Actress Jeanne Eagels, one of the great legends of early 20th century American theater, became the toast of the New York stage by the time she was 30. She most famously originated the role of Sadie Thompson on Broadway in John Colton's Rain (based on a Somerset Maugham short story); the play ultimately ran for a record-setting 648 performances. Eagels appeared in only a handful films during her career, most of them silents. The two sound films she did make were both produced in 1929, and she received a Best Actress nod for her performance in the first, a film adaptation of Somerset Maugham's The Letter. But Eagels' contention for an Academy Award occurred posthumously, for she had passed away, at age 39, in October 1929.
|Jeanne Eagels and Herbert Marshall in The Letter (1929)|
Jeanne Eagels was born Eugenia Eagles in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1890. She left school to go to work while still a child and joined the Dubinsky Brothers traveling theater company as a dancer sometime between the age of 12 and 15. There she would eventually take lead roles in popular dramas such as "Camille, " "Romeo and Juliet" and "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Eagels later joined another touring company and made her way to New York where she hoped to develop her career. Though she was, for a time, a 'Ziegfeld Girl,' her primary focus was to build a theatrical reputation on the 'legitimate stage.' She was cast in a variety of small roles and, at some point, apparently developed a distinctly British accent off-stage. It was while she was vacationing in Paris that American actor Julian Etinge noticed and admired her, though they did not meet at that time. As it turned out, Etinge and Eagels would soon co-star in "The Crinoline Girl" (1914).
|Portrait of Jeanne Eagels, 1918|
Before going on tour with "Her Cardboard Lover," Eagels took time out to star in MGM's silent production of the Monta Bell-directed "Man, Woman and Sin" (1927) opposite silent screen idol John Gilbert. Bell would produce and write the dialogue for her talking debut in The Letter two years later.
At the height of her stage career Eagels, who had health issues along with a fondness for alcohol, became notably unreliable. When, in 1928, she failed to appear for scheduled performances of "Her Cardboard Lover" in Milwaukee and St. Louis, the show's producers requested that Actor's Equity ban her from appearing on stage with other Equity members. An 18 month ban ensued. During that time she appeared on the vaudeville circuit performing scenes from "Rain." She was also free to make films - for which stage actors with trained voices were now in great demand. Following her high-voltage performance in "The Letter," Eagels starred opposite Fredric March in Jealousy (1929). This film was also re-made much later with Bette Davis in the starring role - as Deception in 1946. Eagels' next film was to have been The Laughing Lady (1929), but she dropped out of the project and her role went to Ruth Chatterton.
|Jeanne Eagels, 1921|
While in New York in September 1929, Jeanne Eagels underwent successful in-patient surgery for ulcers on her eyes. A few weeks later, apparently fully recovered, she suddenly fell ill. She was taken to a private hospital where, as she waited to be seen by a doctor, she went into convulsions and died. Three different coroner's reports followed and all agreed that her demise was caused by an overdose - but each named a different substance. One report pointed to alcohol, another blamed chloral hydrate and a third attributed her death to heroin.
Jeanne Eagels was admired as an actress by many in her day. Bette Davis was reportedly a fan and Louis B. Mayer, taken with Eagels' performance, purportedly deemed The Letter required viewing for actors under contract to MGM at the time. But Eagels' turbulent life off-screen also inspired. "The Shooting Star," a Broadway play of 1933 starring Francine Lattimore was based on her life. The storyline for Dangerous (1935), the film in which Bette Davis portrayed a declining Broadway star (and for which she won her first Oscar), reflected elements of Eagels' own decline. And, in 1957, Kim Novak starred in the biopic Jeanne Eagels, a film that played fast and loose with the facts of Eagels' life story.
The Letter (1929) starring Jeanne Eagels, Reginald Owen and Herbert Marshall airs on TCM Wednesday, October 24 at 8:45 am Eastern/4:45 am Pacific. A few hours later, at 11 am Eastern/8 am Pacific, TCM will air the Lewis Milestone-directed version of Rain (1932) starring Joan Crawford.
|Jeanne Eagels as Leslie Crosbie in The Letter (1929)|
Internet Broadway DataBase
Jeanne Eagels website