Friday, January 18, 2019

It's Lonely at the Top, Mostly Because You're a Drunk: The Biopics of 1957

The Siren challenges you to find a photo of Jeanne Eagels wearing anything like this.

Gather round, patient readers, and listen to how and why, by the authority she’s invested in herself, the Siren has declared 1957 to be Peak Hollywood Biopic. It all begins with Kim Novak’s turn in the title role of Jeanne Eagels, the 1957 George Sidney-helmed movie about the Broadway legend.

The Siren had already seen the movie, but she wanted to see it again, so she forked over a few bucks to Amazon Prime and found herself fascinated. That’s not to say the movie’s good — it isn’t — but if there’s only interesting and boring, Jeanne Eagels is undeniably interesting.

It stars Kim Novak (still getting the big buildup from Columbia boss Harry Cohn at the time) as the Broadway actress who was worshipped by Bette Davis, the one that Barbara Stanwyck scrimped and saved to see multiple times in the stage version of Somerset Maugham’s Rain. Eagels had toured extensively, but she died in 1929, and at this point in the late 1950s, the number of people who could recall her stage performances was dwindling. She’d made less than a dozen movies, most of which were either lost or well out of circulation. (The Letter, her best-known film, didn’t hit TV until TCM screened it in the 2000s, according to Lou Lumenick.) Still, Jeanne Eagels was a name that meant something to acting connoisseurs, and still does. Casting Novak was a way of saying she too was a gifted actress.

The real Jeanne Eagels

Novak looks a little bit like Eagels, but the script undermines her at every turn. Eagels had a turbulent life that you’d think would be more than enough for a movie, but even in their waning years the studios never hesitated to gild the lily. So Eagels’ early days in a traveling theater become a job as a hoochie-coochie dancer in a carnival. (The reason behind this can be deduced from a trip through Google Images, dominated by Novak in her dancing get-up.) Jeanne falls in love with Sal Satori, played by Jeff Chandler. Sal operates the carnival, but his real job is to be the ordinary Joe who represents the Career-Obsessed Woman’s One Chance at Love. Fortunately, one of the film’s pleasures is how good Brooklyn native Chandler is in this fictional and largely thankless role.

Never happened, but it's the best scene in the movie.

Amidst a choice selection of whopping fibs about Eagels, the winner has to be how she gets the part in Rain. In real life, according to her biographers Eric Woodard and Tara Hanks, she probably unearthed the manuscript from a pile in producer Jed Harris’s office. In the movie, Jeanne is given the script by the once-great and now-alcoholic actress "Elsie Desmond" (Virginia Grey, hitting her two scenes out of the park) in hopes that Jeanne’s star power can help Elsie convince a producer to take both the play and her. Instead, Jeanne convinces the producer she’s perfect for Sadie Thompson. The despondent Desmond throws herself out of the window of her Bowery flophouse, and the resulting guilt is what sends Jeanne spiraling into addiction. (In 1950s biopics, there’s always a moment of guilt, trauma, or betrayal that starts someone drinking; nobody ever goes from cocktails to the drunk tank without a precise cause.) This near-slanderous bit of fantasy was no doubt a big part of what caused Eagels’ surviving family to sue (they lost), but it does bring us the movie’s visual highlight. As Jeanne waits in the wings on Rain’s opening night, Elsie shows up to hiss that the role of Sadie will only bring bad luck. The Siren isn’t crazy about a lot of ultracrisp shadow-averse late-50s black-and-white cinematography, but that is Robert H. Planck’s style for Jeanne Eagels — except when Sidney decides to get freaky because Jeanne is drunk, high, or having a meltdown. And in this key moment, Grey and Novak are shot in close-up, their heads almost floating, leaving open the possibility that Jeanne is imagining the whole thing.

The Siren included this because it's another look at Novak's Sadie Thompson eye makeup, which is brilliant.

It would have made for a good time to cut away from showing Rain onstage, because when Novak has to play Eagels playing Thompson, sad to say she’s not up to it. Brash sexuality like Sadie’s wasn’t Novak’s style. She was opaque, mysterious, reserved. Watching her strut her stuff for the denizens of Pago Pago only brings up awkward comparisons to Swanson and Crawford; the Siren can’t imagine how people who’d actually seen Eagels would have reacted.

