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Jeanne Eagels: The Rise and Fall of America's Great Actress (Part 2)

Man, Woman & Sin at M-G-M

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer let it be known that Jeanne Eagels' behavior during the filming of Man, Woman and Sin was atrocious. Silent superstar John Gilbert, rumored to have been her lover during filming, said Eagels was the most temperamental actress he had ever worked with. (Autocratic studio boss Louis B. Mayer would one day turn on Gilbert, as he turned on Eagels.)

According to M-G-M, Eagels would appear late at the studio, and she once disappeared for several days. The Hollywood trade press credited Eagels' disappearance to a booze binge. At one point, she took off on a two-week vacation to Santa Barbara without informing her director, Monta Bell. Bell asked M-G-M management to terminate Eagels' contract, which they did. Fortunately, there was enough footage so Bell could salvage the film without re-shooting.

Gilbert said of Eagels, "She seemed to hate the movies for a popularity they could not give her....[The] blind, unreasoning adulation of the movie fans was a type of popularity she spurned. Fundamentally, Jeanne was much superior to us. Movie actors are crazy to be worshiped. Jeanne Eagels wanted to be understood and appreciated."

When the film was released, Eagels' performance received mixed reviews, but the picture was a failure primarily due to the poor reviews garnered by Gilbert. Critics rejected the great lover playing a naive mama's boy in this film. Gilbert's career was salvaged shortly thereafter by the release of his second film with Great Garbo, Love (1927), an adaptation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina that was a smash hit and launched Garbo into the cinema superstardom that eluded Jeanne Eagels.

(Marilyn Monroe would become a superstar, but never achieved the kudos for her acting that were garnered by Eagels. Yet, Monroe is a legend while Eagels, the more talented actress, is barely remembered. Monroe is a cultural archetype while Eagels remains a footnote in Broadway and Hollywood history. Such are the vicissitudes of a life in the performing arts. Neither actress ever achieved happiness.)

On his part, Gilbert would be the most prominent and notorious victim of the shift from silence to sound.

More Troubles

When Jeanne Eagels began touring the East Coast in Her Cardboard Lover, the fortnight-long Boston engagement was cut in half to one week as Eagels reportedly was ill. In 1928, while appearing in Chicago, she filed a bill of divorcement. The suit accused her husband of breaking her jaw.

Eagels' lawsuit claimed that Edward Coy had threatened to wreck her budding movie career by ruining her face. Coy, a heavy boozer like his soon-to-be ex-wife, pleaded no contest and the divorce was granted.

The Mid-Western tour of Her Cardboard Lover moved on to Milwaukee, but Eagels was a no-show at both the Milwaukee and the subsequent St. Louis performances. She claimed that she was suffering from ptomaine poisoning, but eye-witness accounts placed her in Chicago on a long boozing binge when she was supposed to have been in Milwaukee.

Her unprofessional behavior brought her an 18-month suspension from Actor's Equity, which banned her from performing on stage with any other Equity actor for the length of the suspension. The ban essentially ended her stage career in New York and the rest of the country, although it could not stop her from appearing by herself on stage in non-Equity venues.

Eagels hit the vaudeville circuit, performing scenes from Rain. She also appeared in movies as producers were desperate for trained stage people with the advent of sound, and she eventually made more money from the film industry and vaudeville than she ever had from the "legitimate" stage.

Back in Pictures

Ironically, it was Monta Bell, now working at Paramount's Astoria Studios in New York, who hired Jeanne Eagels for her movie comeback. Bell praised her to the press, calling her a consummate professional, and urged Paramount to sign her to a long-term contract!

The first movie Eagels made for Paramount was the Bell-produced The Letter (1929), which reunited Eagels with W. Somsert Maugham. Katharine Cornell had had a Broadway hit with Maugham's play as the murderous adulteress, and Eagels delivered an electrifying, legendary performance in the role on film.

The Letter was Paramount's first all-talking picture. One would think that after the Man, Woman and Sin debacle, Eagels would be unemployable, but there was a great deal of anxiety in the movie industry due to the shift from silence to sound. John Gilbert and Delores Costello's talking picture debuts had been met with laughter.

