Jeanne Eagels: A Life on Film

Even the most learned scholars of classic film consider Jeanne Eagels a mystery. Although she was one of America's leading actresses during the early twentieth century, her first love was the stage, and only a handful of film performances survive today. After her untimely death, a controversial biography was published, and later adapted into an equally contentious movie.

And there the trail ended -- until now. For too long, Jeanne Eagels has languished in the shadows of rumor and misconception. She was born Eugenia Eagles, to a large, working-class family in Kansas City. The year was 1890, but as with so many details of her early life, she changed it at whim. The same unbridled imagination that later prodded her to romanticize her origins was already in place when she first trod the boards as a young pupil of Georgia Brown, who managed an acting school for young hopefuls.

After a brief stint as a shopgirl, the would-be thespian joined the Dubinsky Brothers, whose traveling company produced tent shows across the Midwest. She may even have briefly married Maurice Dubinsky. But by 1910, Jeanne Eagels had abandoned the troupe to become a Broadway chorus girl. Like other aspiring artists, she would struggle against rejection and failure, and it was during this fallow period she first acted for the camera.

In 1913, Eagels starred in two short films, produced by the long-forgotten Ryno Film Company. The Ace of Hearts, which ran for about twelve minutes, saw Jeanne cast as one of two girls who plant a playing card in the collar of a sleeping soldier's jacket. It later drops out during a game, and he is accused of cheating. After dreaming of being court-martialed, the young soldier vows suicide -- but as he turns the gun to his head, Jeanne appears with his friends, and confesses her misdeed. In their review, the New York Dramatic Mirror singled her out as 'a young actress of promise and prettiness.'

In early 1914, Eagels made another short, A Lesson in Bridge, for the Reliance Motion Picture Company. Her role as a housewife who gambles away her allowance had moralistic overtones. D.W. Griffith gave her an uncredited bit part in Judith of Bethulia, his hour-long biblical epic for Reliance. 'She was one of the few cameos with something behind it,' the great director recalled.

Her next film role was less auspicious. Playing the sister of Sheldon Lewis in The House of Fear (1915), the last installment in Pathe Films' Ashton Kirk detective series, she made so little impact that a review in the Rome Daily Sentinel misidentified her as 'Jennie Sagels.'

That October, Eagels finally caught a break when she was cast as the lead in a touring production of Outcast. After winning rave reviews, she reprised her role for a cinematic adaptation, The World and the Woman

The World and the Woman was produced by Thanhouser, one of America's original film studios. It ran for sixty-six minutes and included an early example of cinematic special effects, in a scene where the spirit of Jesus Christ looms over a sick child. The Auburn Citizen News judged Eagels' moving performance 'unquestionably her finest . . . so far.'

Jeanne made a second Thanhouser picture, The Fires of Youth, in 1917. Her director, Emile Chautard, was one of film's great pioneers. Eagels was cast as Rose, a kind-hearted steelworker's daughter. The distinguished character actor, Frederick Warde, played Pemberton, the hated mill-owner who disguises himself as one of the workers after befriending Rose's little brother, Billy (played by child star Helen Badgley.) The original, five-reel version of The Fires of Youth, lasting more than an hour, is now lost, but a two-reel, thirty-one minute version has survived.

'Never, never will the movies equal or banish the spoken drama,' Jeanne had told the only a few months before. 'I mean no disrespect to what is, after all, a tremendously enthralling form of entertainment. I realize what pictures can do, and what they can't. And I am confident that the future will find the cinema a far greater power for art than it has been.' Acting for the camera, she found, was a frustrating process. 'I don't think the actor is the pulse of the machine in motion picture photography,' she remarked.

Her next film role was in The Cross Bearer (1918), the tale of one of World War I's real-life heroes, Cardinal Mercier (Montagu Love), who protected his church and parishioners when the German army invaded the Belgian town of Louvain. Jeanne played the Cardinal's young ward, and fiancee of a Belgian officer (Anthony Merlo). One scene required Louvain Cathedral to be recreated on the World Pictures lot. When a storm destroyed the replica overnight, it had to be built again. Fortunately, the considerable effort (and expense) was not wasted, as the film opened to acclaim, with Motion Picture magazine declaring that 'The work of Miss Eagels entitles her to rank with the best leading-women of the screen.'

With her stage career now in bloom, Eagels found time to appear alongside opera singer Amelita Galli-Curci in The Madonna of the Slums (1919), the tenth of a dozen shorts produced by the Stage Women's War Relief foundation. Another seven years would pass before Jeanne returned to the screen -- and by then, she had become the most admired actress on the American stage, with Hollywood at her feet.

