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The Story Behind The Screenplay: All About Eve

By Martin Keady · March 19, 2020

In a new series, Martin Keady, our resident cinema historian, examines the origins behind some of cinema’s greatest screenplays. This month: All About Eve.

The announcement in 2019 that David Fincher will soon direct Mank, a biopic of Herman J. Mankiewicz, the co-writer of Citizen Kane, based on a script written by Fincher’s own father before he died, is a reminder of the seminal importance of Herman and his brother, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the writer-director of All About Eve (1950). Even more than Julius and Philip Epstein, the twin brothers who co-wrote the screenplay for Casablanca with Howard Koch, or even Joel and Ethan Coen, they are surely the “First Brothers” of film, whose contribution to the development of cinema is unmatched by that of any other siblings. And the nature of their complex, indeed sometimes fraught, relationship was one of the most important elements in the writing of All About Eve. It might be the greatest “women’s picture” ever made, as proven by the fact that it is the only film ever to generate Oscar nominations for no fewer than four of its actresses, but behind it lies the story of a brotherly rivalry that is perhaps the cinematic equivalent of the Cain and Abel story.

The screenplay for All About Eve is available to download for free at The Script Lab Library.

The Origins of the Mankiewiczs

The Mankiewicz family is one of the greatest of all Hollywood families, a film-making dynasty that is exceeded only in importance by a few others, such as the Douglases or the Hustons. Joseph and Herman’s parents were German Jews who had moved to the United States at the end of the 19th century, initially settling, like so many immigrants to America at that time, in their first port of call, New York City, before moving to rural Pennsylvania. Eventually, though, just before the outbreak of World War I, the Mankiewiczs moved back to New York permanently and settled there.

Herman, who was born in 1897, was more than a decade older than Joseph, who was born in 1909. There are numerous examples in the arts of older brothers not just being “big brothers” in the Orwellian sense (i.e. being authoritative or even bullying) but in the sense of being older, wiser and ultimately benign towards their younger sibling. In music alone, David Bowie was introduced to many of his lifelong obsessions, including the saxophone and jazz, by his older half-brother, Terry Burns, who tragically later developed schizophrenia and killed himself, while Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis was introduced to his own enormously wide range of musical influences, including the symphonies of Shostakovich, by his older brother, Ed, who, equally tragically, eventually became a heroin addict and died just before the 1988 release of Talk Talk’s sublime Spirit of Eden album. In a way, the Mankiewiczs also followed this path of the older brother educating and even mentoring the younger, before the younger brother eventually surpassed the older, with perhaps tragic consequences for the older brother’s self-image and self-esteem.

Herman’s Remarkable Early Life

Herman J. Mankiewicz’s life story is indeed deserving of a biopic. That is true of his life even before he met Orson Welles and the two men wrote Citizen Kane (1941), the greatest American film ever made, if not the greatest film ever made anywhere, and no doubt Jack Fincher (David’s father, who died in 2003) included many of the most famous events in Mankiewicz’s life in his biopic. He led a truly storied early life, becoming one of the first-ever flying cadets with the nascent US Army Airforce, before switching services to join the Marines, with whom he saw combat in World War I. After the war, his life was no less remarkable nor cosmopolitan, as he variously served as a publicist for both the American Red Cross and the dancer Isadora Duncan. He eventually settled on being a reporter, first writing for the Chicago Tribune in Berlin before returning to America and writing for a multiplicity of newspapers and magazines, on subjects as diverse as politics and literature. Inevitably, he began writing for Broadway and equally inevitably his success on Broadway attracted the attention of Hollywood.

Herman’s initial success in the film industry was even more astonishing than his earlier successes in both the military and journalism. Legend has it that within a month of arriving in Los Angeles, he had signed an extremely lucrative contract as a screenwriter and by the end of 1927 he was the head of what was then called “The Scenario Department” (which sounds wonderfully like the title of a Philip K. Dick short story) at Paramount. He was responsible for hiring many of his old friends and colleagues in journalism, such as Ben Hecht, worldly and wise-cracking men, many of whom, like Mankiewicz himself, had seen active service (either as soldiers, or reporters, or both) during the First World War. And in addition to all these veterans of both war and writing, Herman also hired his younger brother, Joseph.