(Alexander Walker, in his 1979 book The Shattered Silents: How the Talkies Came to Stay, contends in Gilbert's case, it was not a matter of his voice, but the lines he said out loud. The florid lines of the great screen lover, when read on title cards, sounded ludicrous out loud. Paramount's great lover of the silent screen, Ronald Colman, made a more successful transition to sound in Bulldog Drummond by adopting a wry screen character, full of humor. Costello not only had a thin voice -- with the early equipment, men's voices recorded better than did women's -- but a lisp.)

As an actress possessed of a strong, trained voice, Jeanne Eagels became very desirable.

The movie was shot quickly, in 29 days, by stage veteran Jean de Limur. (Rouben Mamoulian, who was going to make his own sound picture Applause, was a fixture on the set of The Letter, studying the shooting techniques.)

To watch Eagels in the court room scene of the film is amazing, even on a grainy print. Her acting style, which is full of pauses that creates the illusion that we are watching an actual person remembering her life and thinking, not just declaiming lines from a script, anticipates Marlon Brando and the Method actors by a generation.

After making The Letter, Paramount took Bell's advice and signed her to a contract for two more pictures, Jealousy (1929) and The Laughing Lady (1929). Anthony Bushnell, her co-star in Jealousy, had to be replaced with Fredric March as his voice didn't register well.

An up-and-coming star who would establish himself as one of America's greatest actors (and winner of two Oscars), March later said Eagels was "great" to work with, but that the movie they made together was a "stinker."

According to Walker, The Letter (which was released in February 1929) was a flop. He partially blames its failure on Eagles' lack of movie stardom, that her reputation did not carry any weight with Middle American movie audiences who were more interested in the silver screen stars they had made via their patronage than with a Broadway actress. Jealousy also failed to draw at the box office.

It's Walker's thesis that the movie studios' importation of Broadway talent proved to be a mistake, as while many superstars and stars of the silent screen failed to make the transition to sound, others like Ronald Colman did make it.

Because of her untimely death, it is hard to know whether Jeanne Eagels could have established herself as a star of talking pictures.

Death

There were rumors that Jeanne Eagels had suffered a nervous breakdown while filming Jealousy, but Paramount denied there had been any trouble with their new diva. However, Eagels asked to be let out of her contract for The Laughing Lady on the grounds that she was either ill or because she didn't like the script, and the studio obliged, replacing her with Ruth Chatterton, another Broadway import.

There were rumors that now that the Actors Equity ban was due to expire in the fall of 1929, Eagels was preparing to return to Broadway. In September, Eagles underwent successful surgery to treat ulcers on her eyes, a condition caused by her sinusitis. Two weeks after surgery, on the night of October 3, 1929, as Eagels was preparing for a night out on the town, she fell ill and was taken to a private 5th Avenue hospital. In the hospital waiting room, she suffered a convulsion and died.

Three autopsies were conducted over the following three months and reached three different conclusions as to the cause of her death, which was variously attributed as an overdose of alcohol, the tranquilizer chloral hydrate and heroin in the successive autopsy reports. All three substances might have been in her system when she died, and it has been suggested that the unconscious Eagels received a sedative from the first doctor to treat her and that subsequently a second doctor, not knowing she had already been sedated, had unknowingly given the unconscious actress a second shot, thus causing the overdose that killed her.

TIME Magazine, in its June 9, 1930 issue reported that she had died of an overdose of heroin. Thus, the idea of Jeanne Eagels as a heroin addict was implanted in the popular consciousness.

Heroin (diacetylmorphine ), a semi-synthetic opioid narcotic drug synthesized from morphine, was marketed from 1898 to 1910 by Bayer as a non-addictive substitute for morphine, until it was realized that it metabolized in the body into morphine and essentially was a faster-acting form of the ancient opioid. Widely used as an over-the-counter cough suppressant, heroin was not regulated in the U.S. until 1914, although it was allowed to be prescribed by physicians.

Heroin was not banned outright until 1924, five years before Jeanne Eagels death.

Was it Really an Overdose?

Despite popular perceptions, there is little evidence that Jeanne was a heroin addict. Since heroin turns into morphine once its metabolized, it is likely that she received a morphine shot for pain at the hospital. The TIME story thus is just speculation.

