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Jeanne Eagels: The Rise and Fall of America's Great Actress (Part 1)

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Before Marilyn Monroe, there was Jeanne Eagels, and Eagels went M.M. one better in that she was a respected actress of stage and screen, renowned for her acting ability as she established herself as an ungovernable terror, just as Marilyn would. A generation before the spectacular flame-out of Marilyn Monroe, Jeanne Eagles died in tragic fashion, like Marilyn, reportedly from a drug overdose, after nearly ruining her career and reputation with erratic behavior on the set.

Described as a "forerunner of Jean Harlow's incadescent femme fatale," by cinema historian Alexander Walker, Eagels was the first posthumous nominee for an acting Academy Award for her turn in Paramount's first all-talking picture, The Letter.

A Star is Born

The girl destined to become one of the most famous Broadway stars of the period from the World War One Era through the Stock Market Crash, Amelia Jeannine Eagles was born on June 26, 1890 in Kansas City, Missouri, to Edward and Julia Sullivan Eagles. Her ethnic background was German on her father's side and Irish via her mother.

Young "Jean" was born into an impoverished family of eight. She likely stopped going to school when she was 11 years old.

The seven-year-old Amelia Jean decided to peruse acting after appearing as a grave digger in Hamlet. Of the experience, she later said, "I took it all quite seriously and said ALL the words without a quiver. Once I had begun I could not be stopped. I was ill when I was not on the stage. It seemed to me I couldn't breathe in any other atmosphere."

Unlike Hamlet, she had no trouble making up her mind. The die was cast. She would be an actress. Unfortunately, like the Gloomy Dane, she would know troubles and ultimately, tragedy in her short life.

Stock Company

According to research conducted by Philip H. G. Ituarte at the JeanneEagels.com Web site, the young Jean began playing bit parts in local theatrical productions and by the time she was 12 years old, she was a member of the Dubinsky Brothers' traveling stock company. She performed as a dancer, but eventually worked her way into parts and eventually, speaking roles.

The young thespian soon was playing leading roles in the stock company's repertory. She did not break into a show business as a performer in a circus or carnival, as legend had it, not did she perform as a hootchie-kootchie dancer, as was depicted in the bogus 1957 biographical film The Jeanne Eagels Story. The Dubinsky Brothers, like other traveling stock companies, used a tent to put on their shows during the spring and summer months, while during the colder months, the company performed in theaters and halls.

Jeanne Eagels married the scion of the Dubinsky family, Morris, likely when she was in her teens. She probably had a child with Morris, though details about her early life are sketchy. Some accounts have the baby being adopted by friends of the families, while others depict the new mother having a nervous breakdown after the death of her baby. Nothing is known for sure, other than the fact that Eagels and Dubinky separated. Jeanne eventually left the Dubinksy company and joined another touring stock company that eventually brought her to New York City.

Makeover

Jeanne Eagels decided to make herself over in New York as she fought her way up in the fiercely competitive theatrical world. A brunette, Eagels dyed her hair blonde. She said she was of Spanish and Irish heritage, claiming that her surname was originally "Aguilar," which loosely translates into English as "eagle." She changed the spelling of her name from "Eagles" to "Eagels," reputedly as she thought it looked better on a marquee.

Eliminating her past, the seasoned actress presented herself as an ingénue rather than as a divorced woman and mother of a dead infant. She also adopted an English accent. (Up until World War II, many East Coast stage actors would employ a pseudo-English accent on stage and in the early talkies. Playwright Eugene O'Neil, who would become the only American dramatist to win the Nobel Prize, was particularly irritated by it.) There was talk that David Belasco, the legendary theatrical impresario, was smitten with the young actress, and rumors that he had tried to seduce her.

Speaking of Eagels, Belasco remembered the young actress for being, "Beautiful, ah yes, with that wonderful golden hair, blue angelic eyes, sweet mouth, and cunning nose. Her eyes were hard and bitter but shined with ambition. Thousands of girls have come to me, but never such a girl as Jeanne Eagels, with the air of a Duse, the voice of an earl's daughter, and the mien of a tired, starved little alley cat."

She started on Broadway as a chorus girl, and was a Ziegfield girl. However, Eagels was determined to establish herself in dramatic roles, winning bit parts in plays.

Training

After Jeanne Eagels' death, there arose a myth that she was a "raw," untrained talent who just happened to have the spark of acting genius. This is false, as she did a six-years-long apprenticeship in regional stock companies.

In addition to studying acting in New York, Eagels likely studied acting with Beverly Sitgreaves during a trip to Paris. An expatriate American actress, Sitgreaves had appeared with the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt, Eagels' idol.

The myth of Eagels being a "raw" talent comes from the biography of her stage co-star Leslie Howard that was written by his children. Howard was of the opinion that Eagels was untrained, but his opinion likely was rooted in English snobbery vis-à-vis America actors as he had the same opinion of the great Bette Davis, Eagels successor as the great American diva.

What Leslie Howard likely meant that the emotionally erratic Eagels was undisciplined rather than untrained. Oscar-winner George Arliss, considered one of the great stage actors at the time he appeared on Broadway with Eagels, was full of praise for Eagels. He cast her in three of his Broadway productions. It is unlikely he would have used her so many times, had she been untrained or unprofessional.

Making It

Jeanne Eagels' big break-through came when she was cast in the role of a prostitute who becomes a faith-healer in the touring company of the play "Outcast.", which had been a hit for Elsie Ferguson. On the road, she won rave reviews, and when the touring company returned to New York for an off-Broadway engagement, critics attended the play to see if Eagels actually did live up to the road reviews. She did.

The Thanhouser Film Co. cast Eagles in the film of Outcast, which was retitled The World and the Woman (1916). She had made her debut in Pathe's The House of Fear in 1915.

Back on stage, Eagels received great reviews when she starred with George Arliss in the Broadway hit The Professor's Love Story in 1917. She followed up their joint triumph with two more co-starring ventures with Arliss, Disraeli (Arliss won a Best Actor Oscar when he reprised the role on film) and the even-more-popular play Hamilton.

George Arliss said that Jeanne Eagels played each of three distinctly different parts "with unerring judgment and artistry."

She was rapidly establishing a reputation as one of the finest actresses of her time, while simultaneously undermining herself by creating another, dual reputation: As Trouble with a capital "T." Like Marilyn Monroe would a generation later, Jeanne Eagels flirted with both professional and personal suicide while creating her legend in a too-brief life.

Trouble

Beginning in 1916, Jeanne Eagels worked days in movies and nights on the stage. Suffering from fatigue and insomnia, she sought treatment and might have dabbled in drugs during the period. Physician-prescribed dope, which was commonly dispensed to actors in the film industry from at least the 'Teens on through the decline of the studio system, would have enabled Eagels to undertake a hectic dual-career of making movies during the day while acting on stage at night.

Suffering from chronic sinusitis and other maladies, Eagels might have began a descent down the slippery slope of self-medicating for her ills. What is indisputable is that she had a fondness for drink.

In 1918, she appeared in David Belasco's Broadway production of Daddies opposite George Abbott, which was a hit, racking up 340 performances. Eagels quit the hit show either due to exhaustion or because, as rumor had it, she was fed up with Belasco's sexual harassment, though she praised him as a producer.

After appearing in the comedy A Young Man's Fancy in 1919, she blossomed into a true Broadway diva as the new decade of the Roaring Twenties unfolded. When she appeared in The Wonderful Thing in 1920, Eagels had to wait for the applause to die down after her entrance before she could deliver her lines. That play, like In The Night Watch (1921), were but modest successes, but Broadway immortality was close at hand.

"Rain"

Jeanne Eagels became a Broadway legend playing the salty-tongued prostitute Sadie Thompson who unintentionally causes a clergyman to commit suicide in the theatrical adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's short story "Rain." However, she had to work hard for her success.

On the road in Philadelphia, the play received discouraging reviews, necessitating a rewrite of the second act. By the time the rewritten Rain debuted on Broadway on November 7, 1922, all the kinks had been worked out and the play proved a smash, running for 256 performances. When the company returned to Broadway after the road show, re-opening on September 1, 1924, Rain ran for another 648 performances.

Jeanne Eagels was now part of the pantheon of American theatrical greats.

John D. Williams, the director of Rain said, "In my score of years in the theater Miss Eagels was one of the two or three highest types of interpretive acting intelligences I have met. To work with her on a play was once more to feel one's self in the theater when it was in its finest estate; when a play was not a 'show,' nor even a performance, but a work, which because it had something to say that might clarify life, was a living thing and simply demanded to be heard."