Novak does clock some good work, though, notably in her first scene with Agnes Moorehead, who plays a composite version of several acting coaches and eventually settles into the time-honored Faithful Friend biopic role. And Novak nearly had the Siren in tears when, near the end of the film, Jeanne fully expresses her love for Sal. It’s much more moving than the finale, after Jeanne meets her fate via some of Sidney’s craziest framing. The last scene shows Sal going to see Eagels in her final film: a musical (!) that has Eagels on the balcony of a Southern plantation house (!!), singing a song about love while twirling around in a hoopskirt. The Siren cannot fathom why they decided to pretend Jeanne Eagels was some kind of proto-Jeanette MacDonald, especially since earlier in the movie, Jeanne is shown filming the same movie as a silent. (The director who talks her through the scene? An uncredited Frank Borzage. His manner is so supportive and intelligent that it’s easy to see why the likes of Janet Gaynor loved him.) But then, this ending— are we supposed to think a Borzage silent got The Dancing Cavalier treatment? No wonder Woodard and Hanks spend a good seven pages debunking this film and the number it’s done on perceptions of Eagels.

Leslie Crosbie, or Naughty Marietta? You decide.

And that is the story of Jeanne Eagels, a strange and highly fictionalized biopic from 1957. What the Siren discovered, once she started digging around for comparisons, is that 1957 represents, without a doubt, Peak Strange and Highly Fictionalized Biopic. How this happened is hard to say. Hollywood has long loved biopics, which offer a choice lead role and ostensibly confer a certain kind of prestige. The 1950s fused that with the new vogue for socially conscious storytelling to come up with entries like I’ll Cry Tomorrow, Love Me or Leave Me, and Lust for Life. But, for whatever viral reason, 1957 went nuts; there were at least 11 screen biographies (12 if you count Saint Joan). Having described Jeanne Eagels in detail, the Siren will describe some of the other films in brief. There are three she will skip: Monkey on My Back (dir. Andre DeToth), about boxer Barney Ross’s struggle with post-World War II heroin addiction, because she hasn’t seen it; The Spirit of St. Louis (dir. Billy Wilder), about Charles Lindbergh’s famous trans-Atlantic flight, because she wasn’t that crazy about it; and Fear Strikes Out (dir. Robert Mulligan), about baseball player Jim Piersall’s mental breakdown, because while the Siren has seen that one, she doesn’t remember it.

The others vary in quality, but a few are quite good. And by and large they do have a connecting theme, which explains the Siren's headline.

Not the lowest ebb, but close.

The Helen Morgan Story (directed by Michael Curtiz)
Lead Performance: Curtiz turned down or was turned down by 32 actresses, including everyone from Doris Day to Patti Page, before hiring Ann Blyth to play the definitive 1920s torch singer. Morgan originated the role of Julie Laverne in Showboat, singing “Bill” in her signature draped-over-the-piano style. Blyth, who’d worked with Curtiz a dozen years earlier on Mildred Pierce, is a credible Morgan, although for some strange reason Blyth’s own pretty singing voice (which wasn’t that far from Morgan’s) was dubbed by Gogi Grant. It was Blyth’s last film role, for reasons you can read about in Jacqueline T. Lynchs book; and it was Curtiz’s last film for Warner Brothers after more than three decades of towering over the lot.

Alcohol consumption: Life-threatening. The real Morgan's alcoholism was apparent virtually the first time she walked into a speakeasy. (In this movie, she starts as a carnival dancer. What was it that year with starting women out in carnivals?)

Liberties Taken With the Facts: Too many to tally, as much of the script concerns Helen’s travails with Paul Newman as the Inevitable Composite Lover, called Larry Maddux. Larry’s a louse for much of the running time, and the movie blames Morgan’s drinking on him. In truth Morgan reportedly had three husbands, none of whom show up here. In 1926 Morgan gave up a baby girl for adoption, but according to Alan K. Rode’s Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, the studio’s deal with Morgan’s mother forbade them from including that story. Despite a plot that lands the heroine in the alcoholic ward with DTs, the movie omits a great deal of the real Morgan’s sad life.

