Fire and Music
A terse headline in Variety on September 27, 1951, toldthe news: MANKIEWICZ, 20TH SEVER CONTRACT. Many in theindustry were surprised that Joseph L. Mankiewicz, theHollywood director and screenwriter, was quitting 20thCentury-Fox, where he had spent the better part of a decade. His separationfrom Fox was amicable, as such things go; his valedictory to LosAngeles less so. Mankiewicz referred to the City of Angels as "an intellectualfog belt."
Manhattan, he felt sure, would salute him. There he could breathefiner air. He expected to be smartly quoted all over town, and when hetossed out a bon mot his New York listeners wouldn't miss a beat. Norwould anyone complain "What's that supposed to mean?" as they haddone since his first day in the intellectual fog belt.
Two Bekins moving vans that would transport everything the Mankiewiczfamily owned across the country to their new home in New York werepacked. One van was filled with household goods. The other containedwhat was irreplaceable: the writings of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, his papers,his many awards and citations.
Mankiewicz told a reporter he was off to Broadway to "make my pitchfor the theatre." Although he spent the rest of his life in New York, henever completed a play, and he never directed one.
Celeste Holm, in her apartment on Central Park West, answered the phoneherself. After hearing a description of the book in progress, titled All AboutAll About Eve, she asked, "Why the hell do you want to write that book?"
"Why? Because millions of people love the movie. And also becauseno one has told the story of how it came about and why All About Eve isconsidered both a Hollywood classic and a cult film."
"I don't get it," she snapped. "A work of art speaks for itself! I thinka book like that is a waste of time. If people are interested, let them seethe movie."
"I've seen it thirty times."
"Then see it thirty more!"
"Look, Miss Holm, it's not backstairs gossip I'm after. But sinceMankiewicz lost all his papers in the fire"
"I guess you want to talk to me about Bette Davis?" Celeste Holmdemanded, and without waiting for an answer she continued. "I'vetalked to everybody in the world about that movie!"
"Bette Davis? No. I'd rather hear about you."
"All this crap about booksI don't get it."
"Suppose I send you a detailed letter about the book. Your memoriesof shooting All About Eve are important."
"Well ... maybe. I don't know. Good-bye."
She never answered the letter.
Told about the unproductive phone conversation with Celeste Holm, KennethGeist, Joseph L. Mankiewicz's biographer, remarked, "When you'rethe last Mankiewicz survivor in New York, you've probably had enough."
"I'm not a dinosaur, you know," harrumphed Celeste Holm when areporter in Los Angeles asked her if All About Eve is the movie peoplebest remember her for.
"Didn't you see Tom Sawyer last year?" she scolded. "I played AuntPolly. That was a hit too.... Actually, I can tell a lot about somebodyjust from the movie of mine he mentions first. If you like All About Eve somuch it probably means you're a Bette Davis nut, a late-show freak. TheBroadway musical fans want to know about my playing Ado Annie inthe original production of Oklahoma. And the socially conscious crowd,the urban liberals, talk about Gentleman's Agreement."
Volumes of playsIbsen, Oscar Wilde, Kaufman and Hart, Rostand,Molière, Beaumont and Fletcher, even Clyde Fitch and old melodramasallof these crackled in the fire as if this were Berlin in 1933. Theatrehistories, the works of Sigmund Freud, scripts and diaries,biographies of Minnie Fiske and Sarah Siddons and the Barrymoresblazed up for a few minutes and then were gone. Mementos saved frommovie sets melted like candle wax.
The fire grew and fattened, consuming every molecule of oxygen. Itlapped up half a lifetime of memories. The highway itself seemed on fire,while inside the overturned Bekins van ugly smoke gnawed away atwooden crates, cardboard boxes, and metal file cabinets, which, despitetheir greater strength, would not survive.
A distant siren started up as photographs of Bette Davis charred in theflames like bacon strips. Nearby, a carton flared and that was the end ofletters covering several decades: to and from Joe Mankiewicz and hisbrother, Herman, their sister, their parents, wives, nieces and nephews,and telegrams to them from half of Hollywood. Packed on the bottom ofthis box was a book of addresses: Celeste Holm in Manhattan, Thelma Ritterin Queens, Mr. and Mrs. Gary Merrill in Maine, Darryl Zanuck's privatephone number in his spacious suite of offices at 20th Century-Fox.
