A Mankiewicz Moment

Mankiewicz Moment: The point in time in which one identifies the brilliance of a movie or part of a movie long after having seen it. Antonym: Icebox Moment.

Joseph Mankeiwicz' clever movie plots bear repeat viewings and are worth appreciating. You're so busy enjoying his film, that you're not always aware of the mechanisms which bring you that pleasure.

Take for instance Bill Sampson's (Gary Merrill) first big speech in All About Eve (1950). It's a long, drawn out affair about what constitutes theater. To be frank, after having seen it the first time I fast forward past it during every subsequent viewing. 

I believed the scene was filler, the screenwriter hammering home his personal feelings through a long-winded character. [Mankiewicz does this as well with Kirk Douglas' character in A Letter to Three Wives (1949) on the subjects of teachers' salaries and dim-witted radio programs.]

But Mankiewicz is more than just killing time with Bill, he's setting up our leading man's character and fidelity.

The Scene
While waiting backstage for his love interest - star of the theater Margo Channing (Bette Davis)  - to finish dressing so that she will escort him to the airport, Bill Sampson - on his way to direct a film in Hollywood - spouts off a long monologue to devoted Margo fan Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) about what constitutes theater. 

It's a perplexing few lines, not for its content but for the fact that it exists at all. Why do we stop the movie for two interminable minutes to talk about what is theater?  Surely Margo could have been ready to leave and Bill and Margo could have marched to the cab for the airport. End Scene.

What is the purpose of this scene? It has bugged me for a while now. I did a bit of reverse engineering, then I finally had my Mankiewicz Moment.  The brilliance of his plot-making actually does three very important things for Bill.

1.This Scene Shows Bill's Personality
The first scene between Bill and Eve gives us a rough sketch of Bill's character and focus. Within  fifteen minutes of running time, the leading man is hurriedly introduced, and whisked away to the airport, not to be seen again by the audience for a few minutes, nor by the other characters for months. We have to know the kind of man he is quickly before the plot quarantines him in California.

The monologue tells you his mind is thoroughly in show business. If he's in love with anything other than Margo, he's in love with his job.

2. This Scene Underscores Bill's Fidelity to Margo
The story hinges on whether the aspiring actress, Eve, is after Margo’s career and her man and how successful will she be at both. Bill’s participation in any hanky panky would seriously devalue him with the audience – he would not be worthy of our leading lady. The story must protect him.

Thus, the monologue in Margo's dressing room when Bill and Eve are alone together is strictly a platonic setting for Bill. He even refers to her as a "kid." The speech gives us a glimpse of the innocuous kind of conversation Bill would have when he's with a neophyte in the business. This is necessary in preserving Bill's reputation with the audience as a director who's only interested in his business and not in philandering with every eager young thing out there who wants a shot at acting.

The next time Bill and Eve are alone together is in Margo's living room waiting for Bill's birthday party to begin. Bill has returned from directing films in Hollywood and is regaling Eve with cinema stories. You'll notice in both times that he's alone with her, he's waiting for Margo, who is always only a few feet away. This, as opposed to meeting Eve alone in a restaurant or some other shady rendezvous.

By this time, Margo incorrectly suspects Bill of having an affair with Eve. The audience knows he's not. The earlier monologue saves him with us, even if Margo believes he's cheating on her.

3.This Scene Contrasts the Final, Antagonistic Scene Between Bill and Eve
The earlier two scenes with Bill and Eve are that of mentor and student from Bill's (and the audience's) viewpoint. The third and final scene they have together alone strikes a different tone, but really does similar things as the second Bill and Eve scene – it affirms Bill’s faithfulness to Margo.

When Margo is out of town and misses a curtain, the director goes backstage to congratulate Eve - now Margo's understudy - for her performance.

It's not clear whether Eve knows that Bill and Margo have dissolved their relationship by this point. What is evident, however, is that the ingénue takes advantage of Margo's temporary absence to intimate having an affair with Margo's man. Bill - shocked - refuses her advances.

This last Bill and Eve scene reaffirms what the audience has thought since the first scene - Bill is the innocent lamb, completely unaware of the danger surrounding him. This virtue undergirds Bill's fidelity to Margo and makes their later reconciliation that much sweeter.

We know that Bill is worthy of his leading lady because we've seen him behave consistently platonic with other women even when Margo isn't around. That first long-winded scene in the dressing room with Eve - the one I initially believed to be completely superfluous - actually saves Bill's reputation with the audience because it establishes his pattern of fidelity.