The New York City Medical Examiner office that reported that Eagels died of a heroin overdose might have had ulterior motives for doing so. If one reads Ben Hecht's autobiography, A Child of the Century, or sees the film versions made of his famous play The Front Page, one can see that not only were newspapermen of the time highly unethical, doing anything to obtain or fabricate a circulation-boosting story, but that corrupt city officials they covered and traded favors with were more than likely to help the press concoct a sensational story to sell newspapers. According to the New York State Library, there were 1,000 newspapers being published in the Empire State in 1930, and competition among the three New York City tabloids and scores of other newspapers in the New York Metropolitan Area was fierce. (One of the tabloids, the New York Graphic, was called the "Pornographic" due to the salaciousness of its sensationalism.)

Hollywood had had a series of drug scandals in the early 1920s, which helped bring on the Hays Office to clean-up the movie industry and impose censorship. Silent superstar Wallace Reid had died in a sanitarium after becoming a drug addict, and the police investigation of the murder of director William Desmond Taylor revealed that movie comedienne Mabel Normand had a $2,000 a month cocaine habit (about $36,000 in 2010 dollars). That revelation helped wreck her career.

The idea of the movie star hooked on drugs was already cultural currency by the time Jeanne Eagels died.

It has to be remembered that Eagels' was in fragile health most of her adult life, and she taxed herself physically with her grueling schedule of stage and film work. Drugs taken for pain associated with her recent operation, in tandem with alcohol, might have fatally weakened her heart.

Legacy

When Jeanne Eagels' estate went through probate, it was worth an estimated $52,000 (approximately $650,000 in 2010 dollars) after her debts and funeral costs were deducted. Dying intestate, Jeanne Eagels' remaining assets were inherited by her mother.

A wake was held at Campbell's funeral home in New York City, the same establishment that had handled Rudolph Valentino's funeral. Reportedly, her movie Jealousy was playing across the street from the funeral home as she lay in her casket, finally at peace. Her body was sent to Kansas City, where a Catholic mass and requiem was held, and she was laid to rest wither her father and a brother.

Jeanne Eagels was posthumously nominated for a 1929 Best Actress Academy Award for her role in The Letter, the first actor to be so honored. She lost out to superstar Mary Pickford, one of the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, who took the Oscar home to Pickfair for her performance in Coquette, her first talkie. It was a controversial win, and was considered a "life time achievement" award given for her silent film career and stature in the Hollywood community, not for her performance, which was mediocre.

Jeanne Eagels' life was limned in the 1957 film The Jeanne Eagels Story, which starred Kim Novak. This film is fictionalized biography that whitewashed the truth about Eagels' life. In recent years, there have been rumors that Eagels enjoyed same-sex relationships with other women, but the rumors remain unsubstantiated.

In her lifetime, she was romantically linked to many famous men, including the conductor Arthur Fiedler. (Fiedler described Eagels as the great love of his life and kept an autographed picture of her on his desk until he died.) She was pursued by producer David Belasco, theater owner Lee Shubert, and the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VIII & Duke of Windsor.

Remembering Jeanne

"I'm the greatest actress in the world and the greatest failure," Jeanne Eagels said, "and nobody gives a damn."

In the Academy Award-winning All About Eve (1950), writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz has the critic Addison DeWitt tell the great fictional diva Margo Channing (played by Leslie Howard's other great "untrained" co-star, Bette Davis), "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."

(Bette Davis would have one of her greatest successes, and receive one of her then-record 10 Oscar nominations, playing the same part Jeanne Eagels did in William Wyler's 1940 remake of The Letter, which featured her 1929 co-star Herbert Marshall. Davis won her first Oscar playing a character suggested by Eagels life, in the 1935 film Dangerous. She also reprised Eagels' Jealousy role in the remake.)

The actor playwright Noel Coward said, "Of all the actresses I have ever seen, there was never one quite like Jeanne Eagels," while Oscar-winner Ruth Gordon, a friend of Eagels, said of her, "Jeanne Eagels was the most beautiful person I ever saw and if you ever saw her, she was the most beautiful person YOU ever saw."

John D. Williams, the director of Rain, called her an acting genius. "Acting genius--that is, the power of enhancing a written character to a plane that neither author nor director can lay claim to -- Miss Eagels had at her beck and call, whether in tragedy or in comedy."

Kathleen Kennedy, her co-star in Rain, said, "I sincerely doubt if Jeanne Eagels really knew, in spite of her pretensions, that she was a great actress. She was. Many times backstage I'd be waiting for my entrance cue and suddenly Jeanne would start to build a scene, and [we] would look up from our books at once. Some damn thing--some power, something- would take hold of your heart, you senses, as you listened to her, and you'd thrill to the sound of her."

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