Jeanne Eagels in The Letter (1929)
A fresh restoration will play MoMA's To Save and Project Festival on Jan. 13 and 25
One good thing the Siren can say about Babylon, and listen closely because this one good thing won’t have much in the way of future company, is that Damien Chazelle’s opus has put some attention on Jeanne Eagels. The press materials and Chazelle himself have cited Eagels, one of the most passionately admired actresses of her day, as an inspiration for Nellie LaRoy, the day-player-turned-starlet played by Margot Robbie. The Siren doesn’t doubt that was the original intent. But the only link visible in Babylon is substance abuse and, I guess, if we’re being generous, the fact that Eagels rose from chorus girl to star without traditional stage training. (I mean, she was hardly the only one; the point to Eagels was that she also became a cap-G Great Actress.) Nellie LaRoy, in the Babylon film-clips-within-the-film that are supposed to convey her magic—well, she’s pretty. Eventually she learns to hit her marks. But the movie never shows that Nellie is in Eagels’s league, or even close. Ninety percent of the time she’s on screen, Nellie is a shrill, unhinged mess. Jeanne Eagels was a ferocious, all-consuming artist who made everything else in range, from her co-stars to the flats, vanish into the ether.
And should you doubt this assessment, or even if you do not, the Siren invites, nay, implores anyone within striking distance of New York’s Museum of Modern Art to experience Jeanne Eagels. The Letter (1929) is playing MoMA’s annual festival of film preservation, To Save and Project, this Friday, Jan. 13, at 5 pm. It will be introduced by screenwriter and film historian David Stenn, a longtime Eagels admirer and scholar, beloved by classic-film fans for his biographies of Clara Bow and Jean Harlow and his support of preservation. David will have a lot to say about the movie’s peculiar history. Should you not be able to make it, MoMA has another showing, on Jan. 25 at 7 pm.
The Letter was the first talkie produced at Paramount’s Astoria Studios in Queens. The graceful camerawork of director Jean de Limur (often prefiguring William Wyler’s 1940 remake) is its own rebuke to Babylon’s outdated, slave-to-the-microphone view of early sound film. MoMA’s notes explain that “The Letter is known to exist only in a single, oddly incomplete print.” Film Curator Dave Kehr, who put this series together with independent curator Cindi Rowell, has suggested in the past that The Letter we have might be a work print that was sent to the West Coast for sound mixing, and was thrown into theaters instead. (Siren archnemesis Mordaunt Hall noted some sound weirdnesses in his contemporary review.) Whatever the cause, The Letter “does not contain the final sound and music mix.” The restoration that’s screening this month digitizes earlier work by the Library of Congress “with a small amount of cleanup.” Most importantly, “the soundtrack was restored at Audio Mechanics, which vastly improves the quality of the early sound recording.”
An underemphasized aspect of film preservation is the importance of cleaning up the sound. Showing the same evening, Jan. 13 at 7 pm, is a restoration of Rene Clair’s delicious 1942 I Married a Witch, with Fredric March and the dazzling young Veronica Lake, whose centenary occurred just last year. This sparkling new Witch has a beautifully restored soundtrack, rescuing it from years of muddy dialogue and a wobbly score. So the Siren will be sticking around for that one, too.
The Siren will have more to say about To Save and Project a little later this week. TSAP runs through Feb. 2. I’ve been covering these festivals for at least a decade now, and this is one of the best line-ups I’ve ever seen. Here is the schedule.
Meanwhile, what follows is a slightly edited and updated version of the Siren’s 2014 blog post about Jeanne Eagels in The Letter. This is how excited the Siren got after seeing a foggy Youtube version with bad sound; now imagine seeing a good version at MoMA’s great cinema.
“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 De Witt is dating himself a bit there. Jeanne Eagels made her Broadway mark in 1922 with Rain, and if Addison was old enough to be a critic in the 1920s, he’s got a lot more mileage on him than does Margo Channing. Alas, Margo misses her chance to acidly inquire if the De Witt nanny took little Addison to a matinee.
The Siren will speculate no further, because she comes in praise of Jeanne Eagels in the 1929 film of Somerset Maugham's The Letter. As Leslie Crosbie in William Wyler’s 1940 remake, Bette Davis gave one of her best performances. Her predecessor was also great—perhaps even more so.