Joseph’s Less Remarkable Early Life

Unlike his older and at the time far more celebrated brother, Joseph L. Mankiewicz appeared to lead a fairly unremarkable life until he arrived in Hollywood at the end of the 1920s, at Herman’s personal invitation. Too young to fight in or write about Word War I, he almost certainly idolized his older and extremely successful brother, who had done both and miraculously survived both.  Rather than training as a flying cadet, or writing press releases for Isadora Duncan or the American Red Cross, Joseph seems to have been the archetypal younger brother, being reasonably happy to remain in his brother’s shadow and learn from him. And unlike Herman, Joseph seems to have only ever worked in the film industry, initially working as a translator for a silent film company (translating the subtitles or intertitles of imported German films into English), and then accepting Herman’s invitation to join him in Hollywood, where he initially continued to work on subtitles or intertitles, although in Los Angeles he was writing them himself directly in English.

The Mankiewiczs In Hollywood: The First Decade

It was at this point – roughly about 1930 – that the fortunes of the two Mankiewicz brothers first began to diverge, at first very gradually but then, over time, with increasing speed and even ferocity. Indeed, so slow was their eventual reversal of fortune that initially it would have been almost imperceptible. For most of the 1930s, Herman continued to be right at the top of the tree in Hollywood, or as near to the top of the tree as a mere writer could be. He wrote or co-wrote, credited or uncredited, an impressive number of films (at least 20), several of which were both classics and box-office hits, including the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932), and Dinner at Eight (1933).

As the great New Yorker film critic, Pauline Kael, would write more than four decades later, Herman J. Mankiewicz, through his own writing and his hiring of similarly like-minded (i.e. hopelessly cynical) writers, was absolutely instrumental in the success of American cinema’s, and by extension world cinema’s, first decade of sound, when dialogue was king and the dialogue that Herman and others wrote was arguably the greatest ever written for the screen.

By contrast, Joseph L. Mankiewicz enjoyed a successful if not absolutely stellar 1930s, at least in comparison with his older brother, whose influence on the decade was seminal. He soon moved on from writing subtitles or intertitles to writing screenplays himself, although, exactly like Herman, he often went uncredited. However, unlike his older brother, who was a writer right down to his ink-stained fingertips, having begun in journalism and public relations before moving to Hollywood, Joseph seemed to have realized reasonably early on that the real power in Hollywood resided not with those who wrote the films but with those who produced and directed them. Consequently, unlike Herman, who never directed a film (and never seemed to have any ambition to do so), Joseph, while continuing to write, also began increasingly to move behind the camera, to take overall artistic and financial control of the films that he was writing.

Into The 1940s

By the end of the 1930s, more than a decade after they had both arrived in Los Angeles, the fortunes of the Mankiewicz brothers were beginning to grow apart more visibly. Herman may have been the first screenwriter hired to write a script for The Wizard Of Oz (1939), and he may have been responsible for essentially creating the first act of the film (which is set in Kansas and establishes Dorothy’s mundane “reality” before she is transported to the truly magical reality of Oz), but he was also the first screenwriter fired and he was never officially credited for his work.

By contrast, Joseph, as if learning from his brother’s misfortunes, which were those of someone who was solely a screenwriter, had branched out from writing, first into producing and then eventually into directing. He first produced Three Godfathers (1936) (not an early Mafia movie but a Western) and then, far more impressively, produced Fritz Lang’s first American film, Fury (also 1936). He was now more in demand as a producer than as a writer, and produced some of the biggest American films, and hits, of the late 1930s and early 1940s, including The Philadelphia Story (1940), whose script he also allegedly contributed to, and Woman of the Year (1942), in which he paired Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn on screen for the first time.

In the wake of The Wizard of Oz, Herman J. Mankiewicz suddenly found it a little difficult, for the first time ever, to find work as a scriptwriter. Fortunately, Orson Welles was on hand to put all his undoubted screenwriting ability to the best of use on Citizen Kane (1941), for which both men would share the Academy Award for Writing, even if they always bickered over the extent of each other’s precise contribution to the script. Three decades later, in her famous essay, Raising Kane (1971), Pauline Kael would argue that Mankiewicz was the major or even sole author of the screenplay, something that an indignant Welles always denied.