In 1922, she began a four-year run as Sadie Thompson, the good-time girl who locks horns with a fanatical preacher while marooned on a South Seas island, in a dramatization of Somerset Maugham's classic short story, Rain. Her performance became a legend of the New York stage -- Lee Strasberg, founder of the Actors' Studio, cited Eagels' acting in his later teachings, while a young Barbara Stanwyck saw the play several times.

Eagels' dream of bringing Rain to the big screen was thwarted by Will Hays, whose attempts to promote higher moral standards in Hollywood (both on and off-screen) would lead to the establishment of a Production Code by the early 1930s. 'Mr. Will Hays is a most incredible person,' Jeanne told the Los Angeles Times in 1926, 'because he thinks Rain is an immoral play. Ministers, censors, reformers galore have seen the play -- coming to censor and to ban and leaving to admire and approve.'

However, another actress would succeed where Eagels failed. Gloria Swanson had graduated from bathing beauty in Mack Sennett's comedy shorts to one of Hollywood's most glamorous women, and after seeing Jeanne in Rain Swanson persuaded director Raoul Walsh and producer Joseph Schenck that it would be a perfect vehicle for her. She was even able to charm Hays, framing the story as a contemporary moral fable. Sadie Thompson was released in 1928.

While Swanson was filming Sadie Thompson during the summer of 1927, Eagels relaunched her own movie career. Much had changed during her absence from the screen, with Hollywood fast becoming the hub of the American film industry. The largest, most successful of the new studios, MGM, had signed her to star as a newspaper editor in Man, Woman and Sin, opposite the 'Great Lover' himself, John Gilbert.

Director Monta Bell had made his debut with The Torrent, Greta Garbo's first film for MGM, a year before. Unfortunately, Eagels quickly gained a reputation for being difficult to work with. She fought with executives, and was often ill. When she did appear on the set, she seemed tense and unhappy. As rumors spread of drinking binges, she was nicknamed 'Gin Eagels.'

'She seemed to hate the movies for the popularity they could not give her,' John Gilbert told the Los Angeles Times. 'Fundamentally, Jeanne was much superior to us. Movie actors are crazy to be worshiped. She wanted to be understood and appreciated.' MGM did not extend her contract, and she returned again to the stage. A print of Man, Woman and Sin is still in existence, although legal problems have delayed an official reissue.

Jeanne's career troubles escalated in March 1928, when she was fired from a touring production of Her Cardboard Lover, after failing to leave her hotel room for a week. Actors Equity subsequently imposed an eighteen-month ban from the stage. Adding insult to injury, Marion Davies was cast in the screen adaptation (with Norma Shearer reprising the role in 1942.)

Down but not out, Eagels soon bounced back. In September, she began filming her first talkie on one of the new soundstages at Paramount's Astoria lot in New York. MGM might have washed their hands of her, but Monta Bell was eager to direct her again (although his protege, Jean de Limur, took credit.)

Based on another of Somerset Maugham's plays, The Letter featured an unforgettable performance from Jeanne as Leslie Crosbie, the adulterous wife of a rubber plantation owner in Malaya. It would be remade in 1940 by William Wyler, starring Bette Davis. While the remake was generally superior, Davis could not match the extraordinary passion Eagels brought to the role -- emphasizing Leslie's scheming nature instead.

After seeing the rushes, Paramount offered Jeanne a two-picture deal. She worked with Monta Bell again in Jealousy, a love triangle drama with a Parisian setting. In September 1929, Eagels began filming The Laughing Lady.

With her stage ban about to lapse, and recent success in talking pictures, Jeanne had weathered the storm. But after little more than a week's production, she was diagnosed with a severe sinus infection, compounded by 'klieg eyes,' an adverse reaction to the harsh studio lights. After undergoing surgery, she was in no condition to face the camera. Paramount announced she would be replaced by Ruth Chatterton.

On October 3rd, Jeanne's condition worsened. Shortly after arriving at her doctor's surgery that evening, she died. Eagels would never take her rightful place among the grand dames of the stage, or be remembered as a goddess of the silver screen. Her most famous role, as Sadie Thompson, would live on in shadow performances by Joan Crawford and Rita Hayworth. In 1935, Bette Davis won an Oscar for her role as a tempestuous star in Dangerous, a thinly-veiled portrait of Eagels. And in 1957, Kim Novak would try to fill her shoes in a sensationalized, inaccurate biopic

The Letter was restored, and reissued on DVD in 2011, giving movie fans a unique opportunity to witness Jeanne Eagels in her prime. The bruised innocence of her early Thanhouser pictures had been replaced by a more complex, nervy presence. 'Jeanne Eagels, what an artist she was!' Walter Wanger told Silver Screen magazine in 1933. 'It was amazing to watch her as the great actress rising to thrilling emotion and power before the cameras, only to droop into a sick little girl the minute they stopped clicking.'

Tara Hanks is the co-author of Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed from BearManorMedia.