Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Books: All About ‘All About Eve’

The 2019 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge is an event in which the goal is to read and write about a variety of books related to classic film, hosted by Out of the Past. For a complete list of the rules, visit the website.

I used to work in video retail with a middle-aged man named Bill. He was instrumental in giving me a classic film education, so I think kindly of him, but I knew him as mostly irascible and gruff. He was also a gay man of a certain age, and as such, there were particular classic movies and movie actresses he placed upon a pedestal. Watching them could change his whole attitude in an instant.

Every year on his birthday, without fail, he’d put on All About Eve for one scene: At midnight, the phone operator wakes up Margo, Bette Davis’ character, for a west coast call to her fiancée Bill. At first she’s confused; she doesn’t realize the call was arranged secretly by Eve. Then Margo recognizes the occasion and smiles. “Bill!” says Margo. “It’s your birthday!” “My” Bill would hear that and melt.

But then, Bette Davis had that effect on people.

All About Eve is a fantastic movie that has dated little over the years. The theater isn’t as central to American pop culture as it once was, but the themes of ambition and careerism and middle age are as relevant now as they were in 1951, when it won the Oscar for Best Picture. The book All About ‘All About Eve’ by Sam Staggs chronicles the evolution of the tale of the aging theater diva and the mousy young groupie, and there’s much more to the route than most people realize.

Elisabeth Bergner, the inspiration for the character
who would become Margo Channing 
Did you know Eve was inspired by a true story? In the book we discover the middle-aged thespian from long ago, Elisabeth Bergner, who was the basis for the character of Margo Channing, and the young actress who wanted to be her. A third woman, only peripherally connected, was inspired to write a short story about the two. It was published. Writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz saw it, adapted it for the screen, and the rest is history.

Staggs writes about that initial author, Mary Orr, and how her story got her in trouble with the real-life “Eve,” plus Orr’s struggle for proper credit on what would become the Eve screenplay, and her reunion with “Eve” many years later. We learn about who else was considered for the role of Margo, the significance of the film in the lives of the cast, including an up-and-coming starlet named Marilyn Monroe, how hangers-on like George Sanders’ wife Zsa Zsa Gabor played a factor, the budding romance between Davis and co-star Gary Merrill, and of course, all the off-camera bickering. In addition, Staggs discusses the Broadway adaptation Applause, with Lauren Bacall, and the embrace of the film by the gay community.

Mary Orr, who wrote the story that
became All About Eve 
Staggs writes All About in more of a fannish manner than a journalistic one, by his own admission. Davis and Merrill and Anne Baxter are Bette and Gary and Anne (with the occasional “Miss Davis” for period authenticity). His style is chatty in an Entertainment Tonight, Liz Smith kind of way: in interviews with living subjects, like Orr, he includes asides in the conversation like “You don’t really wanna know about this, do you?” and things like that.

You either like that kind of stuff or you don’t. I found it a bit distracting, and yes, I realize how that sounds coming from me, Mr. “I am not a film critic.” It makes me want to reevaluate my own writing, for this blog, but that’s another issue.

Staggs rambles on a bit too much at times. He’s extremely erudite, but I did think he loved the sound of his voice too much. I would say that’s the risk one takes when writing as a fan, but bloggers like Farran Smith Nehme, Kendra Bean, even Raquel and Aurora put the lie to that, so I dunno.

Bottom line, All About is very informative and illuminating. You might not be put off by Staggs’s writing style. If you love Eve the movie, check this out; just don’t expect it to read like Cahiers du Cinema.


  1. The movie also had the delightful character actress THELMA RITTER. She was in two movies with DORIS DAY-PILLOW TALK(1959) and MOVE, OVER DARLING (1963, I think). Miss Ritter years later was in THE MISFITS which was the last movie for both MARILYN MONROE and CLARK GABLE. CELESTE HOLM was also in ALL ABOUT EVE. Classic TV Fan

  2. When I stated MISS RITTER years later was in THE MISFITS I meant years later after ALL ABOUT EVE. Classic TV Fan

  3. You’re absolutely right. I did a post about my girl Thelma a few years ago. She was a treasure — and certainly one of the best parts of EVE the movie.

  4. I read Orr's story years ago in a compilation from, I think, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It's probably in the basement stash and I'll have to have a look.

    I don't know that I need or want to know much about "all about" Eve. For me, it is that marvelous screenplay that keeps me returning to the film. This may fly in the face of my basic thinking that the more you know, the more you can appreciate something, but there it is - there are always exceptions.

  5. I know what you mean, though sometimes I like knowing all the behind-the-scenes stuff. I think it depends on how strong my attachment is to a movie. In this case, I had my memories of Bill, going to a screening where Celeste Holm appeared in person, and all the things I had learned about Bette Davis in general to make me want this book.

  6. I am a fan of Celeste Holm. Some of the things Ive seen her in are GENTLEMANS AGREEMENT, THE TENDER TRAP(with SINATRA)and the TV series PROMISED LAND with GERALD MCRANEY. She played his mother. It aired from 1996 to 1999. Do you know the work of Miss Holm very well? Classic TV Fan

  7. Actually, I don’t. I am curious about GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT. One day I’ll have to give it a try.

  8. When an author puts a lot of themselves in a book... well it can be hit or miss. Depends on their voice and the subject matter. I usually get annoyed when the author tries to imagine conversations and creates their own dialogue. No thanks! Great review Rich! I hadn't heard of this one. I do love the movie though. Will check it out.


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