Friday, September 12, 2014

Jeanne Eagels in The Letter (1929)



“Margo, as you know, I have lived in the theater as a Trappist monk lives in his faith. I have no other world; no other life — and once in a great while, I experience that moment of revelation for which all true believers wait and pray. You were one, Jeanne Eagels another. Paula Wessely, Hayes…”
— George Sanders as Addison De Witt in All About Eve (screenplay by Joseph Mankiewicz)

Addison’s uncharacteristically dating himself a bit there. Jeanne Eagels made her Broadway mark in 1922 with Rain, and if he was old enough to be a critic in the 1920s, he’s got a lot more mileage on him than Margo. But Margo misses her chance to acidly inquire if the De Witt nanny took little Addison to a matinee. And the Siren will speculate no further, because she comes in praise of Jeanne Eagels in the 1929 version of Somerset Maugham's The Letter.

As Leslie Crosbie in William Wyler’s 1940 remake, Bette Davis gave one of her greatest performances. Her predecessor was also great, but had a very different interpretation of the part. Jeanne Eagels, fated to die in a matter of months after filming wrapped, was working at a level of reckless abandon that remains rare to this day. It’s like watching a live broadcast of someone’s nervous breakdown. There seems to be some dispute over the proximate cause of Eagels’ death, after years of drinking, drugs and grueling tours, at the age of 39. It's hard not to wonder how Eagels survived as long as she did, if she gave performances at this pitch night after night.

Eagels’ contemporaries regarded her with awe. She performed for years in the stage version of another high-strung Maugham role, of Sadie Thompson in Rain. Davis worshipped Eagels, and if her Leslie is nothing like her idol’s, that’s because Davis had already based Mildred in Of Human Bondage on what she remembered. Barbara Stanwyck, then a chorus girl counting every penny, went to see Eagels four times.

In the short story that became The Letter, Somerset Maugham describes Leslie Crosbie, the disaffected plantation housewife who shoots her lover, like this:

She was in the early 30s, a fragile creature, neither short nor tall, and graceful rather than pretty. Her wrists and ankles were very delicate, but she was extremely thin and you could see the bones of her hands through the white skin, and the veins were large and blue. Her face was colourless, slightly sallow, and her lips were pale. You did not notice the colour of her eyes. She had a great deal of light brown hair and it had a slight natural wave; it was the sort of hair that with a little touching-up would have been very pretty, but you could not imagine that Mrs. Crosbie would think of resorting to any such device. She was a quiet, pleasant, unassuming woman.

That’s Davis in Wyler’s film, all right. It is not Jeanne Eagels. Eagels is the Siren’s favorite type of screen beauty, ravishing in some moods, near-homely in others. She had wide-set eyes, a cleft chin, and luminous pale skin. (“Lovely skin,” Diana Vreeland said of Edie Sedgwick, “but then I’ve never seen anyone on drugs that didn’t have wonderful skin.”) At her home, Eagels is costumed in blowsy dresses that emphasize a sloppy, braless decolletage; you are always aware of her breathing. Her unruly bob is also one of the few times in any era that Hollywood shows a real approximation of what humidity does to overprocessed hair.

Eagels, as recorded for the ages by director Jean de Limur, shows a Leslie who is rapidly coming unglued from plantation life. In her first scene, Leslie’s impossibly boring husband Robert (Reginald Owen) is announcing a trip. She tries to keep an expression of feigned interest but her mouth twitches from the effort not to yell at him to shut up. Davis plies her lacework with icy serenity; Eagels stabs at hers in a way that by rights should terrify her husband, if he weren’t such a complacent lummox.

One delightful aspect of the earlier film: Herbert Marshall, playing Geoffrey Hammond, the lover who winds up dead. Hammond dies without a line of dialogue in the story, the play, and the 1940 movie; and in the Wyler movie, of course, Marshall plays husband Robert as an unusually sympathetic cuckold. In 1929 Marshall was 39, but he looks 10 years younger, he’s preeningly handsome, and his Geoff Hammond is a perfect exhibit of upper-class narcissism. He’s involved with a Malaysian woman played with great sincerity by Lady Tsen Mei. She’s shown spoiling him in a doting, almost maternal way that Leslie could no more manage than she could crochet a telegraph machine.

