Art Vs Commerce: Musicals, Bible Stories, and Bad Choices (1950s)

1950

Art chooses a black and white character study, commerce favoured a Technicolour spectacle piece, and you, the reader, said “Well, duh.”

And The Oscar Goes To…

We open at the presentation of the Sarah Siddons Award, a theatre award the narrator, entertainingly pretentious theatre critic Addison DeWitt, assures us we haven’t heard of because it’s less commercial and thus more legit than such “questionable” awards as the Pulitzer or the ones “presented annually by that film society.”

The big trophy for Best Actress is going to Eve Harrington, who as the title suggests is a character of some import. The title gets dropped twice in the opening monologue alone. We then start rotating narrators, as a group of theatre colleagues take turns remembering how Eve came into their lives and began her climb to stardom: aging star actress Margo (Bette Davis, everybody!), her director and lover Bill, playwright Lloyd, his wife Karen (who brings Eve into their circle so Eve can meet her absolute idol Margo), producer Max, and of course snobbish pot-stirrer Addison. So the title is a mild mislead, it’s only 40-60% About Eve. (Don’t worry, “How Much About Eve?” will not be the new “How Green Was Their Valley.”)

What we have is a twin tale of one star rising and another setting: A Star is Born with less romance and a larger ensemble. Eve begins to endear herself to the theatre scene, working every inch of “aw shucks” modesty along the way until it’s time to strike, while Margo frets that her career and social standing are at risk given her advanced age of… forty. Sure younger Eve better fits the age of Lloyd’s protagonists but come on, that’s on you for only writing twenty-something ingenues, Lloyd*. Addison and Karen and I think Margo take turns narrating, bringing different perspectives to the friendship-turned-cold war between the women.

(*He said, carefully kicking a pile of his own scripts with 20-something leads under the couch)

Anne Baxter does a great job as Eve, every bit the wide-eyed innocent until the switch flicks to knives out and beak bloody, at which point she’s perfectly sinister. Bette Davis is predictably great as acerbic, acidic, increasingly desperate Margo. And she gives a great jab at the double standard of age and gender, discussing her lover: “Bill’s thirty-two. He looks thirty-two. He looked it five years ago, he’ll look it twenty years from now. I hate men.” Of course 32 in the 1940s is 55 in the 2020s where wealthy actors are concerned but still. And then there’s a pretty strong third act knife twist.

It’s aged well for the earliest 50s, and its depiction of theatre stardom being as subtly cutthroat as Game of Thrones politics still lands. Solid flick.

Also Marilyn Monroe is in it briefly, as a slightly more air-headed actress who Addison says would be better suited for television, in a dry but obvious neg that goes over her character’s head. Considering what was about to happen to Marilyn’s career, I found it almost odd that she wasn’t involved in the stardom power plays at all.

Here’s some limited Twitter thoughts if you want them.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: They think pretty highly of it, as it makes the top ten (which is only 40% movies more than a decade old) at 8/93.

But it’s not a trend-setter. No no, Cecil B. DeMille is setting the trend for the next decade and a bit, as we’ll see below.

The Box Office Champ

It begins. Although at two hours nine minutes, this particular Bible Epic is on the short side, as is also the least aggressively religious.

Not just the top grosser of 1950, the third-highest grosser of film history to that point, after The Best Years of Our Lives at number two and Gone With the Wind at number one, still and always.

Hey, Hedy Lamarr’s back! And she’s talking men into bad decisions again. Hooray, question mark? Also George Sanders, who played Addison in All About Eve, is back playing another arrogant douche as the head of the Philistines.

In our first sword-and-sandals epic, a doof named Samson is hero to an enslaved people but doesn’t actually do much to help them until their captors, the Philistines (pronounced phil-IS-tines, rather than how you might think) piss him off and he seeks revenge. Which in turn pisses off Delilah, whose father and sister end up killed by angry Philistines in the struggle, and so she schemes to humble him, and a lot of people end up dead and there’s a lot of time spent on Philistines being dicks, mostly this jackass Ahtur who always starts the fight with Samson but somehow keeps not dying in it, and the last hour is heavily torture-focussed…

And you know what this one’s not my thing. It has an adequate level of spectacle compared to the 40s, only with shorter skirts and more bared midriffs, so I get why the crowds turned up, but it lacks Gone With the Wind’s… what’s the word… right, talent. The acting is subpar and the script is mean. Sorry, Ms. Lamarr, but we’re moving on.

Before I go, Delilah’s sister, who Samson loved but Delilah pulls a con to keep him from marrying thus triggering a whole lotta murder, is played by Angela Lansbury, and Young, Hot Angela Lansbury wrinkles my brain a little.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: 63% from critics with a 59% audience score. It’s generally agreed that DeMille might have known how to build an epic at the time, but hoo boy this woman-hating biblical cruelty fest with a cast of thousands but only three who could act has not aged well.

Other Events in Film

  • Disney went back to the Princess well that made Snow White such a hit with Cinderella, managing fifth place at the 1950 box office and pulling Disney out of debt, but nothing was going to top Samson and Delilah, it was an absolute blowout that year.
  • Disney also released their first live-action movie, Treasure Island. Wasn’t as big a hit. They often weren’t, pre-Pirates of the Caribbean. No wonder Disney started buying up hit live-action franchises.
  • A familiar musical named Annie Get Your Gun made it to third place.
  • I came close to blowing off Samson and Delilah for All About Eve’s chief award season rival, Sunset Boulevard, which dominated the Golden Globes. Shoulda listened to that instinct. I threw it on after Samson and Delilah and it was much better.
  • The Oscar frontrunners for Best Actress were Bette Davis for All About Eve and Gloria Swanson for her iconic role as unhinged silent era star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, but somehow the trophy went to Judy Holiday for unassuming romcom Born Yesterday. Some say that Davis and Swanson split the “aging icon” vote and Holiday snuck in as a result.
  • Cecil B. DeMille plays himself in Sunset Boulevard, as does Buster Keaton. DeMille turns up shooting a period pic that might or might not but could have been Samson and Delilah. Damn it there is so much more to talk about in Sunset Boulevard, screw you 50s audiences! That’s our new feature for the decade right there. “So why not [Blank]?”
  • Rashomon debuted in Japan, bringing the Unreliable Narrator trope to new heights. Or maybe you remember it differently.

Next Page: He’s got rhythm, he’s got music

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