what makes it eminently worth seeing) is the satirical touches in its detail and the performance of Bette Davis.

The character she plays is Margo, an actress of the American stage who rules her audiences by intelligence and magnetic arrogance. She is at the peak of her professional career, but offstage the pressure of the years has begun to turn her Rabelaisian enjoyment of human relationships toward a virago possessiveness. Margo’s friends still love her, but they find it increasingly heavy work. This is a rewarding part and Miss Davis pitches into it with the relish of a fine actress who has been subsisting for a long while on bare bones.

The viper in Margo’s bosom is one Eve Harrington, played by Anne Baxter with the serene malevolence of one of the poisoning Borgias. She does her devil’s work capably, but the personality inflicted on her is both improbably and unnecessarily revolting. All About Eve puts no faith at all in subtlety. The third lady in the clawing match is Celeste Holm, an actress who still holds unchallenged the title of Hollywood’s most valuable all-around player. Guy Merrill and Hugh Marlowe appear as a couple of personable young theatrical geniuses, but in the overpoweringly feminine unpleasantness they are little more than well-mannered stooges. George Sanders, as Addison de Witt, a male witch, holds his own against the ladies, but his part is shopgirl soigné and another mark against the picture.

The satire of All About Eve is directed at the foibles and vices of the Broadway theatre; it is Hollywood’s urbane retaliation for all the abuse and contempt that Eastern Seaboard wits have heaped on the studios in the years since Once in a Lifetime. But despite the superb tailoring, despite its air of amused superiority to the alley cats of the West Forties, All About Eve does not quite conceal its awe of the world it mocks. It keeps stopping to gape in wonder at the gods it has come to undress; it heaves its darts with canny aim, but it is poised for flight. That does not apply to Bette Davis: she swings into battle with all guns firing and no quarter asked.