Hammond turns out to be as dopey in his way as Crosbie. “The common sense thing is to say, we’ve had a jolly good time, but all good things must come to an end,” he tells Leslie, a line that the Siren finds paralyzingly funny. There’s Eagels, stalking around the room like a panther whose zookeeper forgot to serve breakfast, and instead of making sure all sharp objects are put away safely, here’s Marshall telling her right-ho, chin up old girl. With his ex-lover shrieking for a real answer, he comes out with “I’m fed up, sick of the sight of you,” lines Marshall delivers in the manner of someone being firm with a door-to-door salesman.

Naturally, Eagels shoots him, with a movement that involves her entire arm from the shoulder down, jabbing with each pull of the trigger like the bullets require brute muscle power to hit the target. Davis fires with precise aim and an impassive face. The difference between these two women is the difference between a guillotine and an axe-murderer.

And when it’s over, and Herbert Marshall is most sincerely dead on her drawing-room carpet, Eagels’ expression, my god! She just shot the man she was begging to stay with her not two minutes before, and there’s not a trace of horror, much less remorse. It’s the face of a woman who just had incredible sex with a man she dislikes, but he’s still in her bed: “What the hell do I do now?”

Cover up the crime, of course. Soon we’re in court, and there’s a marvelous look up at Leslie’s face and wedding-ringed hand on a Bible, as she prepares to lie her little cloche hat off. She testifies about Hammond had burst out with “I say, you’re beautiful.” He progressed to kissing her, she says, pausing to let the attorney Joyce (O.P. Heggie) draw forth the sordid details of how Hammond pursued her until she stumbled and then carried her helpless form to the bedroom. Eagels plays this beautifully, as the purest kind of barking-mad self-delusion. Leslie’s expression keeps slipping into an erotic reverie about an Elinor Glynn scene that we know never happened — and then, with difficulty, she pulls herself back to the courtroom.

De Limur and the other players seem to have seen the main job as just letting Eagels fly.* But there is other good stuff in this movie, all the same. The camera slinks into the multiracial nightspot where Leslie is going to fetch The Letter, in a way that echoes how the English matron is trying to remain unnoticed. Lady Tsen Mei gets some malicious dialogue with Leslie, and shows clear logic, unlike Gale Sondergaard a decade later. And at the opening of de Limur’s film, the camera glides from a shot of a sign, through the jungle to the Crosbie plantation and up the porch stairs in a way that surely made William Wyler sit up and say, “Hey, I can work with that.”


The 1940 film reaches heights that the 1929 version does not; the Siren admires Wyler’s camera, Tony Gaudio’s cinematography, Davis’ tightly controlled murderess, James Stephenson in an expanded and very touching take on the conflicted lawyer Joyce. The later film also has sharper, more subtle insights about the casual racism of the English, and how the Malaysians really feel about them. But some distinguished folks prefer de Limur, including Dave Kehr, who feels that the Code-mandated ending marred the later version. He hailed the release of this film on Warner Archive; as always at Kehr’s place, the comments thread was a lulu, with marvelous lines like “I hope I’m not guilty of otherizing the non-idiots” and Dave remarking, about whether or not Jeanne Eagels was nominated for this performance, “one must always be pedantic about the Oscars.” Dan Callahan popped in to mention that biographer David Stenn is working on a book about Eagels, which is excellent news. Dan also questioned whether what we have left of the 1929 film is a work print, and the possible solution to that is fascinating. (It was made at Paramount’s Astoria Studios, our old friend Mordaunt Hall noted some sound weirdnesses in his review, and Kehr hypothesizes that it was supposed to be sent back to the West Coast for sound mixing and was thrown into theaters instead.)

But the 1929 version is excellent and intensely rewarding, nothing like the stereotype of a dull, stagey early talkie. And it goes out on a high note, with the famous confrontation scene between Leslie and her husband. It’s marred only by Owen’s acting, which is very low-wattage compared with Eagels. (Imagine Basil Rathbone or John Barrymore in that part; you’d have heard the cell door clanging on every line as he tells Leslie she’s going to stay right here.)