When the call came, Joe Mankiewicz must have felt that the grandestera of his life had perished. The loss was devastating. Destroyedwere hundreds of files dating back to 1929, the year he arrived in Hollywoodas a twenty-year-old whose first assignment at Paramount waswriting titles for silent movies. Had they survived, those filesalongwith manuscripts, correspondence, countless personal and professionalitems detailing two decades of Hollywood historywould now belongto an important university, or perhaps to the Academy of Motion PictureArts and Sciences in Beverly Hills.
Years later, an interviewer asked Mankiewicz to enumerate all theawards for his most famous picture, All About Eve. He shook his headand said nothing, remembering the enormity of the fire. But losingtrack of the many awards for that film was the smallest part of his misfortune."Forgive me," he said at last, "but I can't attach much importanceto the fact that somewhere in those melted filing cabinets wasthe dust of a few more back-patting certificates or statuettes. I don'tmean to sound ungrateful. It's just that I miss so terribly all of myproject notebooks, my manuscripts, my letters and diariesthe privatedocumentation of my twenty-year stretch out there."
Joe Mankiewicz liked fire imagery; he often used it in his work. Threeexamples from All About Eve come to mind. Bette Davis on MissCaswell, played by Marilyn Monroe: "She looks like she might burndown a plantation." Addison DeWitt describes Eve's first onstage readingof Lloyd's play as "something made of music and fire." And whenBette says "Remind me to tell you about the time I looked into the heartof an artichoke" and Eve replies "I'd like to hear it," Bette's sardonicpunch line is "Some snowy night in front of the fire."
In his two or three best works, Mankiewicz was a comic, cynicalPrometheus who snatched fire from Hollywood and sent it out across theworld to millions of delighted moviegoers. The Mankiewicz flame fromhis best work as a writer/directorThe Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947),which he didn't write, and A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All AboutEve (1950), both of which he wrote and directedburns as bright todayas it did a half-century ago.
Joe Mankiewicz owed his start in Hollywood to his older brother, HermanJ. Mankiewicz, the witty, hell-raising screenwriter best rememberedas co-author of Citizen Kane. It was Herman who brought Joe outto California in 1929 and introduced him to the right people. In lateryears Joe repaid the favor many times.
The other author of Citizen Kane was Orson Welles. It's not clearwhether Herman Mankiewicz or Welles wrote the scorching end of thatmovie, but if it was Mankiewicz, the thundering irony is almost toopainfully clear. That final operatic holocaust of Charles Foster Kane'seffects recurred somewhere on a stretch of highway that day in 1951when Herman's kid brother, Joe, lost the papers and mementos thatmeant more to him than anything else he had acquired in Hollywood.
Did Joe Mankiewicz, too, have some secret, half-forgotten "Rosebud"that vanished in the moving-van fire? And if so, did his, like Kane's, representan unhealed wound? Ormore likelywas the Joe Mankiewicz"Rosebud" a comic one, etched in irony and drenched with a certain kindof wit that later would assume the flashy name of "camp"?
That final fire at Xanadu, and the later one that consumed theMankiewicz moving van, rhyme like a combustible couplet. It's right outof a movie, you think. And then you say: Why not? In Hollywood, wherelife and art always overlap, who can tell the difference?
"I am too beautiful to be a Hausfrau!" shrilled the young woman, slingingthe script across the sofa into a mound of cushions. "I vant to be anactress again!"
"But you're a splendid housekeeper, my dear, you said so yourself.You said, `Every time I get a divorce, I keep the house.'"
Her husband's cool rejoinder was too much. She burst into tears andslammed out of the room, followed by Josephine, her devoted boxerbitch, whose sharply barked laments on the stairs echoed those of hermistress.
A few miles west of Hollywood, in the mountain fastness of Bel Air,there lived a happy couple. He was Russian but, owing to his Oxbridgeaccent, his suave brittleness, and his waxy polish, he passed for an Englishman.The lady was a Magyar from Budapest who had once passedfor an actress, though her stage debut was far away and long ago. As athespian, this young woman was forgotten by the world, since her actingrésumé contained but a single line.
