Fasten your seatbelts

A few weeks ago I was talking about the actress Elisabeth Bergner.

But I didn’t mention the curious link between her and the 1950 Academy Award winner All About Eve, starring Bette Davis and Anne Baxter.

Elisabeth Bergner was born in 1897 in Drohobych, which is now in the Ukraine but was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her career began in Austria and Germany, but the Nazi takeover forced her to move to London in 1933.

Hans Rewald: Elisabeth Bergner
Hans Rewald: Portrait of Elisabeth Bergner, 1929

1943 found her on Broadway, starring in The Two Mrs Carrolls, directed by Reginald Denham, who was the lover and future husband of actress and writer Mary Orr. The story goes that Bergner and her husband director Paul Czinner invited Denham and Orr to their weekend retreat. 

While they were there Bergner told Orr about an apparently shy and self-effacing ‘girl in a red coat’ who every night stood in the alley by the theatre, and who claimed to have seen every performance of The Two Mrs Carrolls. Bergner felt sorry for the girl and invited her into her dressing-room. Eventually she befriended her and gave her work as a factotum and as her husband’s secretary. The girl however then tried to take over Bergner’s life and career, and even making a pitch for her husband’s affections.

Mary Orr 1990

When Orr recounted the story to Denham he urged her to write it up as a short story. She did this in four days, and called it The Wisdom of Eve. Unfortunately Orr’s agent didn’t think much to it, so it didn’t get published until May 1946, when it appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine (which was very different then from what it became in the 1960s and 1970s.)

There was no interest in the story from Hollywood however, and in 1949 she eventually adapted it into a radio play for NBC’s Radio Guild Playhouse. Orr herself played the part of Karen. Three days later she got an offer of $5000 from 20th Century Fox for the rights to both the original story and the radio play. Director Joseph L Mankiewicz started work on a screenplay with the title Best Performance, adding more characters including columnist Addison DeWitt, whose opening lines included: ‘Eve . . . but more of Eve later . . . all about Eve, in fact’. Studio boss Darryl F Zanuck underlined the words ‘all about Eve’, which became the title of the film.

All About Eve was released in 1950 and won six Oscars, including Best Picture. Joseph L Mankiewicz won both Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, and George Sanders won Best Supporting Actor for the role of Addison DeWitt. Both Bette Davis (as Margo Channing) and Anne Baxter (as the eponymous Eve Harrington) were nominated for Best Actress, but lost out to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday. Mary Orr did not even get a screen credit, as her agent hadn’t included it in her contract.

© Chris Lawrence 2020.

1 thought on “Fasten your seatbelts

  1. Pingback: *Press it* Fasten your seatbelts #127 | Its good to be crazy Sometimes

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