“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. Paula Wessely, Hayes…”
— George Sanders as Addison De Witt in All About Eve (screenplay by Joseph Mankiewicz)
Addison’s uncharacteristically dating himself a bit there. Jeanne Eagels made her Broadway mark in 1922 with Rain, and if he was old enough to be a critic in the 1920s, he’s got a lot more mileage on him than Margo. But Margo misses her chance to acidly inquire if the De Witt nanny took little Addison to a matinee. And the Siren will speculate no further, because she comes in praise of Jeanne Eagels in the 1929 version of Somerset Maugham's The Letter.
As Leslie Crosbie in William Wyler’s 1940 remake, Bette Davis gave one of her greatest performances. Her predecessor was also great, but had a very different interpretation of the part. Jeanne Eagels, fated to die in a matter of months after filming wrapped, was working at a level of reckless abandon that remains rare to this day. It’s like watching a live broadcast of someone’s nervous breakdown. There seems to be some dispute over the proximate cause of Eagels’ death, after years of drinking, drugs and grueling tours, at the age of 39. It's hard not to wonder how Eagels survived as long as she did, if she gave performances at this pitch night after night.
Eagels’ contemporaries regarded her with awe. She performed in the stage version of The Letter for almost two years, and before that in another high-strung Maugham role, of Sadie Thompson in Rain. Davis worshipped Eagels, and if her Leslie is nothing like her idol’s, that’s because Davis had already based Mildred in Of Human Bondage on what she remembered. Barbara Stanwyck, then a chorus girl counting every penny, went to see Eagels four times.
In the short story that became The Letter, Somerset Maugham describes Leslie Crosbie, the disaffected plantation housewife who shoots her lover, like this:
She was in the early 30s, a fragile creature, neither short nor tall, and graceful rather than pretty. Her wrists and ankles were very delicate, but she was extremely thin and you could see the bones of her hands through the white skin, and the veins were large and blue. Her face was colourless, slightly sallow, and her lips were pale. You did not notice the colour of her eyes. She had a great deal of light brown hair and it had a slight natural wave; it was the sort of hair that with a little touching-up would have been very pretty, but you could not imagine that Mrs. Crosbie would think of resorting to any such device. She was a quiet, pleasant, unassuming woman.
That’s Davis in Wyler’s film, all right. It is not Jeanne Eagels. Eagels is the Siren’s favorite type of screen beauty, ravishing in some moods, near-homely in others. She had wide-set eyes, a cleft chin, and luminous pale skin. (“Lovely skin,” Diana Vreeland said of Edie Sedgwick, “but then I’ve never seen anyone on drugs that didn’t have wonderful skin.”) At her home, Eagels is costumed in blowsy dresses that emphasize a sloppy, braless decolletage; you are always aware of her breathing. Her unruly bob is also one of the few times in any era that Hollywood shows a real approximation of what humidity does to overprocessed hair.
Eagels, as recorded for the ages by director Jean de Limur, shows a Leslie who is rapidly coming unglued from plantation life. In her first scene, Leslie’s impossibly boring husband Robert (Reginald Owen) is announcing a trip. She tries to keep an expression of feigned interest but her mouth twitches from the effort not to yell at him to shut up. Davis plies her lacework with icy serenity; Eagels stabs at hers in a way that by rights should terrify her husband, if he weren’t such a complacent lummox.
Hammond turns out to be as dopey in his way as Crosbie. “The common sense thing is to say, we’ve had a jolly good time, but all good things must come to an end,” he tells Leslie, a line that the Siren finds paralyzingly funny. There’s Eagels, stalking around the room like a panther whose zookeeper forgot to serve breakfast, and instead of making sure all sharp objects are put away safely, here’s Marshall telling her right-ho, chin up old girl. With his ex-lover shrieking for a real answer, he comes out with “I’m fed up, sick of the sight of you,” lines Marshall delivers in the manner of someone being firm with a door-to-door salesman.
Naturally, Eagels shoots him, with a movement that involves her entire arm from the shoulder down, jabbing with each pull of the trigger like the bullets require brute muscle power to hit the target. Davis fires with precise aim and an impassive face. The difference between these two women is the difference between a guillotine and an axe-murderer.