Few in Hollywood had heard of an operetta called Der SingendeTraum ("The Singing Dream"), much less of the soubrette with the givenname of Sari who frolicked across the stage in Vienna a few years beforeWorld War II. But Sari Gabor Beige Hilton Sanders remembered theapplause. She recalled gypsy violins at romantic suppers with gentlemenafter performances, and ranks of roses in her dressing room. Shecraved new glories in America.
Sari Gabor, nicknamed Zsa Zsa, was desperate. Everyone she knewwas famous: her sister Eva, starring on Broadway in The Happy Time;two of her ex-husbands, Turkish government press director BurhanBelge, and Conrad Hilton, the multi-millionaire hotelier; and Zsa Zsa'sthird husband, George Sanders, had just landed the role of AddisonDeWitt in Joseph Mankiewicz's next movie, All About Eve.
At the age of thirty, give or take a little, Zsa Zsa had prospered, certainly;she wasn't the former Mrs. Hilton for nothing. But to be anactress, to make films like her sister Eva and so many other girls sheknewnow there was something worth making sacrifices for.
George and Zsa Zsa had been married not quite a year. Their nuptials(a word often used by Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper to announce anew Filmland alliance) had taken place on April 1, 1949, in Las Vegas.And George had been making movies ever since. He and Zsa Zsa hadrecently returned from Spain, where he filmed Captain Blackjack.
Later that afternoon, tears dried and makeup freshened, Mrs. GeorgeSanders reemerged.
"Vy not, Georgie?" she said, smoothing the lapel of his smokingjacket. "Phoebe, ze high school girlit's a small role vich comes only atze end of the picture."
"My dear, I believe you might be a trifle mature for the part. Let's see,Phoebe must be seventeen or so, and you were born in"
"Look at ze script, George," Zsa Zsa implored. "Zis girl stands infront of three long mirrors. Sink how lovelythree Zsa Zsas."
A waft of his wife's perfume brushed his nostril, and George wavered.
"Look here, I suppose ..."
"Three Zsa Zsas at ze end of the picture," she gurgled, tilting herexotic Hungarian head.
George disliked it when she gurgled. He reconsidered the threefoldprospect of his wife.
She sucked in her breath and chattered on: "It's only a walk-on at zeend, you know."
George Sanders frowned. "It's more than a walk-on," he informed herwith a certain superiority. "Besides, it's unlikely that Darryl would givethe role to an untried actress. And I'm not the least convinced that youknow how to behave on a set."
"Tell Darryl Zanuck that if I'm no good, ze studio can cut me off." Shemade a sweeping gesture with her arms.
George Sanders didn't say the first thing that came to mind. Insteadhe paused for a long moment, looked down at his drink, then slowlyreplied, "Don't be silly. Acting isn't for you."
A half-century later, one might say that he was absolutely right. Andwrong!
For Zsa Zsa soon made her debut in Lovely to Look At (1952), quicklyreached her A-list zenith in John Huston's Moulin Rouge the same year,and has been the Potboiler Princess ever since, most famously in Queenof Outer Space.
It was 1950, and Hollywood seemed fascinated with itself.
At Paramount, Billy Wilder was putting the finishing touches on SunsetBoulevard, with Gloria Swanson as silent screen star Norma Desmond,a glamorous old vamp, and William Holden as a down-at-heels screenwriter.Nicholas Ray was directing In a Lonely Place at Columbia, withBogart also playing a screenwriterthis one suspected of a film-noirmurder. Over at MGM they were contemplating Singin' in the Rain, thegloriously energetic, tuneful, tap-dancing story of Lina Lamont (JeanHagen), another silent starthis one with a screechy voice that doomsher when talkies arrive. Even Marlene Dietrich was about to play a sultryactress resembling herself in the early airplane film No Highway in theSky, speaking throaty lines such as "My films are a few cans of celluloidon the junk heap someday." And at 20th Century-Fox, Joseph L.Mankiewicz had just started All About Eve, a film that, while technicallyabout Broadway rather than Hollywood, amounted to exploratory surgeryon the dysphoric underbelly of show business.