What’s your Mankiewicz Moment? Have you revisited a ho-hum scene from a movie and suddenly realized that it is brilliant?

Follow Friday

Click on the images below for links to classic movie articles or blog posts throughout the web.

For regular links to fascinating classic movie information, visit  Laura's Miscellaneous Musings  and KC's  A Classic Movie Blog

Bits and Pieces via alanmowbrayjr.com
Classic Movie Watch List via Greenbriar Picture Shows

The official Twitter page for the Ann Sheridan Fan Club -  @AnnSheridanFC

Jean Arthur: Tough Veneer, Tender Core, Hollywood Icon via MovieFanFare

Sammy Davis, Jr.'s Celebrity Impressions

Sammy Davis, Jr. was a great song and dance man, actor and icon. He was also an impressionist. Here he performs a popular song, "Because of You", using vocal impressions of singers and actors, from Tony Bennett to Jerry Lewis! My favorite is his impression of Nat "King" Cole...smooth.

Please Don’t Eat The Daises (1960)

Jean Kerr’s collection of humorous essays about a family of six living in suburban New York was handled by screenwriter Isobel Lennart who found a through-line in the anecdotes. The result was the charming comedy Please Don’t Eat the Daises (1960). The plot’s fulcrum derives from the tension between Kate MacKay (Doris Day), who is all set to move the family to the countryside, while her husband Larry (David Niven)  has changed his mind and is eager to remain in Manhattan now that his new job as a theater critic is taking off.

The cast includes Janis Paige as Deborah Vaughn, a theater actress who would like to seduce the new critic; Richard Hayden as Alfred, Deborah’s manager and friend to the MacKays; Jack Weston as Joe, a cabdriver-turned-playwright who seeks Larry’s advice; Spring Byington as Kay’s mother; and Carmen Phillips in a brief comic scene as a bizarre new tenant in the apartment who does not like being awake in the daytime.

Lennart's dialogue between Day and Niven is the heartbeat of this domestic tale.  Lennart's co-worker at MGM, Dorothy Kingsley, said of her,  "Isobel lived for her work. She would get up in the middle of the night and write down a line. If someone didn't like her script, she'd throw up." The screenwriter was nominated for a Writers Guild Award for Best Written American Comedy  for this film.

Though this is not a musical, with the award-winning songstress as the star, the film manages to squeeze in reasons for Day’s character to sing. With three fun songs, including the title tune by Joe Lubin, which Day sings in a playground with children, the best is a brief reprise of a ballad from another film with which the star would forever become synonymous – "Que Sera, Sera."

A Year Ago on Java's Journey

 House of Strangers (1949) - Dark tale of  betrayal and crime amongst relatives.

Sally Is a Girl - Review of an episode from the Dick Van Dyke Show


Betty on Lauren - an anecdote that playwright Betty Comden shares about Lauren Bacall from her autobiography


Flower Drum Song (1961) and Unrequited Love - An exploration of the spurned Helen character.

 Movie Elevators and Long Lost Wives - Uncanny patterns in films

Follow Friday

Click on the images below for links to classic movie articles or blog posts throughout the web.

For regular links to fascinating classic movie information, visit  Laura's Miscellaneous Musings.

Jack Elam via Bit Part Actors
Favorite Filmmakers: Vincente Minelli via Frankly My Dear
Where to Find Deanna Durbin's Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame via The Amazing Deanna Durbin

Come Back Little Sheba: Hazel on Downers via Classic Movies Digest

Doctor in the House (1954)

Often in medical school movies, the tone is relentlessly solemn. Not with Doctor in the House (1954).

Although the film presents the profession itself with high regard, it pokes a bit of fun at the protagonists - four medical students in England who share a flat. Because each main character is a variation of movie buddy types - the newbie, the woman-chaser, the free thinker/con artist, and the athlete - there is a frat house flavor to the comedy.

In another med school film, Not as a Stranger, Robert Mitchum and Frank Sinatra turn in solid performances as very serious students, dedicated to their craft and with a singular focus. No one should stand in their way. If there is any intended humor in Stranger it is at the expense of pestering patients who are placated with placebo. The film places med students as flawed but powerful beings separate and distinct from their mortal patients.

