Remembering Jeanne Eagels

jeanneposterThroughout the month of February, TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar has offered a variety of fan favorites and familiar classics. On Thursday morning, February 20, a lesser-known Oscar-related gem airs at 6:15am. The Letter stars Jeanne Eagels in the first film adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s story. The 1929 drama lacks the star power of the well-crafted remake from 1940, which featured Bette Davis in her prime, but this version has film history on its side. The Letter represents Eagels’ only surviving sound film, and therefore the only record of the acting style that made her a Broadway legend during the 1920s. And, for those intrigued by Oscar trivia, Eagels is the first performer to be posthumously nominated for an Academy Award. While six actors have been posthumously nominated, including James Dean (twice), Spencer Tracy, Peter Finch, Ralph Richardson, Massimo Troisi, and Heath Ledger, Eagels is the only actress to be nominated after death.

JEANNE EAGELS, c. 1921

JEANNE EAGELS, c. 1921

Largely forgotten today, Jeanne Eagels was renowned in her day because of her natural approach to acting, though contemporary viewers might find her twitching, nervous gestures, and wide-eyed expressions in The Letter broad and obvious. It is important to understand Eagels in context: Dramatic stage acting in the 1920s differed from today’s styles, because it focused more on elocution than emotion.  In other words, it was more important to enunciate lines as a way to give primacy to a play’s literary ambitions or intentions than it was to realistically depict a character.  Eagels, however, played the emotion of a scene, reacting and responding to the other characters or interpreting her character’s state of mind.

In 1922, Eagels became the toast of Broadway when she took on the role of Sadie Thompson in Rain, another play based on a Maugham story. After the Broadway production, she toured in the road company for five years. Her naturalistic approach to her role influenced other actresses, many of whom ended up in Hollywood, including Bette Davis.  Davis idolized the troubled actress, and it is no coincidence that Eagels’ name is mentioned in All About Eve in the scene in which Bette’s character, Margo Channing, is compared with her.

jeanneliti1

LADY TSEN MEI AS LI-TI

The character of Leslie Crosbie in The Letter was tailor-made for Eagels’ emotive skills.  Set in the British colony of Malaya (near Singapore), the story centers on bored, selfish Leslie, who is the wife of plantation owner Robert Crosbie. Master Crosbie is more interested in his rubber crop than his neglected wife, so Leslie carries on a torrid affair with cad Geoff Hammond. Hammond , however, is intoxicated by a half-Chinese woman named Li-Ti. In a heated argument, Leslie shoots and kills Hammond after he admits he prefers the exotic charms of Li-Ti to her. On trial for murder, Leslie pleads self-defense, alleging that Hammond tried to rape her. She has the jury eating out of her hand until Li-Ti contacts Leslie’s lawyer about an incriminating letter that proves Leslie is lying.

I love the high melodrama of the murder scene, which reveals Eagels’ talent for finding the key emotion of a scene and building on it. Hammond’s cruel admissions fuel Leslie’s escalating agitation until it erupts into violence. A near-hysterical Leslie empties her pistol into Hammond, firing with a series of exaggerated stabbing gestures, which accentuates the violence of the act. In contrast, the next scene finds Leslie coolly spinning her version of events to the jury as she acts the role of innocence violated. Heavy on dialogue, the scene is shot in one long take with no breaks, which is sometimes difficult for movie actors, but stage actress Eagels effectively acts the role of a character who is herself “acting.” Overall, Leslie Crosbie is an unsympathetic character, but Eagels makes her a compelling woman driven by her desires and uncontrolled rage. She deserved her Oscar recognition, though she did not receive an official nomination.  Only winners were announced for the 1928-1929 season, making Mary Pickford the sole actress to receive official recognition that year (for Coquette). However, because Eagels’ name is maintained in the Academy records as among those considered for the best actress award, she is generally regarded as a nominee.

LI-TI'S ESTABLISHMENT, COMPLETE WITH COBRAS, MONGOOSES, AND WOMEN IN CAGES

LI-TI’S ESTABLISHMENT, COMPLETE WITH COBRAS, MONGOOSES, AND WOMEN IN CAGES

Eagels was at low point in her career when she signed a three-picture deal with Paramount to appear in talking pictures for their New York studio. Monta Bell worked as the East Coast production head, producing talkies with prominent stage stars in adaptations of well-known plays. Bell snatched up Eagels after she was suspended by Actors Equity in 1928 for 18 months. Eagels had been playing opposite Leslie Howard in Her Cardboard Lover when her problems with alcohol and drugs began to take their toll. In addition to her erratic behavior, which infuriated an unsympathetic Howard, she missed several performances. The latter resulted in her suspension from all stage productions, but it did not prevent her from appearing in films. Eagels’ close associates always disputed the assertion that she took drugs and drank to excess. Clifton Webb, a fellow stage actor and close friend, denied the allegations in his autobiography Sitting Pretty. According to Webb, he and Eagels met in Paris in 1914, almost married in the early 1920s, and regularly attended each other’s performances. He blamed her death on injections for pain administered by her doctor, who turned out to be a quack.  After The Letter, Eagels starred in Jealousy, but she was dismissed from her third feature, The Laughing Lady, because Paramount would not wait for an eye infection to clear. Six months after the release of The Letter, Jeanne Eagels died from a combination of alcohol, chloral hydrate, and heroin. Controversy over the cause of death resulted in three different coroner’s reports, but the mix of drugs and alcohol in her system was not disputed.

