“All About Eve” received six Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, George Sanders, Best Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Black-and-White, and Best Sound, and was nominated in six other categories as well. Listed as # 16 on AFI's Top 100 of all time.
Twentieth Century-Fox revisits several previously released titles via a new Oscar banner - films honored with multiple Oscars - and takes advantage of available biographers and scholars by including their thoughts in full-length commentary tracks.
Since few actors, writers and directors associated with these Golden Age classics are alive today, it makes sense to seek out scholars whose works - some published in the 1970s and early 80s - involved interviews with the connected artisans that were not only alive at the time of research, but open to candid, informal talks when the media had largely forgotten them. The revamped "All About Eve" disc includes two commentary tracks that make for some interesting comparisons.
Track 1 edits contributions from director Joseph L. Mankiewicz's son Christopher (primarily a producer today), 1977 Mankiewicz biographer Kenneth Geist ("Pictures Will Talk"), and co-star Celeste Holm; whereas Track 2 is given to Sam Staggs, author of the recent making-of book, "All About All About Eve".
Right from the get-go Geist follows his intro with a statement of his intense dislike for Staggs' book, and it's clear he used this opportunity to go above Staggs' focus on 'the bitchiest movie ever made' and cover the film's immense artistic merits. Having interviewed Joseph Mankiewicz and examined some of his surviving personal papers, Geist knows his film history, and gives some excellent insight into the man, frequently using his film as a vessel to reveal the writer-director's gifts for language and character, and his weakness for possessing a rather bland visual acumen that's evident in a rather stagy style. Even son Christopher acknowledges his father's visual weaknesses, though as a director, father Mankiewicz clearly knew how to arrange a scene. Experienced as a writer and producer with MGM, Joseph Mankiewicz had wanted to direct for a long time, and "All About Eve" marked his two-year Oscar winning streak as Best Director and Best Writer (after 1950's "Letter To Three Wives").
Son Christopher and biographer Geist together paint a vivid portrait not only of the film's creator, but cover the movie's genesis (from Mary Orr's short story, "The Wisdom of Eve"), working with Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck, and the producer/director relationship that flourished despite creative arguments, and ended with the debacle of "Cleopatra" in 1963. Mankiewicz's son also offers some superb details on "Cleopatra," and laughs when retelling his father's desire to release the film as a two-part epic. A wry sense of humour permeates his recollections, and he digs into past memories to explain some of the film's biographical aspects. The famous birthday party ("Fasten your seatbelts - It's going to be a bumpy night.") is apparently a realistic mounting of the Mankiewicz household, with mom - former Viennese stage great Rose Stradner - relegated to an alcoholic Hausfrau, becoming less attentive to her guests and more imbibed with active vitriol.
Staggs' commentary is pretty lightweight, and though he claims to have done much research for his book, he lacks the insight of a scholar, often focusing on production locations and bitchy apocrypha (the bulk already covered in Track 1). His tone infers deep thought, but concluding a Ronald Reagan what-if footnote with 'who knows how the history of the world would have turned out' is just plain idiotic. In between some increasingly large gaps of silence, Staggs reveals his limited scope, and his comments become more fragmented in the final hour, forgetting he's supposed to speak, and not watch the movie in silence with us.
"AMC Backstory: All About Eve" is a genuinely well-constructed half-hour documentary that covers key bases without dipping into fawning fluff. The doc makes excellent use of behind-the-scenes stills and footage, along with material from the Oscar awards, and includes a decent collection of interviews. Celeste Holm, present on the disc's first commentary track, is in much better health here, though her comments primarily focus on her working relationship with Bette Davis. Holm's health evidently became more fragile in the intervening years (evidenced by an unstable voice), and her comments, neatly arranged between Mankiewicz and Geist, are very short, but her sharp wit is ever-present.
Briefly seen in the AMC doc, the Oscar awards are glimpsed in the first of four Fox Movietone News shorts, with Zanuck receiving another Irving Thalberg Award, along with the Best Picture statue. Mankiewicz and George Sanders are also shown, and the trio make plenty of nods to the studio - quite a difference from current acceptance speeches that cover agents, dishwashers, and pet goldfish.
The second short covers the film premiere, with plenty of stars caught in the newsreel lens - including Debra Paget, Joan Crawford, and Paul Douglas - particularly George Sanders, with brunette wife [sic] "Ceri Gaber" (er, Zsa Zsa Gabor).
The third short covers the Holiday Magazine Awards, with Fox contract player Clifton "Mr. Belvedere" Webb accepting the award, as none associated with "Eve" were present (you can tell the emcee is slightly peeved). Like the fourth short for the Look Magazine Awards (hosted by Bob Hope), only the intros were filmed, with lots of static posing shot for later newsreel inclusion. It's all raw footage with sync beeps and frame flashing, missing any acceptance speeches, and showing close ups of the Look Awards being clutched by Mankiewicz and star Davis. Before the film runs out, there's a flash of lanky James Stewart.
The remaining archival goodies are utterly contrived 'insider' meetings with Bette Davis and Anne Baxter. More rehearsed publicity than interviews, both segments make for fascinating comparison with today's press junkets, and how the stars of the Silver Screen were told exactly what to do, instead of today's sound bites that still retain a measure of natural delivery with feigned spontaneity.
The included "Eve" trailer uses a few bits from the Bette Davis interview, and like the included trailers for "Gentleman's Agreement" and "How Green Was My Valley," is designed to trumpet Oscar triumph. Like the aforementioned Davis and Anne Baxter interviews, the trailers are pretty shopworn, with adequate audio.
A significant cleanup was done in the last few years before "All About Eve" was ready for DVD, and the Restoration Comparison offers a detailed text intro, in which the original, "unstable" nitrate camera original was duped onto safety stock, and where damaged portions existed, sections were taken from the best available sources. The digital work successfully straddles the fine line between preserving the innate grain of the film stock while correcting the grey densities and removing unwanted flecks and artifacts. A split screen comparison flips between old video masters, the laser disc master, and the new digital version.
The optical sound elements have also been cleaned up, yielding clean dialogue, sound effects and music, while staying true to the film's original Oscar-winning sound work. The DVD contains the original mono mix, and a pseudo-stereo remix that merely adds more treble, though there's some favoritism for the right channel. (Alfred Newman's Oscar-nominated score, released by Film Score Monthly on CD, contains dual channel/stereo versions of the film's finale and credit music.)
The only thing missing from this otherwise excellent package is Carol Burnett's painfully funny parody of "Eve," but I guess all of the above will do just fine.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan