Name-Check: Jeanne Eagels, Born 125 Years Ago Today

“I’m the greatest actress in the world and the greatest failure, and nobody gives a damn.”

Chances are, unless you came across this post while looking for information about Jeanne Eagels, that you’ve never heard the name, let alone known the reputation that Eagels enjoyed among her contemporaries as an incandescent, proto-method actress. She was beautiful and brilliant, acclaimed as a great genius, and yet she also seemed to be in a hurry to destroy her career and her life.

She was born into a poor family in Kansas, ran off to join a traveling theatrical company at age 12, landed in New York, remade herself, became a chorine and a Ziegfeld Girl, studied acting and became a sought after theatrical name. As her heavy schedule – which soon included silent films – began to weigh on her, she self-medicated with pills, alcohol and possibly harder stuff.

Soon, after dozens of successful roles, she became a Broadway super-star playing Sadie Thompson in Somerset Maugham’s “Rain.” As her fame increased, so did her reputation for temperamental behavior and even unreliability. She drank even during performances and made work difficult for her co-stars and directors, but she also focused her performance like a laser and communicated her great reserves of emotional pain in a focused way that had scarcely been seen before. The word “genius” became permanently attached to her name.

Her “Rain” director John C. Williams said of her, “First off, she knew to perfection, and adhered to as to a religion, the art of listening in acting. At every performance, whether the first, or the hundredth, the speeches of the character addressing her were not merely heard but listened to. Hence there was always thought and belief and conviction behind every speech and scene of her own– the essence of theater illusion.”

This was not always so typical of stage divas, and it gives an idea of why young Barbara Stanwyck, for one, was so enthralled by Eagels, and why she emulated her acting style throughout her career. It’s one of the keys to good acting, and Eagels mastered it early on.

Her self-destructive behavior, not helped a bit by an abusive marriage to an ex-football hero, helped drive her out of Hollywood. She would disappear for days on end during shoots, a thought that must send shivers up the spine of anyone who has ever worked in films. But one producer, Monta Bell, thought that no-one as talented, well-spoken, and glamorous should be kept from the screen and he cast her in Paramount’s very first talkie THE LETTER. It was a smash hit and Eagels’ performance was electric.

It was to be her next-to-last job. She made one more film, JEALOUSY, but no one considered it a worthy successor to THE LETTER. She died on the night of October 3, 1929, aged 39. Her death was variously attributed to alcohol, sleeping pills and heroin. It was as sensational a story as can be imagined, made all the more so because it happened in New York, the hub of gutter journalism*. She was posthumously nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in THE LETTER, but did not win.

Today we can only gauge Eagels’ power from anecdotal remembrances and a couple of films. A biopic of her life was made in 1957, starring Kim Novak. It was primarily a work of fiction and fetishized her Fitgerald-era beautiful damned life.

The following clip, and the movie it is excerpted from, gives us an idea of the rare combination of talent, beauty and emotional power Eagels contributed to her work and, through the example set by Stanwyck and other acolytes, to the art itself. This is her big speech from THE LETTER. It spoils the plot, so if you want to watch the whole film – and you should – watch it here. Otherwise, enjoy the majesty of Jeanne Eagels in THE LETTER:

*Interesting factual tidbit provided by Jeanne Eagels superfan Richard Linklater – the young reporter who got the scoop about Eagels’ death was none other than Samuel Fuller.