Writing, or even co-writing, Citizen Kane should have returned Herman Mankiewicz to his previous position of pre-eminence in Hollywood and to an extent, as shown by his Oscar victory, it did. However, by this time Herman was finally beginning to suffer the ravages of the alcoholism that had plagued him all his life, from his hard-drinking days in Europe, first as a soldier and then as a reporter. He wrote or co-wrote several other screenplays after Citizen Kane, including The Pride of The Yankees (1942) and the similarly-titled (and similarly baseball-set) The Pride of St Louis (1952).  However, just like Orson Welles himself, he never quite matched the greatness of Kane, partly because Randolph Hearst, its unofficial subject, swore revenge on both men for ruining his reputation. And so the combination of alcoholism and increasing embitterment at his struggles to write scripts as good as Citizen Kane literally began to eat away at him.

Joseph’s First Steps As A Director

Meanwhile, Joseph, his younger brother, although he had not quite written or produced a film as ground-breaking as Citizen Kane, seemed to go from strength to strength in the 1940s, particularly after the end of World War II. He drank (almost everyone in the film industry then did), but not to the degree that Herman did, and so he was able to continue writing and producing, and when he moved to 20th Century Fox in the middle of the decade he was finally given the chance to direct.

His first few films, including his debut Dragonwyck (1946), a period drama, and Somewhere In The Night (also 1946), were fairly unexceptional. However, by the end of the decade he would make two extraordinarily successful films in quick succession, A Letter To Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950), which astonishingly would win him back-to-back Oscars for both Writing and Directing – four in total – allowing him finally to escape from the enormous shadow cast by his older brother, Herman.

A Letter To Three Wives is a fine film, based on the novel of the same name by John Klempner and telling the story of a typical American small town where three different women each fear that their husband has left them for another woman. In particular, it is extremely deftly plotted, such that the exact identity of the woman who has been betrayed is somehow kept secret until the end. However, it was with All About Eve, which Joseph wrote and directed a year later, that he finally wrote and directed a film that could genuinely bear comparison with his brother’s finest film, Citizen Kane, and unlike his brother’s experience on Kane, nobody could question the precise nature of his contribution to the film.

The Origins of All About Eve

All About Eve began life not as a literary work at all but as an anecdote, allegedly told by the Austrian-British actress Elisabeth Bergner to the writer Mary Orr, about a much younger fan who had apparently inveigled her way into Bergner’s life, first into her working life as a personal assistant and eventually into her personal life when she came to live with Bergner. Eventually, Bergner realized that the supposed “fan” was, if anything, a parasite, of the kind that Bong Joon-ho so memorably depicted in his film of the same name that followed All About Eve to Oscar glory nearly seventy years later. Bergner eventually dismissed her, regretting that she had ever met her in the first place, but it gave Orr the idea for a short story, called The Wisdom of Eve, which was first published in 1946 in Cosmopolitan.

It is still unclear, and probably always will be, exactly how Joseph L. Mankiewicz first came across The Wisdom of Eve; perhaps his wife read it in Cosmopolitan and simply alerted him to it. But however he came across it, as soon as he read it he realized that it was the story that he had been looking for all his life. Having been brought up in New York, he had always been an aficionado of Broadway, which his brother Herman had written for in the 1920s, and he was particularly intrigued by the idea of an older actress initially being idolized by a younger one before she realizes that the younger one is ultimately trying to replace her, and perhaps not just in her professional roles but in her personal ones, too.

One does not have to be a psychiatrist to see how the story must have chimed with Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the younger brother of an initially far more worldly and far more successful older brother who he eventually matched and ultimately overtook, and not just as a writer but as a writer-director-producer. For all the other attractions of the story, it was surely this age-old story of the battle between the ages – between old and young – that must have appealed to Joseph, even if only subconsciously or even unconsciously, because just as his star was rising to its zenith, so that of his older brother, Herman, was about to plunge to earth.

Herman’s Decline

By the start of the 1950s, when Joseph had begun work on writing and then directing All About Eve, Herman J. Mankiewicz was in increasingly poor health, largely as a result of his incessant heavy drinking. And with poor health came increasingly poor behavior, as he alienated those he had once worked with, including his younger brother Joseph, to the extent that the man who was once famously “The Wittiest Man In America” was now becoming something of a recluse, and worse, a recluse who liked to drink alone.

