Film Forum hosts new 35mm print of 1929 Paramount film starring Jeanne Eagels
Norma Jean, Jean, and Jeanne. Before there was Marilyn Monroe there was Jean Harlow, and before her there was Jeanne Eagels. Eagels was primarily a stage actress and the other two were motion-picture actresses, but they all symbolized something—something blonde and bad and beddable, and they all died young—Monroe at 36, Harlow at 26, Eagels at 35.
Not very many people alive today ever saw Jeanne Eagels on stage or even on screen. On April 7, at Film Forum, there’s a rare opportunity to do just that through one of three showings there of a new print of “The Letter,” an early talkie starring Eagels in the year she died of an overdose, 1929.
(The other half of the one-day-only double-bill is a new restoration of the 1926 silent of “The Scarlet Letter” starring Lillian Gish under the direction of Sweden’s masterful Victor Sjostrom—who as an actor would much later be the old grandfather of Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries.”)
“The Scarlet Letter” is of course Hawthorne. “The Letter” is W. Somerset Maugham, whose 1927 play of that name would so fascinate Hollywood as a melodrama that they’d make it again, starring Bette Davis, in 1940—a film that quite a few people alive today have seen and still remember.
A bridge between the two versions of “The Letter” is Herbert Marshall, who plays the callous two-timing lover given six bullets between the eyes and elsewhere by Eagels in the first and the cloddish cold-fish husband of Davis in the second. Marshall is a loser in both cases, exemplifying in subtext Willy Maugham’s caustic opinion of heterosexual masculinity.
And Jeannie Eagels? She had already starred—twice—on Broadway, for hundreds of performances between 1922 and 1926, as an even more notorious Maugham South Seas heroine, the Sadie Thompson who seduces the Reverend Alfred Davidson in “Rain.”
In “The Letter,” in her genteel British via Kansas City via New York via California accent—fighting its way along a rudimentary sound track—it’s a little hard to imagine Eagles seducing anybody. But it’s not hard to imagine bored, platinum Leslie Crosbie, fed up with her husband and his goddamn rubber plantation in Indonesia—a place and environment and population she detests—being only too ready to be seduced by anything in pants that comes along.
When the plot takes her in person to the Chinese mistress of her late lover, $10,000 dollars in hand to buy back the passionate letter to him with which she is being blackmailed, Mrs. Crosbie’s Chinese rival makes sure that this aloof, uptight white woman gets a good look at a cageful of giggling birds, the whore-lets of a den of vice. For a split second, one gets the impression that Leslie Crosbie, for all her racist fear and loathing, might actually envy those twittering, unfree, uncaring prostitutes.
It is a better life, anyway, than being tied to a husband (Reginald Owen) who thinks more of his rubber trees (“Rubber! Rubber! Rubber!”) than of love, or being cast aside, after a mad adulterous affair, by a man who with brutal bluntness now says: “I’m fed up, sick of the sight of you… One either loves or one doesn’t.”
She reaches for the revolver. Plunk! Not a bang, but a plunk! And then five more plunks! And even so, the jury—an all-male jury of course—having listened to her lying story, comes right back in with a verdict of not guilty.
There is little that is subtle in this adaptation from Maugham by Monta Bell, Jean de Limur and some others, and less that is subtle in the direction by de Limur or—especially in a lot of crass raging at the end, once the truth has come out—in the portrait of Leslie Crosbie by Jeannie Eagels.
Actually the toughest and cleanest film portrait is that by O.P. Heggie of the barrister who has to defend this lying lady, even when he finally learns that she is lying—and even he then breaks down into a dundering male oaf who immediately spills her secret to her husband.
It’s enough to make anybody sick to death, and Jeannie Eagels shortly thereafter obliged all of them—directors, actors, Maugham, fans, the world and her own several husbands and lovers—with an irreversible exit. At Film Forum on April 7 there’s an opportunity to go and say, “Goodbye, see you sometime.”