All About Eve is (rightly) included in Indiewire‘s list of 40 films that defined 20th Century Fox, which has now officially merged with Disney. However, I think Marilyn’s string of hits at the studio – such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Seven Year Itch, to name just two – also merit consideration.
“Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950) made 20th Century Fox the crown jewel of Oscar players when it nabbed a record 14 Academy Award nominations and won six prizes, including Best Picture. The drama is the first film to earn nominations in all six major Oscar categories: Director, Picture, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, and Supporting Actress.”
The new stage adaptation of All About Eve, starring Gillian Anderson and Lily James, has now opened at London’s Noel Coward Theatre, to mixed reviews. In today’s Guardian, Jenny Stevens goes back to the source, describing Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 classic as “a perfect feminist film.”
“‘All the wittiest lines in the film belong to the women,’ says film critic Molly Haskell. ‘These women are never just pathetic.Mankiewicz is so fascinated by women and sympathetic towards them: he gives them importance, he gives them idiosyncrasy, he gives them their personalities.’
So many films from that era don’t hold up, but All About Eve still feels radical. It takes the theme of women being silenced, forced to listen to men and learn from them regardless of their own talents, and turns men into the butt of the joke. When Margo throws a birthday party for her partner, the director Bill Sampson, the poison-penned theatre critic Addison DeWitt turns up with a young blonde on his arm, a Miss Caswell (played by the then little-known Marilyn Monroe). Channing suggests Eve and DeWitt should talk about their shared love of the theatre. ‘I’m afraid Mr DeWitt might find me boring after too long,’ says Eve, saccharinely coy. ‘Oh you won’t bore him, honey,’ says Miss Caswell. ‘You won’t even get the chance to talk.’
It is an extraordinary scene, says Haskell, ‘especially when you consider that Monroe’s character is not meant to have lines. She’s meant to be just a bimbo. Yet out of this bimbo come these words of wisdom. Everyone has dignity and authority in their own way in the movie.'”
In the new play, Miss Caswell is played by Jessie Mei Li. As you can see below, she looks lovely in the role, but wisely avoids doing a Monroe impersonation. Tickets are selling out fast, but in association with the National Theatre and Fox Stage Productions, a live performance will be broadcast at selected cinemas across the UK and USA from April 11 onwards – pick your nearest venue here.
Following the news that The Misfits will be staged at the Dublin Theatre Festival later this month (see here), London’s Evening Standard reports that All About Eve will open at the Noel Coward Theatre next February for a limited 14-week run, with Gillian Anderson and Lily James recreating the lead roles played by Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Oscar-winning 1950 movie. Of course, All About Eve is all about life in the theatre, and it’s not the first time it’s crossed over to the stage. In 1970, Lauren Bacall won a Tony award for Applause, a hit Broadway musical adaptation. This new take will also feature music, by the acclaimed singer-songwriter P.J. Harvey. It’s not clear yet who will play the supporting character of Claudia Caswell, whose original incarnation gave Marilyn one of her first big breaks.
Last December, it was reported (here) that Disney had bought Twentieth Century Fox’s assets from its most recent owner, Rupert Murdoch. And on July 27, as Variety reports, the Fox-Disney merger went ahead with a $71.3 billion buyout. Marilyn’s films for her home studio will be included in the purchase. As many commentators wonder what this will mean for the venerable Fox brand, the Hollywood Reporter looks back on its colourful past with a series of articles including the fraught relationship between longtime studio head Darryl F. Zanuck and the biggest star of all – Marilyn – during 1951-62, a period described as the ‘Monroe Years’ (preceded by ‘Eve’s Gold Rush’ in 1950, a reference to the Oscar-laden All About Eve in which Marilyn had a small part.) Firstly, film historian Leonard Maltin offers a eulogy for Fox, and the personalities who made it great.
“Zanuck always had someone waiting in reserve in case one of his stars became uncooperative. Betty Grable was hired as a threat to musical star Alice Faye and soon surpassed her as Fox’s premier attraction (and No. 1 pinup) of the 1940s. Faye grew tired of Zanuck’s belittling behavior and walked off the lot one day without saying goodbye. (Zanuck wouldn’t have survived in the #MeToo or Time’s Up era. He was notorious for taking advantage of starlets.)
Zanuck reigned until 1956, when he resigned from Fox and moved to France to become an independent producer. In the fractious years that followed, the studio wooed him back for projects more than once, even allowing him to cast his mistresses (Bella Darvi, Juliette Greco, et. al) in leading roles. But while movie attendance soared during the years following World War II, it sank nearly as quickly with the introduction of television. Fox’s response was to unveil a widescreen process called CinemaScope and its aural equivalent, stereophonic sound. Films like the biblical epic The Robe drew people back to theaters. So did Fox’s newest star, blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe.
It was believed the wildly expensive epic Cleopatra — which paid Elizabeth Taylor an eye-popping $1 million salary — nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox, but president Spyros Skouras already was selling off the company’s valuable backlot (now known as Century City) before the movie’s budget ballooned to $44 million. Facts aside, Cleopatra became a scapegoat for all of the studio’s ills.