And when it’s over, and Herbert Marshall is most sincerely dead on her drawing-room carpet, Eagels’ expression, my god! She just shot the man she was begging to stay with her not two minutes before, and there’s not a trace of horror, much less remorse. It’s the face of a woman who just had incredible sex with a man she dislikes, but he’s still in her bed: “What the hell do I do now?”
Cover up the crime, of course. Soon we’re in court, and there’s a marvelous look up at Leslie’s face and wedding-ringed hand on a Bible, as she prepares to lie her little cloche hat off. She testifies about Hammond had burst out with “I say, you’re beautiful.” He progressed to kissing her, she says, pausing to let the attorney Joyce (O.P. Heggie) draw forth the sordid details of how Hammond pursued her until she stumbled and then carried her helpless form to the bedroom. Eagels plays this beautifully, as the purest kind of barking-mad self-delusion. Leslie’s expression keeps slipping into an erotic reverie about an Elinor Glynn scene that we know never happened — and then, with difficulty, she pulls herself back to the courtroom.
De Limur and the other players seem to have seen the main job as just letting Eagels fly.* But there is other good stuff in this movie, all the same. The camera slinks into the multiracial nightspot where Leslie is going to fetch The Letter, in a way that echoes how the English matron is trying to remain unnoticed. Lady Tsen Mei gets some malicious dialogue with Leslie, and shows clear logic, unlike Gale Sondergaard a decade later. And at the opening of de Limur’s film, the camera glides from a shot of a sign, through the jungle to the Crosbie plantation and up the porch stairs in a way that surely made William Wyler sit up and say, “Hey, I can work with that.”
The 1940 film reaches heights that the 1929 version does not; the Siren admires Wyler’s camera, Tony Gaudio’s cinematography, Davis’ tightly controlled murderess, James Stephenson in an expanded and very touching take on the conflicted lawyer Joyce. The later film also has sharper, more subtle insights about the casual racism of the English, and how the Malaysians really feel about them. But some distinguished folks prefer de Limur, including Dave Kehr, who feels that the Code-mandated ending marred the later version. He hailed the release of this film on Warner Archive; as always at Kehr’s place, the comments thread was a lulu, with marvelous lines like “I hope I’m not guilty of otherizing the non-idiots” and Dave remarking, about whether or not Jeanne Eagels was nominated for this performance, “one must always be pedantic about the Oscars.” Dan Callahan popped in to mention that biographer David Stenn is working on a book about Eagels, which is excellent news. Dan also questioned whether what we have left of the 1929 film is a work print, and the possible solution to that is fascinating. (It was made at Paramount’s Astoria Studios, our old friend Mordaunt Hall noted some sound weirdnesses in his review, and Kehr hypothesizes that it was supposed to be sent back to the West Coast for sound mixing and was thrown into theaters instead.)
But the 1929 version is excellent and intensely rewarding, nothing like the stereotype of a dull, stagey early talkie. And it goes out on a high note, with the famous confrontation scene between Leslie and her husband. It’s marred only by Owen’s acting, which is very low-wattage compared with Eagels. (Imagine Basil Rathbone or John Barrymore in that part; you’d have heard the cell door clanging on every line as he tells Leslie she’s going to stay right here.)
“Don’t forget this. You brought me out to this filthy place, this godforsaken place, and you kept me here...your whole life was just wrapped up in rubber!” The way Eagels spits out that word, “rubber,” gives the Siren a thrill every time. The whole scene comes closer to Maugham than anything else in the film: “At last she stopped, panting. Her face was no longer human, it was distorted with cruelty, and rage and pain. You would never have thought that this quiet, refined woman was capable of such a fiendish passion…”
*Sincere apologies. Like the burning ardor of Herbert Marshall, that one was impossible to resist. You don’t know how hard it was to keep from titling this post “Where Eagels Dare.”
Update: The Siren has learned that Tara Hanks and Eric Woodard are also working on a biography, called Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed.