Born on This Day: Ethel Barrymore (1879-1959)

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Ethel Barrymore, 1937

Next up in the series profiling major figures in Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed is Ethel Barrymore, the grande dame of America’s greatest theatrical dynasty. Continue reading

The Forgotten Flapper

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Laini Giles was born in Austin, Texas and lives in Edmonton, Alberta with her husband and three cats. An early devotion to Nancy Drew, and her discovery of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, spurred a lifelong interest in mysteries and scandals. She blogs about history, books and movies at Sepia Stories.

In her debut novel, Love Lies Bleeding (2013), a detective investigates the death of his great-aunt, a high society debutante torn between two lovers. Published on August 1, 2015, The Forgotten Flapper is based on the true story of one of Hollywood’s first stars, Olive Thomas. Continue reading

Born on This Day: Helen Broderick (1891-1959)

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helen broderick2As part of an ongoing series covering major figures in Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed, I’m looking at the life of Helen Broderick – who danced in the first Ziegfeld Follies, and made the transition from star of Broadway musicals to one of Hollywood’s most beloved character actresses. She was also a loyal friend of Jeanne Eagels, and the mother of Broderick Crawford. Continue reading

Dan Callahan on Jeanne Eagels, and ‘The Letter’

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Jeanne Eagels, 'The Letter' (1929)

Jeanne Eagels, ‘The Letter’ (1929)

Dan Callahan is an author and film historian, who has published biographies of Barbara Stanwyck and Vanessa Redgrave. (We refer to his Stanwyck bio, The Miracle Woman, in Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed. As an aspiring actress, Barbara was strongly influenced by Jeanne, and saw her most famous stage role in Rain several times.)

On The Chiseler today, Callahan has written about Jeanne, including some interesting thoughts about her penultimate movie role in The Letter (1929), in which she played another of W. Somerset Maugham’s anti-heroines – the murderous Leslie Crosbie.

The Eagels movie of The Letter is a primitive early talkie, seemingly undirected and stiffly acted by the rest of the cast. (It is thought that what is left of it is a work print, which would explain some of its deficiencies, though not all.) But Eagels’s devil-may-care performance is so deeply in some zone of its own that it comes through the ether to grab you by the throat and it won’t let go. There’s a palpable sense of risk to Eagels’s acting here, as if she were pushing herself and about to collapse at any moment. And maybe the film suits what she is doing. After all, some paintings are more at home in caves than in pretty frames on museum walls …

When her husband means to punish her by keeping their marriage going anyway after her confession, for form and for show, she shouts her revenge at him and kills herself with it: ‘I, with all my heart and soul still love the man I killed! Ha, ha! Take that, will you! With all my heart, and all my soul, I still love the man I killed.’ Eagels has sung those words ‘heart’ and ‘soul’ so that they feel like incantations, and then she just nods to herself and The Letter comes to its abrupt end. By contrast, Bette Davis had to be browbeaten by director William Wyler into saying this line to her husband’s face (she had wanted to look away), and she only says it once.

There is little visible technique in Eagels’s performance in The Letter, no distance to her reckless playing, so that when Leslie is flaming out it is clear that she herself is flaming out, and this links Eagels to a later 1950s Method actress like Kim Stanley, another stage star who finally had to retreat because she couldn’t sustain the level of emotional intensity she liked for long.

Born on This Day: Billie Burke (1884-1970)

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Billie_Burke_15826uIn the first of a new series, I look at some of the major figures featured in Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed. First up is Billie Burke: star of Broadway, wife of legendary producer Florenz Ziegfeld, she is perhaps best-known today for her role as Glinda in The Wizard of Oz. Back in 1912, Billie was starring in The Mind-the-Paint Girl, a play by Sir Arthur Wing Pinero, with Jeanne Eagels in a supporting role. Continue reading

‘Noir-ish’ Jeanne in ‘The Letter’

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The Letter 01 - Jeanne Eagels Herbert Marshall

Jeanne Eagels confronts her lover, played by Herbert Marshall, in ‘The Letter’ (1929)

A viewing of Bette Davis’ The Letter remake led one blogger back to Jeanne Eagels’ original performance as the murderess Leslie Crosbie, over at Classic Hollywood:

I re-watched it to see if there was anything noirish about it and wasn’t disappointed. Jeanne’s performance is powerful, the French director Jean De Limur also had scenes that wouldn’t disappoint noir fans. Jeanne Eagels descending the stairs to meet with her murdered lover’s Chinese mistress is pure noir cinematography. I must say this version is my favorite version of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Letter.

Although a work-print has been available for some time, a fully restored version of The Letter (1929) was released on DVD in 2011.

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