Doctor in the House sees doctors as human beings with a sense of humor and interests outside of their profession. The audience is even allowed to see them doubt themselves.

House treats the profession as you would the uncle you have fun with but ultimately admire. Take for instance the scene where a new resident (played by Dick Bogarde), comically nervous as anything,  goes on a maternity case. The mother names her newborn after the physician and the shot remains on Bogarde's face for a bit -he's honored.  There is mutual respect between physicians and John Q. Public in this film.

Doctor in the House is a series of vignettes through the years of school. There's even a cameo by Kay Kendall that I wish would last longer. Whether our protagonists succeed or fail in their studies is the primary conflict, but you don't really care if they do or not. They're just fun to watch.

Not as a Stranger (1955) - Robert Mitchum and Olivia DeHavilland in a Medical Drama

Med school dramas of the mid-twentieth century often take one of two tacks : doctors as gods or doctors as gods with Achilles heels. Not as a Stranger (1955) takes the latter.

Robert Mitchum's character is an impoverished medical student with a singular focus - he will become a doctor at any cost. Wooing Olivia de Havilland  for her savings, Mitchum matches in avarice the gold-digging suitor in another of de Havilland 's films: Morris Townsend in The Heiress (1949).

In The Heiress, the audience is never sure of the suitor's motives. In Stranger, the audience is privy to his confession of greed.

Stranger is bent on portraying those in the medical profession as something less than divine, but actually, the problems in the plot could have occured in any industry. We are there when he loses his temper several times with fellow physicians, we are there when he seems pestered by the patients, we are there when he uses his practice as an excuse to stay out late and cheat on his wife. In all of it, Mitchum's character seems obsessed with the process of becoming a doctor, but isn't particularly thrilled when he finally becomes one.

Supposedly his boredom is enough to start a liaison with the town horse breeder played by Gloria Grahame. The only time I laughed like crazy in this drama is when Mitchum lets an aggressive horse out of a stall then makes violent love to Grahame. I haven't laughed that hard with such a pun since Hitchock's  train and tunnel euphemism in North by Northwest. 

Stranger is at times a hard-bitten, cynical take on the medical profession. There' s a random disquieting scene with a drunk lawyer, played by Jesse White, who rails at doctors for not being omniscient (again, the demigod assumption). White and Mitchum get into an argument of stereotypes - they accuse each other of being shysters who overcharge the public. There is no resolution of the argument; it just lies there and is never discussed again. What is the point of that scene?

Frank Sinatra turns in an admirably sober performance as Mitchum's classmate, best friend and accountability partner. He's the voice of reason, the shoulder everybody cries on. Sinatra's character actually has a conversation with de Havilland. He respects her. Why didn't Olivia's character marry the Sinatra character in the first place? He never asked, I guess.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) in theaters October 4th!

Lawrence Of Arabia 50th Anniversary Event: Digitally Restored movie poster

TCM and Fathom Events are bringing Lawrence of Arabia (1962) to  a town near you on Thursday October 4th!

Starring Peter O' Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif, Lawrence is the

Sweeping epic about the real life adventures of T.E. Lawrence, a British major who unified Arab tribes and led them in the fight for independence from the Ottoman Turks in the 1920s.

Lawrence is one of those epic, award-winning films made during the 1960s which was meant to draw audiences away from television and back into the cinema using widescreen vistas, brilliant colors and masterful story lines that were unparallelled by the smaller screen at the time.

This is must see cinema!

Go to this address to discover where Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is  playing in your state: http://www.fathomevents.com/classics/event/lawrenceofarabia.aspx

Classic Movie Glossary

Bardot Neckline In fashion, a wide open neckline that exposes both shoulders. Named for actress Brigitte Bardot.

Mankiewicz Moment - The point in time in which one identifies the brilliance of a movie or part of a movie long after having seen it. Named for director, screenwriter, and producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz whose intricate and clever movie plots bear repeat viewings. Coined by Java Bean Rush in October 2012Antonym: Icebox Moment

Perfume Movies - A sub-genre of “women‘s pictures." Perfume movies are tear-jerking soap operas characterized by an angst-ridden woman who must overcome improbable odds while looking glamorous. Coined by Java Bean Rush in July 2010.

Ralph Bellamy Character, A - A supporting character who ultimately does not win the affections of a leading character. S/he often ends up without a love interest at all. Named for actor Ralph Bellamy who is famous for this type of role.
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