“Don’t forget this. You brought me out to this filthy place, this godforsaken place, and you kept me here...your whole life was just wrapped up in rubber!” The way Eagels spits out that word, “rubber,” gives the Siren a thrill every time. The whole scene comes closer to Maugham than anything else in the film: “At last she stopped, panting. Her face was no longer human, it was distorted with cruelty, and rage and pain. You would never have thought that this quiet, refined woman was capable of such a fiendish passion…”




*Sincere apologies. Like the burning ardor of Herbert Marshall, that one was impossible to resist. You don’t know how hard it was to keep from titling this post “Where Eagels Dare.”

Update: The Siren has learned that Tara Hanks and Eric Woodard are also working on a biography, called Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed.
Update no. 2: It seems that the Siren made a mistake about Eagels on stage - she didn't play The Letter on Broadway - and she has fixed that too.

37 comments:

Tinky said...

Now I HAVE to see this film! Thanks for the (as always) insightful and entertaining analysis.

Tony Dayoub said...

I thought I just hadn't been keeping up with your posting, but you HAVE been MIA! Nice to see you're back (and with such a provocative banner photo)!

The Siren said...

Tinky, it's on Youtube in its entirety. But I recommend going for the Warner Archive version, as most copies on the Web are maddeningly crappy.

The Siren said...

Tony, to me Lana is just too pooped to party up there, but it seems others are interpreting it differently. To each his own. :)

misospecial said...

I've been guilty of what so bothers me when others do it—succumbing to impatience with the early sound awkwardness, feeling alienated by Eagels's acting style, which as you say stands in high relief to the low-intensity performances that surround her, and missing what's there in plain sight. We can only speculate on whether she was duplicating the performance she had given onstage and it's that theatrical intensity that almost burns the celluloid or whether she constricted or expanded her interpretation for the camera, or how her own physical and emotional distress contributes to the powerful sense of disintegration in her Leslie. I didn't know she had died so soon after making this or that the movie had been rushed out to capitalize on that fact. And thank you for noting the similarity between the opening shot and Wyler's justly famous one. Planning to show the last scene of this in class with the last scene of the 1940 as an example of how the material was dealt with pre- and post-Code.

The Siren said...

Misospecial, I actually just deleted that bit about capitalizing on her death, as Dave didn't say it I don't know where I got that from. She did make her two movies in rapid succession but I think I may be wrong about that. It's possible that the rush was all about the talkie craze.

Tony Dayoub said...

I certainly didn't mean to ascribe such impropriety to our dignified hostess. Just slap me on the wrist next time you see me.

Birgit said...

I have seen ther Bette Davis version but not jeanne Eagels version and would love to. She is a forgotten actress that I am glad you brought here today. She died too young as many did from the 20's. I have to see if I can watch this even through the internet which I hate to do but it is rare to even find in a DVD style

grimmfo said...

Siren,
The Eagel's performance in the 1929 "The Letter" is fascinating, as is the film. When I first viewed the film I went back to Maugham's original story, his stage adaptation, and the Wyler/Davis version. Each is different, with a shift in emphasis.In the original story, if I remember correctly,it struck me that the real protagonist is the lawyer as it is his character that evolves.
Welcome back to the blogger's world

Foster Grimm

Dan Leo said...

Wow, that clip is intense. She really does seem rather on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Or maybe over the verge...

lmshah said...

A very nice piece on THE LETTER, but please forgive one minor correction, Jeanne Eagels was not fated to die within week of finishing THE LETTER, in fact, she and Director de Limur made another whole movie together before she passed away. THE LETTER was shot in early 1929, the second sound film shot at Paramounts Astoria Studios after GENTLEMEN OF THE PRESS, it was released in March, 1929, then in the Summer, Eagels and de Limur made JEALOUSY, which was released in Septembet, 1929, after which Eagels was fated to die within weeks of that (she died October 3,1929). Sadly, JEALOUSY does not seem to be currently extant, though one never knows, it may turn up.

RICHARD M ROBERTS

barrylane said...

In no way does Addison DeWitt or George Sanders claim to have been a critic at the time of Jeanne Eagels, but he could easily have been a young man, in his twenties, impressionable and ready to go on his quest for theatrical beauty and insight.

The Siren said...

