Theater critic as storyteller, plot device & investigator

What do the movies “All About Eve” (1950) and “Arsenic and Old Lace” (1944) have in common that is relevant to this blog, other than their popularity with radio producers who adapted them for broadcast? There are no corpses or “Boris Karloff” jokes in “Eve,” and no backstage intrigue in “Arsenic.”

Answer: Newspapers’ Broadway critics play a central role in both stories. In “Eve,” the oily Addison DeWitt is a columnist as powerful as a Winchell, shaping ambitious young star Eve’s career. In “Arsenic,” Mortimer Brewster’s profession as a reviewer — and his negative attitude toward current plays — become the excuse for several in-jokes about the theater, including a key scene that subjects him (bound and gagged) to a script-reading by a beat cop with literary aspirations.

Straddling the dramatic world and the newspaper world, press critics and entertainment columnists were natural characters for film and radio scriptwriters to satirize or to use as go-betweens with the audience.

I’ve written more about Arsenic and Winchell elsewhere here at JHeroes, but apparently have neglected “All About Eve” and Mr. DeWitt, a role that won actor George Sanders one of the film’s six Academy Awards… So here are two radio incarnations, from Lux Theater 1951 and Theater Guild on the Air 1952. (Both mp3 files are in Internet Archive collections.)

— Lux

— Theater Guild

... with homburg, gloves and cane

Academy Award winner George Sanders as Addison Dewitt

In the U.S. Steel Hour Theater Guild production, DeWitt takes on a greater role as narrator of the story, perhaps becoming a more likeable character in the process. What do you think? His self-described “contempt for humanity and insatiable ambition” may get in the way.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s original movie script for “All About Eve” is online, and also shows DeWitt as narrator and as egotist:

To those of you who do not read, attend the Theater, listen to uncensored radio programs or know anything of the world in which we live – it is perhaps necessary to introduce myself. My name is Addison DeWitt.
My native habitat is the Theater – in it I toil not, neither do I spin. I am a critic and commentator. I am essential to the Theater – as ants are to a picnic, as the boll weevil to a cotton field…

The power of the critic: Addison gets an audition for a protege by promising to plug the producer’s work. When Eve upstages the protege, he switches teams.

He claims he is dedicated to the theater, not the newspaper: “I have no other world, no other life.” The script describes his voice as “crisp, cultured, precise.”

His self-importance: “I am somebody,” he informs Eve Harrington, before writing the column that launches her career.

The critic as investigative reporter: It’s a “spoiler” if you haven’t seen the film, but DeWitt is the one who uncovers Eve’s real story. It would be a headline sensation, but he doesn’t print it — and not out of a great spirit of ethics. True to himself alone, he ultimately uses the knowledge to gain control of Eve’s career.

The Oscar-winning film All About Eve starred Bette Davis as Margo Channing, Anne Baxter as Eve Harrington and George Sanders as DeWitt, with Celeste Holm as Margo’s friend Karen. Davis and Baxter appear in the Lux version, with Reginald Gardner as DeWitt.

Alan Hewitt was DeWitt and narrated the Theater Guild version. It starred Tallulah Bankhead as a much more over-the-top comedic Margo and Beatrice Pearson as Eve. Mary Orr, author of the original short story, “The Wisdom of Eve,” played the supporting role of Karen, the star’s friend who is manipulated by the up-and-coming Eve.

According to several online sources, including Turner Classic Movies, Orr annoyed Bankhead by insisting that her story was not about any incident in Bankhead’s life, while Bankhead thought Davis’ performance was an imitation of her — which she hints about at the beginning of her radio performance.

Speaking of online sources, if these bits of film and radio history have you curious about Broadway history, you’ll have noticed a reference to a playwright named Clyde Fitch (1865-1909), whom Margot Channing protests was “before my time,” here is Fitch’s bio at Wikipedia.

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who fell deeper into computers and the Web during three trips through graduate school in the 1980s and 1990s, then began teaching journalism, media studies and Web production, most recently as a faculty member at Radford University.
This entry was posted in 1940s, 1950s, adaptations, columnists, critics, movies. Bookmark the permalink.

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