Inspirational or Tragic?: The fadeout has Morgan attending a gala dinner arranged by a contrite Maddux, with the suggestion that she’s on the comeback trail. In the last year or so of Morgan's life she did manage a small-scale return, but it was marred by more bouts of drinking, and she died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1941, aged just 41. The phony ending is one more thing that diminishes the film’s impact.

Who looks like that with Carolyn Jones’s arms around him? A psycho, that’s who. 

Baby Face Nelson
(directed by Don Siegel)
Lead Performance: Mickey Rooney, and he’s downright terrifying. The movie doesn’t hesitate to portray Baby Face as the psychopath he was — nasty, brutish, and short. You sniff that biopics are Oscar bait? Not this one, baby.

Alcohol consumption: Full tumblers poured straight from the bottle, but in this movie, nobody’s gonna live long enough to care about their liver anyway.

Liberties Taken With the Facts: A lot, probably, but the Siren won’t try to nitpick a portrayal of Nelson, who was a prolific killer and had few-to-zero redeeming qualities. Once you get that right (and despite some feints at humanizing the guy the film mostly does), the details don’t matter so much. The film is true pulp, in some ways a poor man’s White Heat. Siegel was a great action director, and the Siren would love to say more about the visuals, but Baby Face Nelson is hard to find in a good watchable form. She herself saw it on Youtube; her recollection is that the version she saw was slightly better than the ones circulating now, but not by much. Rumors abound about its preservation status, but it was screened at Film Forum as recently as 2006.

Inspirational or Tragic?: Need you ask? Screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring and Siegel come up with a fate for Nelson that is even more depressing than his real-life end.


The Buster Keaton Story
(directed, in a manner of speaking, by Sidney Sheldon)

Lead Performance: Donald O’Connor, good in other things, but here a rubber-faced mugging-machine who has almost nothing in common with Keaton, save flexibility.

Alcohol consumption: Copious. And that’s just the audience trying to watch it.

Liberties Taken With the Facts: Oh my stars, it’s basically all liberties and no facts. They even omit The General. There is little if any acknowledgement of Keaton’s towering directorial genius. The movie revolves largely around his drinking, which is attributed to his crush object (Rhonda Fleming) throwing him over to marry a duke. The one good thing you can say about the film is that the $50,000 Keaton was paid helped him buy a house.

Inspirational or Tragic?: The end, where faithful wife Ann Blyth tells him she’s pregnant, is meant to be uplifting, but it’s also completely made-up and the kind of hokum the real Buster wouldn't have put in his own movies on pain of death.

The Siren forgot to mention the gambling addiction.

The Joker Is Wild (directed by Charles Vidor)

Lead Performance: Frank Sinatra as Joe E. Lewis, the nightclub comedian whose days as a singer ended when a mob boss, angered by Lewis’s walking out on a promised gig, took horrific revenge. The Siren always cites Lewis as Sinatra’s best performance, and the movie surrounding it isn’t bad at all. Sinatra recorded the songs live, claiming it made for better performances; some of them had to be redubbed, but Sammy Cahn’s Oscar-winning “All the Way” gleams.

Alcohol consumption: Lewis is shown as a severe alcoholic, which is attributed to his getting his throat cut, and for once the pat explanation seems pretty reasonable in context.

Liberties Taken With the Facts: Not as many as most others made this year, perhaps because Lewis and Sinatra were friends. The real Lewis was nowhere near the singer that Sinatra was, but the gruesome mob attack did scar his face, cut his vocal cords, and took a part of his tongue; it did take him ages even to be able to speak; he did make a comeback as a nightclub comedian, albeit a strangely unfunny one (judge for yourself). The movie mostly omits the fact that Lewis continued to work for gangsters all his life. (Hard to be a comedian in that era if you didn’t.) Lewis’s sole marriage ended after two years; his joke was, “A man doesn’t know true happiness until he’s married, and then it's too late.” The movie doesn’t show that, but then, romance is where most biopics veer into fiction — because the real story isn’t romantic, because the studio didn’t want to get sued, or both. Jeanne Crain, as the society woman Lewis loves and loses, and Mitzi Gaynor, as the dancer he marries on the rebound, are touching, as is Eddie Albert as the Faithful Friend.

