23.2.11

Faces - Jeanne Eagels

"I'm the greatest actress in the world and the greatest failure. And nobody gives a damn."  


Jeanne Eagels has been my obsession of late,  I haven't done a "Faces" post in a long long while, so its a look into actors who may not be familiar to people today and to basically shed some light. Focusing on performers who had their hay day in times before sound, but I think I will mix it up, starting now. I thought of Jeanne Eagels just because her performance in The Letter has been weighing on my mind. She made a big name for herself on the stage when she turned W. Somerset Maughms fictional character of Sadie Thompson into a household name. Today although only around three of the nine films she made in the 10's and 20's survive, she is still regarded as an actress of legendary proportions. 
The two roles she is best remembered for were originally written by W. Somerset Maughm, one being Sadie Thompson and the other is Leslie Crosbie for the 1929 talkie The Letter. I recently viewed The Letter for the first time and it was immensely enjoyable. The part of Leslie Crosbie in the 1940 remake was performed by none other than Bette Davis. I was pleased to hear Jeanne Eagels deliver that astounding climax  "with all my heart and all my soul, I still love the man I killed". Bette Davis delivers basically the same vigorous line (without the Soul part) and I can honestly say that Bette's performance is amazingly tame in comparison with  Jeanne Eagels. She was a great actress just judging by this one performance in The Letter, the film in which Eagels holds together. The picture itself is not as sharp, as well made or in great condition for that matter as William Wyler's stylized later version but Eagels keeps the nitty gritty 1929 adaptation of the short story fascinating. 
I am sure if her life wasn't cut so sadly short she would be more well known for her career rather than her racy lifestyle. In film she could of definitely gone on to play reckless women in pre-codes, like Ruth Chatterton or Helen Hayes perhaps. The Letter was her first talkie and her second was a film also released in 1929 called Jealously with Fredric March playing opposite. She died just weeks after Jealousy was released on October 3rd 1929, aged 39. Her death was caused by an overdose of several toxins. 
The actress was born Eugenia Eagles in Kansas City, Missouri, June 26th 1890. She caught the acting bug at a very early age, and at the age of 11 she left her formal education behind her to pursue her ambition to be a great dramatic actress. At the age of 12 she joined The Dubinsky Brothers traveling theatre company, who showcased productions of the periods most popular comedies, dramas and musicals. Eagels began as a dancer for the stock company and quickly had her dreams come true as she became a lead actress in the stock companies dramas such as Little Lord Fauntleroy, Camille and Romeo and Juliet. She later moved to New York where she had her sights set high revamping her look, name, adopting a British accent and making up her own heritage, writing this down she sounds more like a fugitive than a ingenue. The history of her time with the Dubinsky Brothers company is sketchy, but she is said to have married the eldest Dubinsky Brother when she was a teenager, and to have had a baby boy. One account says she gave him up for adoption and another says the baby died at infancy which caused Eagels to have a nervous breakdown. She and Dubinsky divorced which lead her to move to NYC. Something tells me that her identity revamp could have something to do with escaping from her past aswell as fitting the mold as a actress on her way up. In New York much like her beginnings with the Dubsinky Bros she started out as a dancer, only this time with the Ziegfeld Follies. Her Stint with Ziegfeld past quickly as she put all her efforts into becoming a actress and took time to study the craft in Paris. After six years of successive plays on Broadway, Eagels landed a break of a lifetime in 1922 playing free wheelin' prostitute Sadie Thompson in the stage production of Somerset Maugham's short story Rain. Eagels played her favourite role a total of 904 times on the stage, obviously very successful, her performance though impossible for us to see, is still the most legendary role of her career. 
Photo by Baron Adolph de Meyer
In her early years on Broadway she played in three productions opposite popular British stage/screen actor and monocled old timer George Arliss, he is credited to have given Bette Davis the promotion she needed in Hollywood, just before she was set to give it all up. Bette Davis was a huge admirer of Jeanne Eagels, she even reprised two major roles Eagels had previously played in The Letter and Jealously which was retitled Deception (1946). Davis also followed in her heroes footsteps when she starred in a remake of The World and the Woman (1916) which was retitled The Girl from 10th Avenue (1935). And lastly to add even more career connections between the actresses in 1936 Davis won her first Oscar for her portrayal of Joyce Heath, an actress who spirals into alcoholism in Dangerous, this was a role modeled on Eagels. In 1957 Columbia studios actually made a film called Jeanne Eagels with Kim Novak portraying the actress, though it is quite fictional. 
Eagels was posthumously nominated for the 1928/1929 best actress award for her role in The Letter but Mary Pickford won. Lots of negative things have been said about Pickford winning. But I can't say anything bad because I haven't actually seen her performance in Croquette, but I do know she basically won by rallying for the award, which doesn't seem like a very gracious way to blow your own horn, it also helped that her ex husband Douglas Fairbanks was a founding member of The Academy.
During Jeanne's film career she made a total of 9 films, her first was in 1915 named The House of Fear, which is now lost. In 1916 she stared as a unnamed prostitute wanting to change her ways in The World and The Woman. By 1919 she had worked in 6 movies, her stage career was still much more lustrous. It wasn't until 1927 eight years later she would work on another film. In much of that time she performed in Rain to packed out theaters around the U.S until March of 1926. She soon returned to broadway in 1927 and worked with director George Cukor and actor Leslie Howard for the comedy Her Cardboard Lover this production ran 152 times. During this time it was Leslie Howard's performance that was highly regarded by critics and audiences rather than Eagels. Eagel's the glorified talent was waning as her alcohol dependency literally interrupted some of her stage performances in Her Cardboard Lover. Actor Leslie Howard dismissed the talents of his co-lead, viewing her as a raw untrained talent who just happened to light up on the stage (he had a similar snobbery towards Bette Davis). Before The Cardboard lover began to tour she filmed the 1927 silent film Man, Women and Sin, she was reportedly such a nuisance while filming that director Monta Bell got MGM studios to terminate her contract. 
Thanks to the advent of sound Hollywood had a urgency for trained theatre actors and so she gave her last hurrah to the world on film. Monta Bell the man who urged MGM to get Eagels out of her contract ironically was the man who got Eagels to work for Paramount and to star in The Letter a film which Bell produced. Her final years were tough, her drug and alcohol abuse prevailed her very successful career. When she died the autopsy showed an overdose of alcohol, the tranquilizer chloral hydrate and Heroin. You can read much more thoroughly about her life here.
If you are interested in looking up some of her movies, here are some links:
John Gilbert talking about Eagels: "She seemed to hate the movies for a popularity they could not give her....[The] blind, unreasoning adulation of the movie fans was a type of popularity she spurned. Fundamentally, Jeanne was much superior to us. Movie actors are crazy to be worshiped. Jeanne Eagels wanted to be understood and appreciated."

2 comments:

KC said...

Wow--now I really want to see The Letter. It sounds like she was amazing.

Zoe said...

She was so amazing in it, its quite hard to get ahold of, but hopefully it'll be put on to dvd, it deserves to be seen!