In a final coup, Darryl F. Zanuck returned to Fox in the early 1960s and named his son, Richard Zanuck, president … Then, in 1970, Zanuck Sr. fired his son and sparked an Oedipal family feud that sucked in Zanuck’s ex-wife — Richard’s mother, a major shareholder — and ended with the elder Zanuck being pushed out of the studio he co-founded. Repeated changes of regime and ownership in the ensuing years took their toll on the company that had once put its distinctive imprint on such classics as Laura, Miracle on 34th Street, Twelve O’Clock High and All About Eve.”
In another article, ‘Life in the Foxhole‘, Mitzi Gaynor describes the working atmosphere at Fox as ‘like a family’, while Don Murray recalls his movie debut at the studio, and his mercurial leading lady…
“Zanuck loathes Marilyn Monroe (‘He thought I was a freak,’ Monroe once said) and nearly tears up her first contract after her nude Playboy cover comes out. But by 1953, Monroe has three of the studio’s biggest hits — Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire — and renegotiates a new contract paying $100,000 a picture and giving her creative approval. Her first film under the new deal is 1956’s Bus Stop, co-starring Don Murray. ‘I’d never done a feature before,’ says the actor, now 88, ‘so I didn’t know what to expect. From what others on the set told me, Marilyn was on her best behavior. She’d just been to the Actors Studio, and she really wanted to concentrate on her acting. But even so, she was late every day. She’d get to the studio on time, but then she’d spend hours dawdling in her trailer, getting the nerve up to act. She was trying hard — she would sometimes do 30 takes in a scene — but she was very anxious about her acting. She would actually break out in a rash before the cameras would start filming. The cameras gave her a rash.'”
Finally, you can read Marilyn’s take on Fox, and Zanuck – as told to biographer Maurice Zolotow – here.
Among the cast of All About Eve (1950), three would die in tragic circumstances: Marilyn, George Sanders, and Barbara Bates, who appears as wannabe actress Phoebe in the final scene. Although her screen time was brief, it amounts to one of the greatest endings in Hollywood history. Interestingly, her part was reportedly considered for Marilyn before she was cast as Miss Caswell. Barbara also appeared in another early Monroe film, Let’s Make It Legal (1951).
Barbara was born in Denver on August 6, 1925, and came to Hollywood in her teens after winning a beauty contest. There she met Cecil Coan, a publicist for United Artists. They were married, and despite Barbara’s extreme shyness, she submitted to his designs to make her a star, appearing in such films as Johnny Belinda, June Bride and Cheaper By the Dozen. Like Marilyn, Barbara alternated between bit parts and posing for cheesecake, but her career didn’t take off as Marilyn’s did.
By the mid-1950s, Barbara’s emotional instability made her increasingly unreliable, and her last screen credit was in a 1962 episode of the British TV series, The Saint. After her husband was diagnosed with cancer, Barbara gave up acting to care for him, but the strain made her depression worse. A year after his death in 1967, Barbara was remarried to a childhood friend in Denver. But sadly this still wasn’t enough to turn her life around, and in early 1969, she was found dead by gas poisoning in a car inside her mother’s garage.
As part of an ongoing series for The Guardian, Wendy Ide names the 1950s as her favourite decade in film.
“Marilyn Monroe was the blond bombshell of choice – although for a while it looked as though Judy Holliday (Born Yesterday) might be a contender – and became a global icon. Hers was a career that played out almost entirely during the 50s. A supporting role in All About Eve led to a studio contract and a star-making double whammy of Niagara and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Highlights of her decade, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot, saw her teamed with director Billy Wilder …”
And over at Film School Rejects, Will DiGravio argues that the comedy classic, alongside other greats like Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and Hawks’ Rio Bravo, makes 1959 the best year in movies.
“Today, it seems as though many know Monroe only for her beauty, not as the greatest comedic actress of all time. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are hilarious in the film as two musicians pretending to be women in order to play with a female band in Florida and escape the Chicago mob after they witness a murder. Yet, their performances pale in comparison to Monroe’s, whose comedic timing and delivery is so effortless it is easy to under-appreciate her brilliance.”
All About Eve will be screened at the Cape Cod Museum of Art on April 28. It will be shown after an informal reception at 3 pm, and a panel discussion will follow later. The museum is on the grounds of the Cape Playhouse in Dennis Village, where a 13 year-old Gary Merrill ushered back in 1928. Two decades later, Merrill would star as theatre director Bill Simpson in All About Eve, opposite a young Marilyn and his future wife, Bette Davis.
Marilyn has three entries on the 100 Best Classic Movies of All Time at Rotten Tomatoes, the movie website that aggregates user ratings. Some Like It Hot is surprisingly low-ranked (at 92), while the growing reputation of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes places it at 79. But All About Eve heads the pack, coming in fourth.