Barry: The Addison opener was this thing called a joke ...

Imshah: I was aware of that timeline, I just chose to say weeks -- admittedly, at least a couple of dozen weeks. I suppose for the sake of strict clarity I can change to months. I too hope Jealousy pops up somewhere as archives everywhere are being encouraged to scour their shelves in the wake of that Library of Congress report. It seems hopelessly romantic to think things will turn up, and yet they DO, sometimes.

The Siren said...

Our old friend YOJIMBOEN emailed to say he was having trouble posting, but had something to say anyway, so here is the Siren pinch-hitting for the gentleman:

Back in the dark ages of this watering hole I once professed my distaste for Ms B. Davis whose looks and style and mannered, brittle delivery did nothing for me. Not surprisingly, my sentiments gathered little to no sympathy.

Then I happened upon a back issue of Life magazine.
This one:

The genius Edward Steichen looked at her face, saw the (for many) unattractive hooded eyelids, and simply made them go away by having her look upwards. Voila! The extraordinarily beautiful face of Bette Davis. When I saw that picture I changed my mind about BD and started re-watching the vehicles I’d looked down my nose at.
[Now is the time to call me shallow.]

Chief among my faves of course is The Letter. What an opening! The rumor was that Wyler – with whom BD was sleeping – (a love triangle squared) deliberately picked a fight with her the night before they shot the bang bang opening. I wonder if he made sure she was loaded with blanks.

I got both versions down off the shelf and screened them. Discounting the theatrical pacing, Maugham’s suet-pudding dialog, and Eagel’s occasional loss of train of thought (her health, probably) I’d say the odds are in BD’s favour, with the clear exception of Eagel’s staggering perjured performance on the witness stand. The woman/actress makes you believe every single word she utters – the viewer actually doubts the just-seen murder even happened. It’s like the old punch-line: “Are you gonna believe your own eyes or what I’m telling you?” You, Jeanne, you. Now and forever.”

The Siren said...

MORE YOJIMBOEN:

An odd little coda: Back in those same dark ages I opined that BD’s attempt at a cockney accent in Of Human Bondagewas the worst in the history of cinema until Kim Novak’s in the remake. (I still believe that.) Yes, the self-same Kim Novak who starred in the Jeanne Eagel’s biopic.

The Siren said...

And now, in reply to Yojimboen -- what I believe in that witness scene is that Leslie has convinced herself that this is what happened, and it's the clearest evidence in the movie that she's off her rocker in a very big way. That probably sounds odd, given that she shoots somebody earlier, but killing a faithless lover is something you can imagine many otherwise sane people doing. Totally buying your own delusion that this guy was pursuing you like Valentino in The Sheikh is nuts.

But however you see the scene, there is no doubt that Eagels is utterly inhabiting that character, in a way that's thrilling to see.

lmshah said...


Well, it is kinda stretching it a bit to try to fit half a year into the term "weeks".

It is entirely possible that JEALOUSY will turn up sometime somewhere, remember, THE LETTER was thought to be a lost film for a time (though it never was, there was a print circulating among collector circles as far back as the early 70's, and that one indeed shows that the current print preserved by the Library of Congress is indeed a work print with unfinished sound).

RICHARD M ROBERTS

barrylane said...

Very funny, Siren.

Howard Fritzson said...

Eagel's face was made for the camera. You can read every shade--rage, frustration, etc. Even when she flubs a line, the face reveals the truth. I don't think it is too much, either. An expressive face is a gift for the actor. Look at Garbo, Raimu.

The Siren said...

Howard, I don't find her too much at all, either. It's entirely appropriate to this character and her circumstances. I yearn to know what her Leslie was like on stage. Hoping maybe the biographies will have good descriptions from contemporaries. But so frustrating still, as though all we had left of Dietrich was a work print of Blue Angel.

Vanwall said...

If ever someone stabs another with a pistol bullet, this is the film for it. Ann Blyth for her Veda Pierce could've studied it, it was a lesson right there. I watched it as a kid once and thought everyone else was sleepwalking. Eagels is rather ghostly looking, and I wondered why she twitched a lot, (now I know, of course) but her delivery was punctuated with that stabbing sort of continuity the gun - rather nicely not an Italian Western kind of blasting sound, merely a series of pops - had become part of. She really poured all of herself into this, and no reserve, unlike Davis, who seemed to be holding something for the future that never came, in the later version - Eagel's performance was quite aware of the dead end that had been reached. Excellent piece of work as usual, oh Siren!

misospecial said...