Jeanne Eagels, fated to die in a matter of months after filming on The Letter 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 remains some dispute over the proximate cause of Eagels’ death, after years of drinking, drugs, and grueling tours, at the age of 39.1 But you also have 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, that of Sadie Thompson in Rain. Davis worshipped Eagels, and if Bette’s Leslie is nothing like her idol’s, that’s because Davis had already based Mildred in Of Human Bondage on what she remembered of Eagels as Sadie. In the late 1920s, Barbara Stanwyck, at the time 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 once said of Edie Sedgwick, “but then I’ve never seen anyone on drugs that didn’t have wonderful skin.”) As Leslie at home, Eagels is costumed in blowsy dresses. They emphasize a sloppy, braless décolletage that ensures you are always aware of her breathing. Her unruly bob is also one of the few times in any era that Hollywood showed what high humidity does to overprocessed hair.
Eagels, as recorded for the ages by director Jean de Limur, gives us 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 is 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. In the Wyler movie, of course, Herbert Marshall is recast as husband Robert, and plays him as an unusually sympathetic cuckold. Back in 1929, Marshall was 39, but he looks 10 years younger, he’s preeningly handsome, and his Geoff is a perfect exhibit of upper-class narcissism. He’s involved with a Malaysian woman, Li-Ti, played with great sincerity by Lady Tsen Mei. Geoff’s mistress is shown spoiling him in a doting, almost maternal way that Leslie could no more manage than she could crochet a typewriter.
But Hammond turns out to be as dopey in his way as Robert. When it’s time to break things off with Leslie, he tells her, “The common-sense thing is to say, we’ve had a jolly good time, but all good things must come to an end.” The Siren finds this moment paralyzingly funny. Here we have Eagels as Leslie, 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! And he’s incapable of working himself up any further than that. Leslie shrieks for a real answer, but this is it, this is Geoffrey Hammond in the Throes of Extreme Emotion. Geoff comes up with, “I’m fed up, sick of the sight of you.” Ok, that has potential, but Geoff says it in the manner of someone being firm with a door-to-door salesman.
The end result is, of course Leslie shoots him. In the famous opening of the 1940 movie, Davis fires with precise aim and an impassive face. But Eagels shoots 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. The difference between these two acting choices is the difference between a guillotine and an axe-murderer.
And when she’s out of bullets, and Herbert Marshall is really most sincerely dead on the drawing-room carpet, her 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. This is 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! Need you ask? Soon we’re in court, and there’s a marvelous camera angle, looking up at Leslie’s face and wedding-ringed hand on a Bible, as she prepares to lie her little cloche hat off.
She testifies that Geoff 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 Geoff pursued her until she stumbled, whereupon he 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. Then, with difficulty, she pulls her nutty brain back to the courtroom.
De Limur and the other players apparently saw their main job as letting Eagels fly.2 But there's a great deal more to recommend The Letter. The camera slinks into the multiracial nightspot where Leslie goes to fetch the fatal letter of the title, echoing how the English matron is trying to remain unnoticed. Lady Tsen Mei gets some malicious dialogue with Leslie, and her Li-Ti shows clear logic, unlike Gale Sondergaard’s character a decade later. 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 at last up the porch stairs, in a way that surely made young William Wyler sit up and say, “Hey! I can work with that!”
The 1940 film has much that 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 the seething resentment the Malaysians feel but suppress—for the time being.
But many distinguished cinephiles prefer de Limur, including Dave Kehr, who feels that the Code-mandated ending marred the later version. Whatever your personal verdict, the 1929 version is excellent and intensely rewarding, nothing like the stereotype of a dull, stagey early talkie.
(The following has spoilers, although for goodness’ sake, it’s been 94 years, people!)
And it goes out on a high note, with the famous confrontation scene between Leslie and her husband. The moment is marred only by Owen’s acting, which is 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 of Robert’s final speech, as he tells Leslie she’s going to stay right here.)
As for Eagels, her last moments in the film are the purest distillation of Maugham imaginable: “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,” is an indescribable thrill. Here was an actress who brought Maugham’s words flashing right off the page: “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…”
The Siren recommends the meticulously researched Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed, by Eric Woodard and Tara Hanks, for the complete un-gossipy story of Eagels’ rise and early death.
Sincere apologies. Like the burning ardor of Herbert Marshall, that one was impossible to resist. You don’t know how hard it was to refrain from titling this post “Where Eagels Dare.”