Tuesday, January 6, 2015

All About Eve, The Women & The Music Man

I went to the Castro twice during the last week in December.  On December 27, I saw All About Eve and The Women.  On December 29, I saw The Music Man.  I considered seeing the 2nd half of The Music Man double bill but at three hours with an intermission, I decided My Fair Lady was too long for that evening.  When I exited the theater, I was amazed at how many people were in line waiting to see My Fair Lady.  It was an 8 PM screening on a Monday night and the line went up Castro Street and turned around the corner at the Twin Peaks Tavern.

All About Eve starring Bette Davis and Anne Baxter; with Gary Merrill, Celeste Holm, George Sanders, Hugh Marlowe & Thelma Ritter; directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz; (1950)
The Women starring Norma Shearer & Joan Crawford; with Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard & Joan Fontaine; directed by George Cukor; (1939)
The Music Man starring Robert Preston & Shirley Jones; with Buddy Hackett; directed by Morton DaCosta; (1962)

These are three all-time classics but I've only seen All About Eve previously.  In fact, I recall seeing at the Castro several years ago.


I don't think there is much need to recount the plot of All About Eve.  Bette Davis is great in the role of Broadway star Margo Channing.  George Sanders (as the theater critic Addison DeWitt) is the center of attention in every scene he is in.

I've long known that All About Eve has a large following among gay men.  I assumed that George Sanders portraying Addison DeWitt as a bitter queen who uses Marilyn Monroe as a beard and Davis in full Queen Bitch mode were the attractions.  This was the first time I watched All About Eve looking for the hidden clues that Eve Harrington was a lesbian.

Toward the beginning of the film there is a party at Margo's apartment.  This is the party where Davis delivers her famous "Fasten your seat belts..." line.  As the party winds down & Margo erupts, she turns her drunken anger towards Eve who has yet to fully reveal her true intentions.  In front of the remaining guests, Margo announces she is going to bed.  Her boyfriend Bill (Gary Merrill) asks if she needs any help.  Margo responds "To put me to bed? Take my clothes off, hold my head, tuck me in, turn off the lights, tiptoe out?  Eve would. Wouldn't you, Eve?"  Eve softly says "If you'd like."  Margo responds emphatically "I wouldn't like."

I'm not sure if the preceding exchange implies that Margo is aware of Eve's sexual orientation.  It could be implied that Margo's assistant Birdie (Thelma Ritter) has picked up on it but I thought the inference is ambiguous.  The exchange is definitely odd but the audience must remember that Margo is three sheets to the wind by this point of the party.

There is a later scene which I found more convincing.  When Eve wins the lead role in Lloyd's play and Karen's misgivings become more pronounced, Eve makes a preemptive strike.  She has her "neighbor" call up Lloyd late at night and claim that Eve is hysterical.  Lloyd agree to come over immediately,  As the camera pans out, we see that Eve is standing beside the woman and she is anything but hysterical.  They share a knowing smile with each other and then walk back up the stairs with their arms around each other.  By this point, Eve has designs on Lloyd and the phone call is intended to get Lloyd over to Eve's place and drive a wedge between Lloyd and Karen.  However, the look between the two women and the way their arms are draped over each other imply they are more than just friendly neighbors.

The final scene also has some lesbian overtones.  Phoebe (who admits to DeWitt that that is not her real name) is a young fan of Eve.  She sneaks into Eve's apartment and falls asleep.  When Eve arrives home, she is upset to find a stranger in her home.  As the scene progresses, Eve seems more at ease.  The key aspect of this scene is to show Phoebe is to Eve and Eve was to Margo.  The cycle repeats with one manipulative actress displacing another.  Lost in that message is the decidedly sexual tone of Eve towards Phoebe.  Her pose on the couch and her leading questions are meant to invite Phoebe to spend the night without explicitly asking.

It's far from obvious that Eve is a lesbian.  I'm on the fence.  She makes a pass at Bill on screen and references are made to her enticing Lloyd from Karen and marrying Lloyd so her sexuality would appear to be a tool in achieving whatever her goals are..."gay or straight for pay" I guess.  Why couldn't she have been making overtures to Margo & the girl making the phone call to further her career?  The final scene does hint that her proclivity is towards same sex since she doesn't have much to gain by taking in Phoebe but perhaps like Margo, at some level she wants the audiences' adoration to be personal.  It is interesting watching the film from this perspective although it would be distracting for a film I had not previously seen.

I've seen All About Eve at least three time all the way through and I've caught portions of it on television probably another dozen or more times.  The film holds up exceedingly well to multiple viewings.  I think it is likely due to Joseph L. Mankiewicz's memorable dialogue.


I've seen portions of The Women on television.  The Women was screened at the Castro on a beat up 35 mm print.  The ends of the reels were particularly damaged.  At times it was difficult for me to make out the dialogue.

Based on a play by Clare Booth Luce, a screenplay by Anita Loos and F. Scott Fitzgerald (uncredited), directed by George Cukor and with an all-star cast, The Women has a high pedigree.  The opening credit indicate what kind of film this will be.  The actresses images are preceded by images of animals:  Norma Shearer is a doe, Joan Crawford is a cheetah, Rosalind Russell is a black cat, Joan Fontaine is a sheep, Paulette Goddard is a fox, etc.