Farran, I have a lot of time-travel stops to make at Broadway theaters (and vaudeville houses for that matter) to see how a role was performed onstage. Lee Tracy as Hildy Johnson, Gene Kelly in Pal Joey, Hepburn and Van Heflin in Philadelphia Story, Ethel Barrymore and Alice Brady in anything. That's for starters...

But I know better than to show the Eagels Letter to students; they're seniors, older folks, so I had hoped they'd be less alienated by a more theatrical style, but no... The relationship between stage and screen is vexed for a lot of people in our time. I have known theater people (and literary types as well) who had what seems a seriously antiquated scorn for movies, and I know lots of people who are unable to enter older films because of their alienation with any acting style but what they're used to. A friend recently told me that the reason young people can't watch old movies is that anything pre-Method is too artificial, too stagy. I pointed out that a nontheatrical screen acting style began to develop pretty quickly in silent films but he wasn't having it, insisted that ALL pre-Method acting is stagy and hokey. No point arguing with people who have no idea what they're talking about—their ignorance gives them an unshakeable confidence.

The Siren said...

It's strange, but I find many old folks are LESS amenable to pre-Method acting than some of the whippersnappers. Perhaps that's because seniors now were teens in the 1950s and weaned on that style of brooding naturalism. (Which I like too; my arguments are nearly always "This too" and not "This instead.")

Vanwall, if I did Youtube mashups then the world really needs a "badass classic-movie actress fires gun" mashup. Veda and Eagels' Leslie are sisters under the skin. Our old friend Jacqueline T. Lynch is working on a book about Ann Blyth, btw: http://anotheroldmovieblog.blogspot.com/ Many excellent posts.

The Siren said...

Also - there are many wild scenery-chewing performances winning plaudits and awards these days; Eagels is not noticeably more over the top than a lot of Oscar nominees and winners from the past 20 years. It's the static presentation (she's mostly shot dead-on from one angle, with little editing and camerawork to bring out the shades of her performance) that's most alienating for modern viewers, in my view.

gmoke said...

In the clip, Eagels' rhythms are something I've never heard before and it builds and builds and builds. Judging from that splinter of her performance, she was obviously an original with something unique in her style.

Aubyn Eli said...

I was so happy to find that the Siren was back and blogging again that I probably would have eagerly poured over an entry on Michael Bay, celebrity tax shelters, or even the dreaded debate on aspect ratios. Lucky for me, it turned out to be this wonderful post.

Having now seen both versions, I love both performances (Davis a little more just because it's a more enigmatic and psychologically nuanced portrayal). But damn, I think Eagels wins for best delivery of the most famous line. When Davis says, "With all my heart, I still love the man I killed!", it's a cry of pure anguish. She looks like a drowning person who's spotted land and realized she can't make it. (I find it interesting that Davis also wanted to deliver the line looking away from the husband, as she felt that no wife could say something that cruel to a man's face).

Eagels on the other hand, looks like a damned soul straight out of Dante. She says it twice and at first she just wants to bludgeon her husband with it. On the second repetition, you can see her realizing the full meaning of her words and it's like the last remnants of sanity are burning up before your eyes. It's terrifying.

Herbert Marshall is very attractive in both versions, even if he's not very bright. Rather glad that the 1940 film never shows Hammond alive. Marshall makes the husband so sympathetic ("If you love a person, you can forgive anything") that it's hard to imagine him as such a dud in bed as Reginald Owen appears to be.

As a final note, I can't be the only one who wants somebody to do a mash-up of Jeanne Eagels shouting "rubber, rubber, rubber" with this clip of Walter Pidgeon in White Cargo:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mgQraFVcOgc

mas82730 said...

I have a memory like a sieve, but doesn't Kim Novak defenestrate herself in her film of the Jeanne Eagels story? I don't recall drugs or alcohol playing a part in her death -- did Novak balk at the drugs and booze ugliness?
Bienvenue de France, Siren!