LESLIE CROSBIE MAKES HER POINT WITH GEOFF HAMMOND.

LESLIE CROSBIE MAKES HER POINT WITH GEOFF HAMMOND.

In addition to Eagels, a couple other cast members deserve to be mentioned, including a young Herbert Marshall, who makes the most of his brief scenes as smarmy Geoff Hammond. In another interesting tidbit of Oscar trivia, Marshall would play the part of the cuckolded husband in the 1940 version of The Letter. Most fun is the mysterious actress billed as Lady Tsen Mei, who plays the conniving Li-Ti. A singer and actress, Lady Tsen Mei performed in vaudeville, sang opera programs in New York theaters, and acted in silent films, including the 1921 drama Lotus Blossom by Asian director James B. Leong. Though billed as “the First Chinese Screen Star,” Lady Tsen Mei was not really born in China as her publicity claimed. Instead, she was born in Philadelphia, the daughter of a Chinese father and a mulatto mother. She was adopted by a character right out of a movie—a doctor-turned-drug trafficker named Jin Fuey Moy, who had originally christened her Josephine Augusta.

Some have charged that Li-Ti is an example of a negative stereotype, because she epitomizes the Asian woman who lures men to their doom with her exotic sexuality.  Li-Ti runs a den of inequity in Singapore where patrons of all races drink, gamble, and ogle scantily clad dancers. Upstairs, she keeps young girls in cages for the pleasure of older Chinese men; downstairs, men and women bet on a fatal encounter between a mongoose and a cobra—a metaphor for the upcoming showdown between Li-Ti and Leslie. The footage of the fight between the reptile and mammal was borrowed from a German short whose original title has been lost to time. Of course, Li-Ti is not a sympathetic character or positive role model, but neither are any of the white characters.

In truth, The Letter suffers from some of the weaknesses of other early sound films, but Jeanne Eagels—her performance and her life story—makes this drama from back in the day  much more than just an “old movie.”

23 Responses Remembering Jeanne Eagels
Posted By LD : February 17, 2014 2:42 pm

Thank you so much for this post. As I was scrolling down the list of movies on TCM and marking those I wanted to record, I saw THE LETTER listed and assumed it was the one starring Bette Davis. Owning that version, I skipped over it. What a missed opportunity that would have been.

Posted By Heidi : February 17, 2014 5:33 pm

Awesome post. will be looking for it to record. It would have been a missed opportunity indeed.

Posted By Susan Doll : February 17, 2014 5:38 pm

Heidi and LD: I am so glad for your response, especially if you are planning on catching the movie, despite the ungodly hour it is airing. Often, when I write about something or someone from this early era, it does not get much response. But, I still feel compelled to write about it so these films are not lost to the history pages.

Posted By Tammy : February 17, 2014 6:14 pm

Thanks for an interesting article. I will set the DVR! I enjoy learning about what happened behind the scenes of films; the backstories are so often quite compelling. Your posts help bring back old Hollywood and its stars and are appreciated.

Posted By Doug : February 17, 2014 7:15 pm

I hadn’t heard of Jeanne Eagels, but her troubles are unfortunately too familiar.
It is sad that her life ended so quickly, just as she was getting work in film-I don’t doubt that she could have been a greater star. But as I mentioned on the Montgomery Clift post, it’s better to appreciate what we have.
It isn’t just Hollywood and Broadway where self destructive genius is found. Many with more talent than sense never make it out of their ‘invulnerable 20′s’. Phosphorous burns brightest but quickly burns out.
If I knew a prospective Jeanne Eagels or Marilyn Monroe with great talent who seemed bent on self destruction…I would encourage them to get clean, to free themselves of alcohol/drugs which impair and destroy life.
Sure, I know-free will, and adults can imbibe and who am I?
I’m not just a movie fan, I’m a Life fan who hates to see lives destroyed by alcohol/drugs.
Which is getting too far away from Jeanne Eagels, so please forgive.

Posted By Susan Doll : February 17, 2014 8:38 pm

Doug: Often artistic temperament and risky behavior go hand in hand, though I don’t always think it is about self-destructiveness. The very difference that makes someone push the envelope to be artistic sometimes makes them push the boundaries of excess.

Posted By AL : February 17, 2014 10:34 pm

another Winner from Susan. thank you

Posted By Susan Doll : February 17, 2014 10:40 pm

Thank you AL

Posted By Jenni : February 18, 2014 5:09 am

Didn’t Kim Novak star in a movie based on Jeanne Engel’s life?