Eagels' great performance was acknowledged as responsible for the great success of the play, though Gloria Swanson later scored a big success playing Sadie in the silent movie version made from Maugham's original short story "Miss Thompson" (not the play) in 1928, but Joan Crawford received bad reviews in the 1932 talkie version Rain based on the Broadway play, which proved a box office flop. (Variety's reviewer commented, "It turns out to be a mistake to have assigned the Sadie Thompson role to Miss Crawford. It shows her off unfavorably. The dramatic significance of it all is beyond her range....) Rita Hayworth's 1953 version, Miss Sadie Thompson -- which had been shot in 3D and spiced up with some musical numbers -- is barely remembered.

Despite Swanson's success with the character, Sadie Thompson belonged to Jeanne Eagels: The road company of Rain toured for four years. A negative biography written by Eddie Doherty and published in the year after her death was entitled The Rain Girl,: The Tragic Story of Jeanne Eagels, so closely was she identified with the role.

"Miss Sadie Thompson"

It is interesting to note that despite the public identification of Jeanne Eagels with Rain, she lost out the role of Sadie Thompson on film to Swanson. (Marion Davies also wanted to play the part, but her lover William Randolph Hearst, who produced her movies, wouldn't hear of his inamorata playing a whore.) One might think that the reason was that Jeanne Eagels had become unemployable in motion pictures due to her professional behavior, i.e. her lack of professionalism at M-G-M, winding up blackballed like Marilyn Monroe was just before her death. The real reason is that only Gloria Swanson could have made a movie based on "Miss Thompson" (which later collections of Maugham's work re-titled "Rain," such was the success of the play).

The play Rain was on the Hays Office's proscribed list, a list of approximately 150 properties that could not be made into a motion picture by members of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), similar to the Vatican's Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Prohibited Books). Gloria Swanson, who was a silent film superstar and the first star to ever turn down a $1 million contract, had her own production company with a distribution deal with United Artists.

A very intelligent woman, she pulled a fast one on the Hays Office, keeper of the industry's Production Code, making a film of the story, not the play (though she had United Artists President Joseph Schenck buy the play to keep another studio from muscling in on her). She also changed the man of the cloth to merely a "civilian" with strong religious convictions, which she had brought up with Will Hays, himself, without tipping her hand by revealing she was talking about Rain.

When the film industry learned of her stratagem, members of the MPPDA protested, but she got permission to continue. The success of Sadie Thompson boosted Swanson's career,

What gave her the idea for the bold gamble? Gloria Swanson had seen Jeanne Eagels in the play Rain. Twice.

Personal Life

In 1917, Jeanne Eagels had said, "I am timid and afraid of men and far too busy to become well acquainted with them. My work fills my life, and I should not care to fall in love or marry before I am very, very old -- about thirty-five -- because a woman gives too much of herself when she loves, and that would interfere with her career."

By the time Eagels married her second husband, the stockbroker Edward H. Coy, in 1925 at the age of 35, she had developed a reputation as a temperamental actress who was a hard drinker. Coy had achieved Ivy League gridiron immortality as a fullback at Yale, where he was named an All-American in 1908 and 1909 but had turned to the sauce for solace now that the cheers had faded. The incompatibility between the two did nothing to ameliorate her problems with her mood swings or with drink.

After Rain, she took time off, either turning down offers such as the role of Roxie Hart in the 1926 Broadway production of Chicago or quitting plays she did sign up for during rehearsals. Finally, she made her return to Broadway in the George Cukor-directed light comedy Her Cardboard Lover (1926) opposite the English star Leslie Howard. On opening night, it was Leslie Howard whom the audience cheered, calling for Howard to take curtain calls. Controversially, Eagels took Howard's curtain calls, thanking the audience "on behalf of my Cardboard Lover." The critics, too, wound up praising Howard rather than Eagels.

Eagels fondness for alcohol caused problems during the run of the show. Her on-stage behavior could be egregious, as when she stepped out of character and, thirsty for the sauce, asked Howard's character for a drink of "water," a bit of business not in the script. What she wanted was a drink, and when she felt the compulsion, nothing would stop her, not even professional etiquette while on stage. This bit of unscripted business caused the stage manager more than once to bring down the curtain during a performance, and Howard left the stage in a huff at one point.

The drink and possibly drugs used for her severe sinusitis were threatening to erode her greatness. However, despite Eagels' on-stage antics, Her Cardboard Lover was another modest success, playing for 152 performances. After shooting the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film Man, Woman and Sin (1927) with John Gilbert, she toured with the play in the large cities. However, she would never return to the Broadway stage.Sources:

The Jeanne Eagels Web site is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the career of one of America's greatest actresses.

TIME Magazine (June 9, 1930), Medicine: Case of Jeanne Eagels

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