Whenever I mention Jeanne Eagels, movie fans invariably ask if I’ve seen Kim Novak playing her onscreen. And my answer is usually this: “love Kim, hate the film.” Over at her Self-Styled Siren blog today, Farran Smith Nehme takes a closer look at the ‘Highly Fictionalised Biopics’ that were all the rage in 1957. (Jeanne’s friend, singer Helen Morgan, was another victim that year.)
Amidst a choice selection of whopping fibs about Eagels, the winner has to be how she gets the part in Rain. In real life, according to her biographers Eric Woodard and Tara Hanks, she probably unearthed the manuscript from a pile in producer [Sam] Harris’s office. In the movie, Jeanne is given the script by the once-great and now-alcoholic actress ‘Elsie Desmond’ (Virginia Grey, hitting her two scenes out of the park) in hopes that Jeanne’s star power can help Elsie convince a producer to take both the play and her. Instead, Jeanne convinces the producer she’s perfect for Sadie Thompson. The despondent Desmond throws herself out of the window of her Bowery flophouse, and the resulting guilt is what sends Jeanne spiraling into addiction. (In 1950s biopics, there’s always a moment of guilt, trauma, or betrayal that starts someone drinking; nobody ever goes from cocktails to the drunk tank without a precise cause.) This near-slanderous bit of fantasy was no doubt a big part of what caused Eagels’ surviving family to sue (they lost) … No wonder Woodard and Hanks spend a good seven pages debunking this film and the number it’s done on perceptions of Eagels.