All About Eve (Best Picture, 1950)
Can I just say – what a lineup of female acting talent. Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, Anne Baxter, and Celeste Holm… WHAT a lineup.
This film is an unflinching depiction of ambition. An aging Broadway diva played by Bette Davis befriends a young fan named Eve Harrington, portrayed by Anne Baxter. Eve works her way into Margo’s life, becoming secretary, personal assistant, friend… she even moves into Margo’s house. Eventually she uses blackmail, “feminine wiles,” a convincing act of humility, and a heartrending (fake) personal history to work her way up from personal assistant to understudy. She then conspires to make sure Margo misses a performance so that Eve can go on as her replacement after having called all the town’s major theater critics. Eve is a hit, gets a lead role in a major playwright’s new piece, and wins a major award. Upon returning home to prepare for a trip out to Hollywood, she finds a young fan in her apartment who proceeds to offer all kinds of help…. and so the cycle of acting life continues.
ALL ABOUT EVE reeks of cynicism. It is narrated in turns by Margo’s closest friend, Karen, and a leading theater critic, Addison. Karen is completely taken in by Eve, while Addison checks up on her story, discovers it’s a fake, and blackmails the blackmailer. Karen’s voice is one of betrayed confidence and great sorrow, while Addison is jaded, cynical, and mild amusement at the real-life play unfolding before him. The film manages to portray a horrible, manipulative personality coolly. There is no judgment to say that Eve’s behavior is right or wrong – merely that it is hateful but successful. She steps all over the people who have helped her and succeeds in her career. And, from the hint shown at the end of the film, it looks like she’s about to be the victim of an ambitious young female herself. Perhaps the film merely wants to say, “Right or wrong, this is how the industry works.”
An American In Paris (Best Picture, 1951)
While this is not my favorite piece of work from either Gene Kelly or Leslie Caron, I found that today’s viewing (the second time I’ve seen it) gave me the opportunity to observe aspects I didn’t see last time. I last saw AN AMERICAN IN PARIS several years ago – maybe as much as a decade. And I admit, at age fifteen I did not pick up on the subtleties of the relationship between Gene Kelly’s artist Jerry Mulligan and his wealthy female patron, Milo (as in Venus de, apparently).
The premise of the film is relatively simple, though difficult to explain, since it revolves around a somewhat complicated web of romantic interest. Jerry Mulligan is an American artist, living in stereotypically cheerful poverty in a Paris garret. His neighbor is an aging child-prodigy concert pianist who’s never had a concert but keeps winning grants and scholarships, and they are in turn friends with a popular stage crooner named Henri. Jerry’s art (and his athletic, charming person) attract the attention of the wealthy Milo Roberts, who intends to bring him and his work to critics, buyers, and galleries. Jerry is in love with a shopgirl named Lise (Leslie Caron, in her film debut), who loves him but is also sort of in love with (and more than sort of engaged to) Henri. All ends well for Jerry and Lise, of course, and no resolution takes place for anyone else in the story.
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS is iconic, and rightly so. It is definitive of Gene Kelly’s style and of 1950s musicals as a whole. Happy endings, jazzy music, and what seems to be the obligatory dream ballet sequence. Unlike 1930s musicals, which revolve around Broadway extravaganzas (like BROADWAY MELODY) or elegant tap/ballroom numbers as in pretty much every Fred Astaire film, Gene Kelly brought a new style of dance to the Hollywood musical. I saw a quote from him on his IMDB page in which he says that if Fred Astaire was the Cary Grant of dance, then he himself is the Marlon Brando. Not having seen any Marlon Brando films, the only conclusion I can draw from that is that Astaire is all classic smooth elegance and Kelly is more athletic – from a lower class, perhaps.
I don’t personally care much for the strange dream-dance sequences found in 1950s musicals like OKLAHOMA, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, and SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. They may be wonderful pieces of choreography and filmography, but in my opinion they distract from the story, go on far too long, and are often just plain weird. The 17-minute ballet sequence at the end of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS is, I think, the result of a contract condition imposed by the Gershwin brothers when Hollywood producers approached them about the film. Compared to OKLAHOMA’s dream ballet, it is sweetness and light, and compared to SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN’s “Broadway Melody” sequence, it is normal. However, taken by itself, the final ballet is just plain odd. The one thing that I can say about it is that it is remarkable how equal Caron and Kelly are as dancers. Kelly has a bit of a reputation for being hard on his partners – not abusive, but artistically and technically demanding. Too often in movie musicals the female partner is merely a prop to show off the male’s skills, but Caron and Kelly get choreography of comparable duration and difficulty. It is a pleasure to watch them dance.
I’m sorry I haven’t anything more insightful to say just now. I’ve had a difficult week, on a personal level, and I feel like my brain is moving very, very slowly. Watching the movies has been a good distraction, though, so I wanted to keep up the project.
Up Next: The Greatest Show On Earth (Best Picture, 1952) and From Here to Eternity (Best Picture, 1953)