Posted By Richard Brandt : February 18, 2014 10:49 am

Jenni: She certainly did.

THE LETTER is a little disconcerting at first since the music and sound effects tracks are missing, but it soon draws you in.

Posted By Jenni : February 18, 2014 3:39 pm

Thanks, Richard, for your answer to my question. I have seen the Bette Davis version and thanks to your informative post, Susan, I’ll be setting the Tivo to grab the Jeanne Engels version.

Posted By swac44 : February 18, 2014 6:42 pm

So looking forward to finally seeing this! Also posted a link to this article on a Pre-Code Movies group on Facebook. Hope TCM gets good ratings for it! Or as good as can be expected at 6:15 a.m.

Posted By Susan Doll : February 18, 2014 7:20 pm

I am hoping that people can at lease Tivo or DV-R THE LETTER, since it is shown at an ungodly hour. Wish it had been scheduled for prime time instead of other films that have been in rotation a lot lately.

Posted By Jeff Heise : February 18, 2014 8:15 pm

Fortunately, if you miss this showing or forget to set your DVRs, Warner Archive has brought this out on DVD-R and it is worth it, especially if-after you watch it-you want a copy to keep.

Posted By LD : February 20, 2014 2:16 pm

The first time I heard of Jeanne Eagels was the Kim Novak movie (1957) which is full of discrepancies. Even so, it was enough to pique my curiosity about the actress. While watching the 1929 version of THE LETTER I focused in on Eagels. She seemed to me to have a look similar to Carroll Baker’s and a voice reminiscent of Gladys Cooper. I intend for the comparisons to be compliments. No doubt she had a great deal of talent and it shows in how she depicts the passion and iciness that is Leslie Crosbie. She has another fan.

The 1929 version shows scenes left out of the 1940 version. One example, what happened before Hammond’s death. It’s good to have this version on film but if Wyler had opted to film it we would have lost that iconic opening with Bette Davis.

Thank you again Susan for your post. Without it I would have missed this piece of film history.

Posted By swac44 : February 21, 2014 11:50 am

Finally watched The Letter this morning, and after hearing so much about Eagels performance, I was not disappointed. It is a remarkable performance for its time, and miles ahead of Pickford’s work in Coquette. Without being explicit, she really conveys the sense that her affair was an intense physical relationship, much more torrid than her life with her staid, rubber-obsessed husband. I wonder how she would have fared in other pre-code titles, had she lived (and stayed in Paramount’s good graces)?

I’m assuming Jealousy is a lost picture? Perhaps the only reason The Letter survives is because WB bought the rights to it for the Bette Davis version, so for that we should be grateful.

Reading a cursory bio of Eagels, I wonder if she was friends with Louise Brooks? Both from Kansas, both were Ziegfeld girls, and both worked for Paramount. It’s a possibility, at any rate.

Posted By jbryant : February 22, 2014 4:40 am

As you say, even allowing for changing styles of cinematic acting, Eagels naturalism was impressive and seemed ahead of its time. In THE LETTER I even got a sense that she was occasionally doing a little semi-improvisation. For anyone interested in an even earlier look at her talent, check out THE WORLD AND THE WOMAN from 1916, streaming here for free: http://thanhouser.org/films/world.htm

It’s supposedly her debut film, but she’s already infusing her role with that naturalistic style and unpredictable intensity. The film itself is melodramatic but provocative, with Eagels as a down-on-her-luck prostitute who takes a housekeeping job in the country and discovers faith-healing powers.

Posted By Susan Doll : February 22, 2014 6:46 am

I am so glad several of you got to see this film. And, thank you Jbryant for the link to her earlier film.

Posted By MariaS : August 18, 2014 12:07 am

Thought that I had seen most of the great screen performances, but I just saw “The Letter” with Jeanne Eagels and found her performance stunning. Truly one of the best. What a surprise from a 1929 film.

Posted By Misty : November 4, 2014 8:47 pm

OMG! this movie is the best. Chilling, emotive – the best and totally unpretentious in the simplicity of the picture as a whole. I always thought that the Betty Davis version lacked something and that it could have been and should have been spectacular. Jeanne Eagels is the best actress and it’s a shame that we didn’t get to have her with us a little bit longer, no- a lot longer! I watch this movie often.

Posted By maria : November 5, 2014 12:34 pm

I totally agree. So much internal energy, with so little movement. True shame that we don’t have more from her. She was way beyond her time.

Posted By Michi : May 14, 2016 1:02 am

What a power Jeanne Eagels was!!!!!!!!!!! Did not know much about her until I saw “The Letter”. I was the movie over and over just to look at her; however, I did come to admire Lady Tsen Mei’s performance–positively thrilling to watch–nevermind that the movie was made in 1929. Sorry Bette Davis fans, I love her too, but her performance was more glamorous thus making it less real.

Posted By Maria : May 14, 2016 9:35 pm

I also watched it over and over. Incredible performance. Tragic that she died so young.

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