All About Eve
In Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s devastatingly witty Hollywood classic, backstage is where the real drama plays out. One night, Margo Channing (Bette Davis) entertains a surprise dressing-room visitor: her most adoring fan, the shy, wide-eyed Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). But as Eve becomes a fixture in Margo’s life, the Broadway legend soon realizes that her supposed admirer intends to use her and everyone in her circle, including George Sanders’s acid-tongued critic, as stepping-stones to stardom. Featuring stiletto-sharp dialogue and direction by Mankiewicz, and an unforgettable Davis in the role that revived her career and came to define it, the multiple-Oscar-winning All About Eve is the most deliciously entertaining film ever made about the ruthlessness of show business.
The Criterion Collection presents Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve on Blu-ray in a new 2-disc set, delivering the film on the first dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes from a 4K restoration scanned from the 35mm original camera negative.
Criterion is making use of the same restoration that Fox made and used for their previous editions of the film on Blu-ray. This is all fine and good because it’s a nice-looking restoration, but I can’t say that Criterion’s presentation improves upon Fox’s in any way. At best grain can look to be better defined, by a little, but outside of that I couldn’t discern much of a difference. It’s been extensively cleaned up, with no damage present, outside of some scratches present in scenes using obvious rear-projection (a scene near the end where Anne Baxter and George Sanders are walking down the street provides the most obvious use of rear-projection). It’s impressive, but again, this is really no different than what the previous Fox editions showed.
The digital presentation is also clean, keeping a nice, filmic look throughout. The image is never razor-sharp, though I put this down to photography. Despite this, textures look good, fine details are still sharp enough, and film grain—as mentioned before—is rendered well. The black and white photography looks great, with excellent gray scale and rich blacks that thankfully don’t eat at the details in the shadows, and contrast is excellent.
It all looks great but, like Criterion’s Dr. Strangelove, it doesn’t look all that different from the previous editions that have been available before.
Criterion’s audio presentation offers both an upgrade AND a downgrade at the same time. Fox’s previous Blu-ray edition offered a 5.1 surround soundtrack, along with a Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural presentation to represent the original presentation. Criterion drops the 5.1 remix but does upgrade the monaural track to a lossless 1.0 PCM one.
The mono presentation does come off a little bit more dynamic in comparison to the Fox presentation but like the picture I can’t say it’s that much better here. There is still a certain flatness to the dialogue but the music has decent range and doesn’t come off edgy, and the track is clean, free of any severe damage.
I’m a bit surprised Criterion didn’t bother carrying over the 5.1 remix (they have done this for a few titles) but it’s not a huge loss: it focused most of the attention to the center channel and didn’t spread things out all that much.
Criterion adds some new material and carries over most of the features from Fox’s editions, though not everything. Criterion does carry over the commentaries, the first featuring Chris Mankiewicz (son of the director), biographer Kenneth L. Geist, and actress Celeste Holm, with all three appearing to have been recorded separately and then edited together; the second track features Sam Staggs, author of All About All About Eve: The Complete Behind-the-Scenes Story of the Bitchiest Film Ever Made! I can’t say either track is great, both loaded with a number of dead spots later on in their runtime, yet there is still some good material to be found. Mankiewicz offers some background for his father while also talking in-depth about his work, defending him from some criticisms lobbed at him over the years (though admits his father was, indeed, not much of a visual director), and sharing his father’s thoughts on the film business, while Geist can cover some of the same ground, but from a more scholarly perspective, offering his own personal anecdotes along the way (like meeting Marilyn Monroe shortly before her death). There is also some talk about Fox, Zanuck, and the studio system of the time. Though Mankiewicz has some first-hand accounts about the film (he would have been around 9 or 10 when the film was made), Holm offers more in this area, talking about the director, the other actors, and mentions some behind-the-scenes stories.
It’s not a great track, lacking any real energy, but it still has its interesting points and it’s also significantly better than the track by Staggs, which I had a hard time getting into, and I found this surprising considering he wrote an extensive book on the film. He covers the production history, going over the hiccups along the way, its eventual release, and the influence and impact it has had, but most of the more interesting material is covered in the other track and other features on this disc. This track is also littered with big dead spots, especially during the last half, and eventually I realized I was toning it out. Because of this I would just direct everyone to the other track if they’re feeling inclined to listen to one.
That may not be necessary, though, as the remaining features (all found on the second dual-layer disc) cover the same ground rather well. Criterion only adds one newly filmed feature, which is an interview with costume historian and archivist Larry McQueen, who has become a bit of a regular on Criterion’s releases for classic Hollywood films. Though he doesn’t have any actual costumes to show off (like he has in past interviews) he examines the subtle character traits that are found in the costume. Mentioned elsewhere in the supplements is the fact that Claudette Colbert was originally cast as Margo Channing but was replaced by Bette Davis after an injury. McQueen mentions here that Anne Baxter was cast initially because of a resemblance to Colbert, and the original intention was to make Baxter look more-and-more like Colbert as the film progressed, slowly taking her place. Since Davis and Baxter looked nothing alike, the similarities were moved to the costumes and McQueen offers an analysis of the costumes used throughout the film, pointing out how the costumes of both Margo and Eve play off each other, while also commenting on their design. I don’t know if what McQueen is offering is fact (other than the initial casting of Colbert I can’t recall any of this being mentioned elsewhere) but it makes sense and it’s a convincing presentation on his behalf. It runs about 18-minutes.
