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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.