Inspirational or Tragic?: Here’s another perverse 1957 twist. This film could have had an accurate happy ending, given that Lewis was enjoying a lot of success when it was released. Instead The Joker Is Wild closes on a wistful scene of Lewis catching glimpses of his past in storefront windows, and vowing to quit the bottle. The real comedian never would have considered such a thing — liquor was key to his persona, a typical one-liner being “I distrust camels, and anyone else who can go a week without a drink.” He died in 1971, of a heart attack.

One of many bad moments in the first Chaney marriage.

Man of a Thousand Faces (directed by Joseph Pevney)

Lead Performance: James Cagney plays Lon Chaney, one all-time great portraying another. The catch was that square-faced, short Cagney looked nothing like (relatively) tall, lantern-jawed Chaney, a fact that Perc Westmore’s prosthetic makeup couldn’t quite overcome. Still, it’s a great performance. The Siren has huge affection for this film, which was a staple of cable TV back in the day.

Alcohol consumption: Believe it or not, almost none.

Liberties Taken With the Facts: As all fans know, both of Chaney’s parents were deaf, as they are in this film. His first wife, singer Cleva Creighton, played by an excellent Dorothy Malone, did attempt suicide by drinking mercuric chloride on stage, as she does here. However, the real Cleva was clearly suffering from depression or some other kind of mental illness, and probably deserves more pity than she gets as the villain in Man of a Thousand Faces. Otherwise, the film is full of details changed or eliminated, the script filling in the blanks of Chaney’s obsessively private life. (“Between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney,” he said.) The Siren’s favorite parts: Cagney’s enthralling recreation of a scene from The Miracle Man, and the moment he reaches for the makeup kit at the end (another fictional bit, but who cares?).

Inspirational or Tragic?: Despite Chaney's early death, mostly the former; and an example of Hollywood at least trying to do right by people with disabilities.

Blackout drinking: Bad lifestyle choice, or an inventive way to meet cute girls?

Beau James
(directed by Melville Shavelson)

Lead Performance: Bob Hope as James John “Jimmy” Walker, aka Beau James, the handsome, hard-partying, and quite corrupt mayor of New York from 1926 to 1932. While the movie has wit (“I wasn’t the only chump in this city. It took a lot of you to elect me”) this is largely a dramatic role, and Hope is entertaining as one of the most well-loved leaders this town ever had. The Siren hasn’t seen it in many years, but she has fond memories of Beau James.

Alcohol consumption: Vast, but largely benign, as when Walker passes out on a park bench, where he is found by Ziegfeld chorus girl Betty Compton (Vera Miles). She takes him home and sobers him up, and he falls in love with her.

Liberties Taken With the Facts: Unlike the man playing him, Walker’s politics were notably liberal. He created the Department of Sanitation, started what became the IND subway, cleaned up parks, built roads, docks, and other projects. A lover of booze, speakeasies, and chorus girls, he largely declined to enforce Prohibition, and as a state senator before he became mayor, he helped pass a law requiring that “oath-based organizations” file a list of their members with the state — a requirement that took dead aim at the resurgent Ku Klux Klan, and effectively turned it into an illegal organization. Needless to say, doing great things for a city’s infrastructure was way too boring for a 1957 biopic. Some real events are woven in, such as Walker’s going bust in the 1929 stock-market crash, and his drinking and partying are well covered. But most of Walker’s political legacy is skimmed in the movie, which is more interested in exploring Walker’s marriage in-name-only to Allie (Alexis Smith) and his affair with Betty, both of which are true, and in showing the corruption in his administration, albeit in as nice-guy a way as possible.

Inspirational or Tragic?: Walker was eventually forced to resign, and in the movie he does it at a Yankees game after he gets booed by the New Yorkers he loves. But he still has Betty, and they literally sail off together. In real life too, Walker still had his Betty when the dust settled. The sad part is the fate of this film itself. Once fairly common on AMC and the like, it isn’t on DVD and hasn’t been seen (legitimately) anywhere in years. One TCM user says plaintively that she’s 71 and hopes to see it again before she dies. There is a version on Youtube, but it’s migraine-inducingly out of focus.

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