The Women is a farce that centers around Mary Haines (Norma Shearer).  Mary is upbeat and quite satisfied in her marriage when the film starts.  Her friend and cousin Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell) deliberately upsets her wedded bliss by sharing with Mary's friends some gossip she has heard at the spa.  Mary's husband Stephen is having an affair with department store perfume saleswoman named Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford).  To goose the situation, Sylvia sends Mary to the spa and recommends the manicurist who shared the gossip with her.

Crushed when she hears the rumor, Mary begins to suspect her husband of infidelity.  She is counseled by her mother (Lucile Watson) to ignore the gossip and take an extended trip to Bermuda with her.  The hope is that the rumor will die by the time she returns.

Rather than fade, it appears that Stephen & Crystal's affair has deepened.  Attending a fashion show with her friends, Mary spots Crystal in attendance.  Goaded by Sylvia, Mary confronts Crystal.  Rather than being contrite or embarrassed, Crystal is defiant and even suggests that she is comfortable with the status quo and threatens to steal Stephen outright unless Mary behaves herself.

Once again, Sylvia stirs up the scandal even more by indirectly getting Mary's confrontation with Crystal in the newspapers.  Humiliated, Mary decides to go to Reno to get a divorce.  She stays at a kind of dude ranch for married women fulfilling Nevada's residency requirements for divorce.

It was around this point that I realized I had seen a single male in the film.  Stephen is never seen and even his voice is never heard.  Not only was there not a single male speaking part, I didn't even see a single male extra.  The Women is about women whose identities are closely tied to their husbands (they all refer to themselves as "Mrs. Stephen Haines" or such) but the film never shows them interacting with men.  Like ellipsis in an Ozu film, we only see the effects of male-female interaction and we have to infer the actual interaction.

En route to Reno, Mary meets a whole slew of soon-to-be-divorcees including the oft married Countess De Lave (Mary Boland) and Miriam Aarons (Paulette Goddard) who is married but having an affair with Sylvia's husband.  When in Reno, Mary meets up with two of her "friends" from New York:  the shy Peggy Day (Joan Fontaine) and eventually Sylvia herself shows up.

Mary gets her divorce although she has second thoughts about it.  Stephen marries Crystal and couple of years pass.  Crystal is having an affair with the Countess' husband, Stephen is miserable, Mary & Sylvia are estranged while Crystal & Sylvia are best friends.  Eventually Mary learns of Stephen's unhappiness with Crystal and schemes to get him back.  Mary tricks Sylvia in to revealing Crystal's affair.  Mary then informs the Countess of the affair prompting her to plan another trip to Reno.  Crystal is ready to trade up from Stephen to Buck (the Countess' husband) but when informed that the divorce will leave Buck penniless, Crystal is resigned to the fact that she'll have to return to the perfume counter.  Crawford has the last word in the film; leaving the assembled women with this bon mot "By the way, there's a name for you ladies, but it isn't used in high society...outside of a kennel."

Although The Women is a comedy, I found it horribly depressing.  These women are incredibly cruel to each other.  Mary, the one woman who refuses to get down and dirty with the crowd, triumphs in the end by using the same tactics have have waylayed her marriage.  Although their behavior was exaggerated for comic effect, The Women seemed to have just enough truth in it to be uncomfortable for me.  I'm not an expert on feminist issues in the 1930s but these characters were wealthy educated women who spent their time finding their next husband and undermining their so called frineds' marriages.  Even as satire, The Women is a sad commentary on what passed for the leisure activities of the wealthy.  That's not to say that I didn't laugh at the absurdity of some of the situations.

In my opinion, Rosalind Russell & Paulette Goddard had the most memorable roles.


The Music Man features Robert Preston as Harry Hill, a con man/travelling salesman who pulls into River City, Iowa with the goal of conning the townspeople with the marching band scam.  Although he has no musical knowledge, he convinces the town to get behind his scheme to create a boys marching band.  Among his chief obstacles are the level-headed Marian the librarian (Shirley Jones), the susceptible to flattery mayor (Paul Ford) and his indescribable wife (Hermione Gingold who was also memorable as the grandmother in Gigi).  Gingold and Maurice Chevalier sang my favorite song from Gigi, "I Remember it Well."

The plot was predictable and at 2.5 hours, some of the songs fell a little flat.  I think the film version of The Music Man is faithful to the stage version but may have benefited from 30 minute of edits.  Among the my favorite musical numbers were "Rock Island", "Ya Got Trouble", "Shipoopi" (given a renewed interest due to an episode of The Family Guy) and of course "76 Trombones".

The difference between a good musical and a great musical is that there must be some pathos and empathy/sympathy with the characters.  Because they break into song & dance, a musical cannot achieve the same level of emotional investment from me as a drama or dramedy but the plot and acting have to carry some of the load.  I didn't get that feeling with The Music Man.  Preston was ok but it was the romance between Preston & Jones that never hooked me.  I just didn't believe that Marian would fall for him or that Hill wouldn't skip town with the money.

Buddy Hackett has a role as a former con man who helps Preston in River City.  "Shipoopi" is his big number.  A very young Ron Howard plays Marian's sullen younger brother.

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