All of these age-old elements, which date back at least to Cain and Abel and probably earlier to the first caveman who fought with his brother, are there in the script of All About Eve, albeit heavily disguised or transformed. All About Eve is a film about the theatre industry, particularly Broadway, in which an older woman, Margo Channing (played by Bette Davis, who herself was beginning to fear that her best days in film and life were behind her), initially befriends a much younger fan, Eve Harrington (played by Anne Baxter, a much younger actress, for whom the role of Eve was a breakthrough after more than a decade in the film industry). However, it is surely also the back-story, or even shadow-story, of the extraordinarily intense relationship between the Mankiewicz brothers, played out over two decades in the film industry, in which the younger and apparently less talented (and certainly less worldly) sibling eventually triumphs over the older sibling who had done so much to educate him, and indeed make him, in the first place.

The Eternal Resonance of All About Eve

It is precisely because the real story of All About Eve is not the particular, indeed now rather old-fashioned story of a contest for supremacy between Broadway actresses (one on the wane, one on the rise) but the eternal, universal story of sibling rivalry (even that between supposed “sisters”, as women who are close friends often describe themselves) that it has such continuing relevance and resonance today. Indeed, that was surely one of the main reasons why the film was adapted for the stage in London in 2019, with a superb score by PJ Harvey. Its tale is truly timeless, long after Broadway has lost its glory and even the great Mankiewicz brothers are largely forgotten, at least until David Fincher’s Mank, which is due to be released in cinemas and on Netflix late in 2020, surely revives interest in them.

All About Eve was a total triumph for Joseph L. Mankiewicz. It received 14 Oscar nominations in total, including a record four for its actresses: Davis and Baxter were both nominated as Best Actress (both losing to Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday); and Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter were both nominated as Best Supporting Actress (both losing to Josephine Hull in Harvey). However, whereas all of its superb actresses lost out in the Oscars race, All About Eve’s creator, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, cleaned up, winning both the Best Director and Original Screenplay Awards, just a year after he had won the same two Oscars for A Letter To Three Wives.

Herman’s Death – and Joseph’s Continuing Rise

However, within three years of All About Eve’s total triumph, Herman J. Mankiewicz, Joseph’s older brother, was dead, a victim of the alcoholism that he had suffered from for most of his adult life. He eventually died of uremic poisoning, a condition that was undoubtedly worsened by his heavy drinking, and his younger brother undoubtedly mourned him. However, having fought so long and for so hard to finally reach the top of the film industry, in the process supplanting his older brother (however unconsciously and unintentionally), Joseph was not about to stop now. He continued to have a spectacular decade in the 1950s, writing, directing and producing three other classic films – Julius Caesar (1953), The Barefoot Contessa (1954) and Guys and Dolls (1955) – in the three years immediately following his older brother’s death. And if Cleopatra (1963) ultimately brought his stunning, decade-plus run of success to an end, he eventually recovered brilliantly, making the superb Sleuth (1972) as his last film in 1972.

Joseph’s Third Act (Which Herman Never Enjoyed)

Joseph L. Mankiewicz died more than two decades later, in 1993, as a result of a heart attack that he suffered just before his 84th birthday. He lived the long, last third act of a life that had been denied to his older and boozier brother. However, the legacy of their long and intense relationship, one in which both brothers scaled remarkable cinematic, indeed artistic, heights – one writing (or at least co-writing) Citizen Kane, the other writing and directing All About Eve – is there at the heart of Joseph’s greatest film.

All About Eve will surely be remade in the future, as most classic films are, and perhaps in the not-too-distant future, when cinema itself is perhaps surpassed by XR (Extended Reality, the catch-all term for Virtual or Enhanced Reality), just as cinema itself surpassed theatre. When it is, as opposed to simply being renamed or “rebooted” as All About Steve, in which a pair of gay male actors fight out the oldest fight of all (that between young and old for supremacy), perhaps it might instead be called All About Herman and Joseph, and the full, remarkable story of cinema’s greatest sibling rivalry can finally be told on film before cinema itself is possibly usurped by a newer and more immersive story-telling medium.

Martin Keady is an award-winning scriptwriter whose work has been produced for film, television, stage and radio. His major credits include: The Final, a short film about the famous ending of the 1979 FA Cup Final, which was shown on Channel Four; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon, which was premiered at The Edinburgh Festival; and a collection of love poetry, Shards, extracts from which have been broadcast on Radio Four.”

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