It was something of a miracle that his movie got made at all, at leastthe way it did, for Bette Davis hadn't spoken to Darryl Zanuck, the producer,in nine years. And besides, Claudette Colbert had already signedto play the role of Margo Channing. Variety and The Hollywood Reporterhad announced the Colbert coup late in 1949.
Zanuck, moreover, had John Garfield in mind for Bill Sampson, Margo'slover. He also thought José Ferrer would make a fine Addison DeWitt, andhe wanted Jeanne Crain for the role of Eve Harrington. All these possibilities,and others, Zanuck jotted in pencil on the inside back cover ofMankiewicz's original treatment of Eve. Zanuck's early casting notes revealBarbara Stanwyck, in addition to Claudette Colbert, as a possibility forMargo Channing. From the start, however, he favored Celeste Holm forKaren, Hugh Marlowe for Lloyd Richards, and Thelma Ritter for Birdie.
In early April 1950 Bette Davis was finishing The Story of a Divorceat RKO. This film, later retitled Payment on Demand, was her first afterleaving Warner Bros., where she had been under contract for eighteendifficult years.
One day, during a lull in shooting while Curtis Bernhardt, the director,conferred with his cameraman, Bette got word that she was wantedon the telephone. Since filming had stopped for a time, she was able toleave the set and take the call in her dressing room. She had on one ofthe rather matronly dresses designed for her to wear in the picture.
"Hello, Bette, this is Darryl Zanuck," said the production chief of20th Century-Fox. His high-pitched Nebraska accent, full of sharp r'sand words bitten off at the end, was in marked contrast with Bette'sr-less New England speech, naturally full of broad a's that had broadenedeven further as she acquired the florid stage diction of the time.
Bette knew Zanuck's voiceand she didn't believe this was Zanuck.Always suspicious, on screen and off, she assumed it was a friend playinga joke. After all, the last thing Zanuck had said to her, during their falling-outin 1941, was "You'll never work in Hollywood again!"
"Hello, Darryl dear," Bette crooned, sounding more Broadway-Britishthan ever. "Lovely to heah from you."
"Bette, I've got a script I want you to take a look at," Zanuck said. "Ithink you'll like it. And I hope you'll want to do it."
"Anything you say, my deah." She sounded even saucier on thephone than she did on-screen. "If I like it, I will do it," she said with atrace of malice and a soupcon of insolence. Bette couldn't figure outwhich one of her friends was pretending to be Darryl F. Zanuck, so shedecided to have a little fun herself, string him along, do an imitation ofBette Davis. Why not? Everyone else did.
By the end of the conversation, she expected this young manwho onearth could it be?to end his charade with a guffaw. All the while, ofcourse, Bette was puffing her cigarette like ... well, just like Bette Davis.
"The only thing is, Bette, if you like it you've got to he ready to startshooting in ten days, wardrobe finished and all."
"Right away, Darryl deah." Bette said it as though she were JudithTraherne, the Long Island playgirl and horsewoman she played in DarkVictory.
"So you're interested in the script?" Zanuck continued, makingallowances for star extravagance.
"Anything you say, Darryl dahling."
"Wouldn't you like to know the name of the picture?"
"Oh, why not surprise me?" Bette said airily. She flung her cigarettehand over her shoulder like a boa.
"Bette, this script is by Joe Mankiewicz. It's the picture ClaudetteColbert was going to do before she broke her back."
"Broke her back?" Bette yelped.
And then it dawned!
"Darryl! Is that really you?"
They talked for four or five minutes, during which Zanuck made herone of the best offers any film actress ever received. Bette jumped at thechance to read the script of All About Eve, which ultimately, as the criticEthan Mordden has said, "might be the film that ruined Davis or the filmthat made her immortal." Perhaps it did both.
Betty Lynn, playing the daughter in Payment on Demand, recalledlater that Bette's eyes were blazing when she returned to the set. Speakingat breakneck speed, Davis told her younger co-star that the phonecall was from Zanuck and that he was sending over a script that hadHollywood in a buzz.
Copyright © 2001 Sam Staggs. All rights reserved.