by Nathaniel Cowper
In a movie dominated by Bette Davis’ eyes, which fill up approximately 60% of the screen, it’s unnecessary to look elsewhere in order to have a pleasant viewing experience. But All About Eve offers up more than just ocular enjoyment. A terrific cyclical story, digs at my home state of Connecticut: this movie has it all.
More than anything, it sticks in my mind as one of those comedies so great that it needs a comic relief character indestructible enough to relieve us of the comedy in the rest of the film. Comic relief from the rest of the comic relief. It’s a deep comedic tunnel, and at the end of the tunnel is Thelma Ritter.
The character of Birdie Coonan was written especially for Ritter by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the film’s writer/director and therefore one of the great Ritter writers. If you don’t recognize the character by name, Birdie is the sassy maid from whose zingers nobody is safe. Birdie does nothing in particular to move the story along, and doesn’t act as the key player in any key scene. But she adds that quippy spice to every single scene she’s in, providing a cynical but witty counterpoint to Davis’ Margo and a bunch of other characters who probably take themselves too seriously.
So what I’m going to do is rate and review Birdie’s top five wisecracks. Much is lost in translation here, as I can’t successfully capture her reedy voice. Looks like you’ll have to rent the movie from Scarecrow to get the full effect! Oh man, it’s almost as if that were my plan all along!
Let’s start with #5: MARGO: I’m sure you must have things to do in the bathroom, Birdie dear. BIRDIE: If I haven’t, I’ll find something till you’re normal.
Margo and Birdie have that special type of screen relationship in which they’re clearly close friends who love each other dearly. Thankfully, that doesn’t stop the zingers from flying back and forth like snidely affectionate firecrackers. Birdie’s comments often cut into a deeper issue, too. This is her calling Margo out on what is to become a running theme — Margo’s penchant for acting, well, unusual.
#4: MARGO: You’re supposed to zip the zipper, not me. BIRDIE: Like tryin’ to zip a pretzel – stand still!
First off, this is funny because pretzel is an inherently funny word. Say it out loud, right now. Secondly — how exactly is Margo like a pretzel? She’s German? She’s salty? She’s definitely twisty and knotted-up inside. I suppose it would be difficult to zip a pretzel up in a girdle. At this point I’m just saying pretzel as many times as I can. Pretzel, pretzel, pretzel.
#3: MARGO: You bought the new girdles a size smaller. I can feel it. BIRDIE: Something maybe grew a size bigger.
MARGO: When we get home you’re going to get into one of those girdles and act for two and half hours. BIRDIE: I couldn’t get into the girdle in two an’ a half hours.
Here, Birdie branches out into self-deprecating humor. She starts off with a standard jibe about the size of Margo’s torso. Then she twists the remark, pretzel-like, back around at herself. Birdie knows that we all have physical insecurities and that too many comments like that can come to weigh on a person. So being a good friend, she lets herself have it every once in a while to keep the mood light.
#2: EVE: The curtains. I made them myself. MARGO: They are lovely. Aren’t they lovely, Birdie? BIRDIE: Adorable. We now got everything a dressing room needs except a basketball hoop.
A rare moment in which Margo isn’t the butt of the joke. Birdie is the first to notice that Eve’s skills as an assistant are a bit too thorough, a bit too obsessive. She voices these concerns in the manner she knows best — a witty offhand remark.
#1: BIRDIE: Next to a tenor, a wardrobe woman is the touchiest thing in show business. MARGO: Oh… BIRDIE: She’s got two things to do – carry clothes an’ press ‘em wrong.
One of the major topics of the movie is “show business taunting show business”, and this remark sums it up well. Birdie, being a show business person herself, is very aware of how silly and uptight they can be. This is Mankiewicz pointing the gun at himself, at his industry, and at his peers — perhaps out of love and perhaps out of fear that someone else might do it first.
The biggest crime of All About Eve is that Birdie doesn’t appear past the halfway mark. From a story standpoint, it’s necessary to let her go as the narrative shifts direction. But she’s deeply missed. I’m waiting patiently for a Birdie spinoff.
Nathaniel Cowper likes movies and music. He also makes movies and music. You can watch his movies at vimeo.com/nathanielcowper and hear his music at arugulaoglethorpe.bandcamp.com.