All About “All About Eve”

BOOK: All About “All About Eve”
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Title Page

Copyright Notice


Author’s Note


Chapter 1.
Fire and Music

Chapter 2.
When Was It? How Long?

Chapter 3.
Minor Awards Are for Such as the Writer

Chapter 4.
Zanuck, Zanuck, Zanuck

Chapter 5.
Miss Channing Is Ageless

Chapter 6.
The End of an Old Road, the Beginning of a New One

Chapter 7.
San Francisco, An Oasis of Civilization in the California Desert

Chapter 8.
How Could I Miss Her? Every Night, Every Matinee

Chapter 9.
To Margo. To My Bride-to-Be

Chapter 10.
A Graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Art

Chapter 11.
Killer to Killer

Chapter 12.
A New Word for Happiness

Chapter 13.
A Little Taking In Here and Letting Out There

Chapter 14.
A Career All Females Have in Common

Chapter 15.
The General Atmosphere Is Very Macbethish

Chapter 16.
I Call Myself Phoebe

Chapter 17.
The Time I Looked Through the Wrong End of the Camera Finder

Chapter 18.
And You, I Take It, Are the Paderewski Who Plays His Concerto on Me, the Piano?

Chapter 19.
Wherever There’s Magic and Make-Believe and an Audience, There’s Theatre

Chapter 20.
I’ll Marry You If It Turns Out You Have No Blood At All

Chapter 21.
You’ll Give the Performance of Your Life

Chapter 22.
Those Awards Presented Annually by That Film Society

Chapter 23.
Waiting for Me to Crack That Little Gnome on the Noggin With a Bottle

Chapter 24.
I Could Watch You Play That Scene a Thousand Times

Chapter 25.
Tell That to Dr. Freud Along With the Rest of It

Chapter 26.
Real Diamonds in a Wig

Chapter 27.
Why, If There’s Nothing Else, There’s Applause

Postscript: Tell Us About It, Eve

Afterword: Fasten Your Seat Belts

Brief Lives, Etc.


Selected Bibliography



Also by Sam Staggs



To Robert Sanchez, Glenn Russell, Evan Matthews,

Steve Lambert, Tim Boss, Cary Birdwell,

John Conway, Gary Schwartz,

and Warren Butler—who know all about movies

Author’s Note

All About Eve
is, to me, one of the most entertaining movies ever made, I have tried to write an entertaining book about it. I like to think of my work as “fan scholarship,” or even “camp scholarship,” and why not? Surely a book about a particular movie should echo the “voice” of the movie itself.

To come at a Hollywood classic from every angle, as I’ve attempted to do, you have to immerse yourself in all aspects of the production, as the moviemakers did. It’s necessary to memorize the script. To learn your way around the sets and observe carpenters, electricians, stylists, and script-girls. Study every performance. You have to become a shadow director, as well as a shadow star, someone who sees everything but who remains out of camera range.

My chief method in tracing the route of
All About Eve
has been a production history of the film. The complete story, however, began long before anyone conceived such a picture, and continues long after: through the Broadway musical
and including quotations, references, and allusions to
right up to the present day.

I wanted to write not as a detached observer but rather from the point of view of an audience member trying to figure out why I like the movie so much, and why I still find it fresh after thirty or forty viewings. My approach is emotional—that’s the fan response. But without research and a rigorous quest for accuracy and balance, the entire book might amount to little more than a studio press release.

Writing about the Hollywood of fifty years ago is a slippery job at best because so many of the people—and the documents—are gone. And of course those in the motion picture industry, like the rest of us, have remembered what was favorable to themselves. Each one framed his or her narrative with an eye to flattering close-ups.

In trying to separate fact from myth, I have retained a constant skepticism. Many of the anecdotes recounted here derive, with variations, from several sources. I’ve also included several from a single source, and a few from sources not entirely convincing. The quotes from various persons connected with
All About Eve
sometimes sound scripted, but they’re real. Attributions are given in the endnotes.


I might have caught a glimpse of the heart of the mystery from the rear, an unflattering angle which, paradoxically, has always excited me, possibly because it is in some way involved with my passion for “backstage,” for observing what is magic from the unusual, privileged angle.

—Gore Vidal,
Myra Breckinridge

Chapter 1

Fire and Music


A terse headline in
on September 27, 1951, told the news:
. Many in the industry were surprised that Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the Hollywood director and screenwriter, was quitting 20th Century-Fox, where he had spent the better part of a decade. His separation from Fox was amicable, as such things go; his valedictory to Los Angeles less so. Mankiewicz referred to the City of Angels as “an intellectual fog belt.”

Manhattan, he felt sure, would salute him. There he could breathe finer air. He expected to be smartly quoted all over town, and when he tossed out a bon mot his New York listeners wouldn’t miss a beat. Nor would anyone complain “What’s that supposed to mean?” as they had done since his first day in the intellectual fog belt.

Two Bekins moving vans that would transport everything the Mankiewicz family owned across the country to their new home in New York were packed. One van was filled with household goods. The other contained what was irreplaceable: the writings of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, his papers, his many awards and citations.

Mankiewicz told a reporter he was off to Broadway to “make my pitch for the theatre.” Although he spent the rest of his life in New York, he never completed a play, and he never directed one.


