All About Eve: it’s going to be a bumpy night!

Whilst researching one of my favourite scenes from one of my favourite movies, I was scandalised, shocked and outraged to discover that it regularly ranks amongst the most misquoted. Apparently, lesser mortals fail to match Bette Davis’s effortless, defiant and disdainful delivery of All About Eve’s classic line Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night’. In fact, they dare to replace ‘night’ with ‘ride’. What would Bette think? Well if Margot Channing, her character in the film is anything to go by, she’d probably offer those naïve fools ‘a milkshake’.

But perhaps they should be forgiven. Not to give the line (and Davies’s delivery) less than it’s due, but it sits within a wonderfully accomplished and articulate dialogue, written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (who also directed the film). Every scene is filled with cutting and witty asides that perfectly capture ‘theatre folk’ and their preoccupations. So, in a film filled with perfection (the critic Richard Schickel once claimed Mankiewicz was “one of the tiny handful of epigrammists that have written for the screen”) – why this particular line and the particular cocktail party scene?

Davis, Bette All About Eve_01

Firstly, this is a key scene within the movie. All the main players are present and correct, and this is the first time the viewer is able to assess how individual motivations and secret agendas fit together. Secondly, it’s Margo’s opportunity to really display just how she feels about Eve Harrington (played by Anne Baxter), timid, shy Eve who wouldn’t say boo to goose but has inserted herself rather too well in Margo’s life. The audience is already aware of Margo’s growing jealousy, but this is the first time it spills over and becomes apparent to the other characters. In the process, Mankiewicz sets up one of the movie’s central themes – the established actress who’s terrified of ageing and the fledgling talent who can’t wait to take her place.

At this point it’s definitely Eve we side with, but there’s always a frisson of sympathy for Margo. Those cutting put-downs and her difficult ways mask fear and paranoia – but ironically Davis was never better than in this film. Growing old suited her, as it eventually suits Margo Channing – both just have to realise that it’s an inevitability to be celebrated rather then ignored. Later, Davis recognised that the role was the greatest break at that of her career, that Mankiewicz ‘resurrected me from the dead’. A typically theatrical response from Davis, and one that could have been spoken by Channing herself.

During the cocktail party scene, fork-tongued theatre critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) arrives with yet another youthful, luminous wannabe star, Miss Caswell (Marilyn Monroe). Margo, who has already made it clear DeWitt isn’t her favourite guest (“I distinctly remember, Addison, crossing you off my guest-list. What are you doing here?”) is cool yet Miss Caswell takes it in her stride. Monroe’s role in the film is brief but impactful and, although surrounded by actors with considerably more experience, seems to draw all the attention. In a foreshadowing of the ‘Monroe’ stereotype DeWitt steers her towards a powerful producer. “Go and do yourself some good”, he advises. She acquiesces, asking “Why do they always look like unhappy rabbits?”. Margo is left holding Miss Caswell’s opulent fur stole. ‘Amen’, she proclaims, holding her glass in toast.

Davis, Bette All About Eve

That bitterness speaks to us all. As Margo will observe later in the film, in a ‘softer’ moment: “There’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not. Sooner or later, we’ve got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted”. The universal themes of All About Eve ensure it’s enduring appeal but lets not forget that this is Mankiewicz’s masterpiece, a happy marriage of script, talent and ideas that’s a love letter to performance.

Just remember: don’t yell butler. “Maybe somebody’s name is Butler…”

Further reading: the script 

This post is part of the ‘…. And scene!’ blogathon, hosted by the wonderful Sister Celluloid who, I know for a fact, would never dare to misquote Margo Channing. Read all the entries here.

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20 thoughts on “All About Eve: it’s going to be a bumpy night!

  1. I’d never realized it was so misquoted. So wrong. If you have a script this perfect, you make sure you get every word, every comma right.:) Loved your description of it, especially the final line.

  2. I could go on about this movie all day, but I can confine my comments to the scene you discuss. In a movie full of terrific scenes, this is THE Scene, for all the reasons you mentioned. it has the right amount of tension, and everyone is pitch-perfect in their roles. (Not to mention the costumes…!)

    1. Yes I think I’m almost obliged to do a costume post, right? This movie really is Mankiewicz’s masterpiece. It makes up for some of his other *ahem* questionable choices.

  3. One film that I can watch over and over again without ever getting tired of it is All About Eve (also Sunset Boulevard, but that’s a topic for a different post). The dialogue is so witty and so sparkling that it just floors me. The characterizations are brilliant, they seem like real people we are privileged to peek in on (Thelma Ritter in particular was the only person who could’ve played that role). Your analysis is excellent–you really did the scene justice.

    1. Great minds think alike re: Sunset Boulevard. There are similar themes explored, of course, but in a totally different way. Also Thelma Ritter who I just adore, she has to be one of the best character actresses.
      Thank you for reading 🙂

  4. Super writeup. This is a major classic movie that somehow I’ve managed never to see. I’ve no real excuse, because it’s on TCM often enough. Your account strengthens my resolve to do something about this!

    1. I promise you won’t be disappointed. If you don’t like the characters you’ll love the script. It’s perfectly cast too (Ann Baxter is the weakest link in my humble opinion), it’s truly Davis’s finest hour.

  5. A wonderful take on a timeless scene! And that’s the great thing about Mankiewicz — he lays the groundwork for all the characters without it actually feeling that way! It just feels like you’re eavesdropping on a great conversation! I love that you give props to Bette, and how she pretty much was Margot at this point in her career. And I love her dramatic take on what the role did for her!!

    I also love the “Butler” line. And she says it with such conviction!

    And I will watch movies just for Thelma Ritter. This one, of course, is a classic, but I will watch that woman in anything. Six Oscar nominations — and no wins!! She used to watch the show from her house in Queens, so sure she was that she had no chance. UGH!!

    Oh, and speaking of lines from “All About Eve”: Occasionally, when my dachshund snarls for no apparent reason, I tell him, “You’re too short for that gesture.”

    Thank you again for this wonderful piece for the blogathon!! And yes, I would sooner burp Max after his bicarbonate of soda than misquote Margot!! 🙂

  6. I have to say this is one of my favorite Bette Davis films! The woman was sharp as a tack and knew how to deliver a caustic comment without missing a beat!

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