Criterion does include other material not found on the previous Fox editions, starting with the feature-length, 1983 documentary All About Mankiewicz, which was made for television by Michel Ciment and presented in two parts. It is, in the end, just a conversation between the Ciment and Mankiewicz spread out over a few days, talking about his life and his films. Well, at least for the first part. This part is admittedly a bit stale and is about what I would expect, but the documentary manages to come more to life during the second half, where Mankiewicz gets a little gossipier, sharing personal stories and talking about other people in the industry. This starts with him going on about Josef von Sternberg, who he thought was a solid photographer but not much else. He then talks about W.C. Fields (“a dreadful person”), Louis B. Mayer, Ernst Lubitsch (who produced Dragonwyck, only to take his name off of it later), and even shares his thoughts on what makes a good film. Again it isn’t the most enthrallingly edited interview I’ve ever seen, but Mankiewicz’s frankness makes it entertaining enough.
Carried over from the Fox release is the 7-minute The Secret of Sarah Siddons, covering the Sarah Siddons Award, a satirical Award in the film that became a real one years after the film’s release, with this feature getting a little into the history.
Following this is Lux Theater radio adaptation, featuring Davis, Baxter, and Merrill reprising their film roles. It’s fairly faithful, despite being less than an hour (with intro and ads), and it works better than other radio adaptations since the film does rely more on its dialogue than visuals. Having said that the dialogue has been truncated or completely rewritten (or dropped) to accommodate the shorter runtime, so it’s not as sharp in the end, but it still works. Criterion then carries over a 1-minute Bette Davis promotion from the Fox edition, featuring the actress doing a faux interview about Eve. Oddly, Criterion doesn’t carry over a similar Anne Baxter promo.
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz is another featurette from the Fox edition covering some of the filmmaker’s work, with more of a focus on A Letter to Three Wives, All About Eve, and Cleopatra. Later in the list is a companion supplement, Joseph L. Mankiewicz: A Personal Journey (also from the Fox release), which looks more at his personal life and other areas of his film career, like his time as president of the DGA and how Cecil B. DeMille tried to have him removed around his refusal to do a loyalty oath in relation to the House of Un-American Activities. Running 26-minutes each, together they offer a decent (if not entirely thorough) examination of the man’s life and career (the Ciment interview is more thorough, admittedly).
Criterion then digs up two interviews from The Dick Cavett Show: a 29-minute episode featuring Gary Merrill, and then a 20-minute excerpt from a 1969 New Year’s episode where Bette Davis shows up. The Davis one is hilarious (and makes a nice companion to another episode featuring her that appears on Criterion’s disc for Now, Voyager) but also insightful thanks to her comments on the Hollywood system of old and other stars from the era, like Bogart. Merrill’s interview is a bit more serious, though has some odd bits of levity (he mentions former Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck didn’t like chest hair). But he talks about his marriage with Davis and why it didn’t work, and also talks about his brief political career, which leads the two into talking about Vietnam and how opinions have changed on it over the years (Merrill was always against the war and had to put up with a lot of resistance at the time, even having a falling out with a friend over his opinions). He also talks a little about films of the time (the interview was filming in 1980), mentioning how much he enjoyed Kramer vs. Kramer but found All That Jazz just “dreadful.” I always appreciate Criterion digging these up and these are both pretty great.
The 25-minute AMC Hollywood Backstory episode about All About Eve is another feature carried over from the Fox disc, and it offers a decent enough look at the films production though is more flashy than informational. Criterion also carries over the 18-minute The Real Eve, which looks at the real-life inspirations for the characters in the film.
Criterion also includes a booklet, first featuring an essay on the film by Terrence Rafferty that makes for a great read. But the highlight here may be the original story the film is based on, “The Wisdom of Eve”, which appeared in an issue of Cosmopolitan and was written by Mary Orr. The film expands on the story in a substantial way, but the nugget is there.
Interestingly Criterion does leave off some features that did appear on the Fox release. The isolated score is missing, along with the aforementioned Baxter promo. But the biggest set of features missing are a collection of movie news reels around the film and the Awards it won. The theatrical trailer is also missing for some odd reason. I also have to comment on the packaging: it’s pretty awful. Though it’s a nice looking digipak with some great design work, Criterion inexplicably uses rubber knobs to hold the two discs rather than your standard plastic holder, and these things make it a pain to both place and remove the discs.
Getting past what’s missing and the ghastly packaging, we at least still get a nice collection of material, Criterion carrying over most of the supplements from the Fox disc, and then adding in some great material like Ciment interview.
The supplements are pretty good overall, with some solid additions on Criterion’s part, but the presentation doesn’t upgrade much over the previous Fox edition, with it looking as though Criterion is reusing the same master, and the packaging is pretty ghastly. If you already own the Fox release this one isn’t worth upgrading to.