Celeste Holm, in her apartment on Central Park West, answered the phone herself. After hearing a description of the book in progress, titled
All About All About Eve
, she asked, “Why the hell do you want to write that book?”

“Why? Because millions of people love the movie. And also because no one has told the story of how it came about and why
All About Eve
is considered both a Hollywood classic and a cult film.”

“I don’t get it,” she snapped. “A work of art speaks for itself! I think a book like that is a waste of time. If people are interested, let them see the movie.”

“I’ve seen it thirty times.”

“Then see it thirty more!”

“Look, Miss Holm, it’s not backstairs gossip I’m after. But since Mankiewicz lost all his papers in the fire—”

“I guess you want to talk to me about Bette Davis?” Celeste Holm demanded, and without waiting for an answer she continued. “I’ve talked to everybody in the world about that movie!”

“Bette Davis? No. I’d rather hear about you.”

“All this crap about books—I don’t get it.”

“Suppose I send you a detailed letter about the book. Your memories of shooting
All About Eve
are important.”

“Well … maybe. I don’t know. Good-bye.”

She never answered the letter.


Told about the unproductive phone conversation with Celeste Holm, Kenneth Geist, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s biographer, remarked, “When you’re the last Mankiewicz survivor in New York, you’ve probably had enough.”


“I’m not a dinosaur, you know,” harrumphed Celeste Holm when a reporter in Los Angeles asked her if
All About Eve
is the movie people best remember her for.

“Didn’t you see
Tom Sawyer
last year?” she scolded. “I played Aunt Polly. That was a hit too.… Actually, I can tell a lot about somebody just from the movie of mine he mentions first. If you like
All About Eve
so much it probably means you’re a Bette Davis nut, a late-show freak. The Broadway musical fans want to know about my playing Ado Annie in the original production of
. And the socially conscious crowd, the urban liberals, talk about
Gentleman’s Agreement


Volumes of plays—Ibsen, Oscar Wilde, Kaufman and Hart, Rostand, Molière, Beaumont and Fletcher, even Clyde Fitch and old melodramas—all of these crackled in the fire as if this were Berlin in 1933. Theatre histories, the works of Sigmund Freud, scripts and diaries, biographies of Minnie Fiske and Sarah Siddons and the Barrymores blazed up for a few minutes and then were gone. Mementos saved from movie sets melted like candle wax.

The fire grew and fattened, consuming every molecule of oxygen. It lapped up half a lifetime of memories. The highway itself seemed on fire, while inside the overturned Bekins van ugly smoke gnawed away at wooden crates, cardboard boxes, and metal file cabinets, which, despite their greater strength, would not survive.

A distant siren started up as photographs of Bette Davis charred in the flames like bacon strips. Nearby, a carton flared and that was the end of letters covering several decades: to and from Joe Mankiewicz and his brother, Herman, their sister, their parents, wives, nieces and nephews, and telegrams to them from half of Hollywood. Packed on the bottom of this box was a book of addresses: Celeste Holm in Manhattan, Thelma Ritter in Queens, Mr. and Mrs. Gary Merrill in Maine, Darryl Zanuck’s private phone number in his spacious suite of offices at 20th Century-Fox.

When the call came, Joe Mankiewicz must have felt that the grandest era of his life had perished. The loss was devastating. Destroyed were hundreds of files dating back to 1929, the year he arrived in Hollywood as a twenty-year-old whose first assignment at Paramount was writing titles for silent movies. Had they survived, those files—along with manuscripts, correspondence, countless personal and professional items detailing two decades of Hollywood history—would now belong to an important university, or perhaps to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills.

Years later, an interviewer asked Mankiewicz to enumerate all the awards for his most famous picture,
All About Eve
. He shook his head and said nothing, remembering the enormity of the fire. But losing track of the many awards for that film was the smallest part of his misfortune. “Forgive me,” he said at last, “but I can’t attach much importance to the fact that somewhere in those melted filing cabinets was the dust of a few more back-patting certificates or statuettes. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. It’s just that I miss so terribly all of my project notebooks, my manuscripts, my letters and diaries—the private documentation of my twenty-year stretch out there.”

*   *   *

Joe Mankiewicz liked fire imagery; he often used it in his work. Three examples from
All About Eve
come to mind. Bette Davis on Miss Caswell, played by Marilyn Monroe: “She looks like she might burn down a plantation.” Addison DeWitt describes Eve’s first onstage reading of Lloyd’s play as “something made of music and fire.” And when Bette says “Remind me to tell you about the time I looked into the heart of an artichoke” and Eve replies “I’d like to hear it,” Bette’s sardonic punch line is “Some snowy night in front of the fire.”

In his two or three best works, Mankiewicz was a comic, cynical Prometheus who snatched fire from Hollywood and sent it out across the world to millions of delighted moviegoers. The Mankiewicz flame from his best work as a writer/director—
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
(1947), which he didn’t write, and
A Letter to Three Wives
(1949) and
All About Eve
(1950), both of which he wrote and directed—burns as bright today as it did a half-century ago.

Joe Mankiewicz owed his start in Hollywood to his older brother, Herman J. Mankiewicz, the witty, hell-raising screenwriter best remembered as co-author of
Citizen Kane
. It was Herman who brought Joe out to California in 1929 and introduced him to the right people. In later years Joe repaid the favor many times.

BOOK: All About “All About Eve”
11.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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