Mark

mas82730 said...

Some gaffes, like the one above, are real lulus. A prodigious memory isn't one of my strengths - unlike Kael, I need to see a movie more than once. Now I'll just slink to the exit.

The Siren said...

Hi Mark, for the life of me I can't remember much about the Novak film beyond a sense of boredom and her looking really good, as she always did. But I do remember her collapsing at one point from drink and drugs, so ... now the question is, is there a Novak movie where she does jump out the window?

I am not much of a one for leaping all over people for misremembering stuff about movies; the "gotcha" thing is one of the Internet's least fun aspects and besides, I've made some howlers myself.

Beveridge D. Spenser said...

I read somewhere that the journalist who scooped Jeanne Eagels' death was Sam Fuller.

The Siren said...

Oh wow!! I hope that's true, I'll check it out.

Karen said...

is there a Novak movie where she does jump out the window?

I don't suppose one where she falls out the opening in a bell tower counts, does it?

The Siren said...

Ha! HA HA! No, I meant an actual suicide, but touche, Madame Green, touche.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Still trying to find the time to watch this one, after so many recommendations. You've made it impossible to ignore.

Also, thanks for the mention on the Blyth book.

Jon P. said...

Is there any means by which the production dates for this film can be ascertained?

I've noticed other Paramount vehicles of the time have about a two month gap between the time that filming wrapped up, and when a film premiered. The reviews' appearance from early March 1929 struck me as being much earlier than the mid-April 1929 release date that I previously thought was the "official" release, and push filming back to the late fall/early winter of 1928, which makes the film's achievement all the more remarkable. That's only four or five months removed from The Lights of New York.

Ciro said...

I have so much good to say about this, I'm almost tongue-tied! First of all, your description of the film, your thoughts: it's so refreshing to read something that's LOL funny, and also so intelligent, informative and on-the-mark! I loved reading it. Thank you. That said, in response to some comments: Jeanne Eagels is not over the top, the character Leslie is. Who wouldn't be in that oppressive environment! Eagels is fearless, breathtakingly fearless in her portrayal. You feel her pulse racing, her breath shortening--you can see her chest flushed in the emotional scenes. It has the look of a fair-skinned person whose skin "blushes" when someone touches it. It's almost as if her life on the plantation has given her a rash! You feel the maddening heat around her. I think the drawing-room, old-school acting style is perfect for the men with whom she interacts: She is in a different world. They don't "get" her. Leslie's style is different, 20th-Century, not stodgy. She is unlike the other plantation wives and the English sires from the Victorian era. She is passionate and vital, a modern woman, a woman who has actually enjoyed an extra-marital relationship and is not afraid to talk about it. Someone mentioned about how she keeps repeating "rubber". A wonderful dialogue opportunity maximized by her. She also got great pleasure of a gazillion different reads of "that Chinese woman!" Her hurt and hatred is palpable. She doesn't have to play the "heat" of the climate, you feel it by her actions--she seemed to factor everything in: the heat, the loss, the rejection, the fury, the (sexual) frustration. When Leslie gives her testimony, it seemed to me she says the words that she wished he would've said. She's definitely getting turned on by the scenario that she is "re-creating." The final line, "With all my heart, and all my soul, I still love the man I killed," was handled very differently by post-code BD: she read it as a statement of fact with a very apologetic tone. JE, on the other hand, was defiant, taunting. If her husband was going to have power over her by keeping her prisoner as punishment, her power over him was telling him that his punishment was knowing that she will forever NOT love him, that she will forever love a dead man! After she repeats the line a second time, she nods her head as an additional "button," as if to say, "Put that in your pipe and smoke it," or more appropriately, "Load that in your gun and shoot it! I was blown away by the Wyler version when I first saw it, and of course no one can touch it stylistically, but then I saw this. WOW! I sincerely hope other elements are found of this and JE's other talkies. This is how it's done! Brava!

The Siren said...

Hi Ciro,
Thanks so much for this heartfelt comment. It's that kind of film, isn't it? Eagels is marvelous, and you capture it very well. I also wrote a long piece on the Wyler version, which I adore - one of Davis' finest performances - but it is very, very different.