A legendary stage actress of the 1920s--blonde, lovely, mercurial, self-destructive--Jeanne Eagels made only a few films, and only a couple of the last ones are known to survive. Even these are not readily available for viewing, but when these full-bodied melodramas are shown at archives or museums, they do give a highly vivid impression of what all the shouting was about.
Eagels began appearing on the stage at the age of seven. Her early days were rough financially, personally and professionally; the stuff of both melodrama and her genius, her story was later told by so many hands that conflicts remain as to what was true and what is mere legend. At the age of 25, Eagels began acting in films; she made five that are known of between 1915 and 1918, with titles like "The House of Fear" (1915), "The Fires of Youth" (1917) and "The Cross Bearer" (1918). She hit it big later, though, on Broadway, with her best-remembered stage role, that of sultry prostitute Sadie Thompson in an acclaimed production of Somerset Maugham's steamy tale of hypocrisy and redemption in the tropics, "Rain". Brought back to films, Eagels co-starred with--and out-acted--silent matinee idol John Gilbert in a very potent melodrama adeptly handled by stylish MGM house director Monta Bell, "Man, Woman and Sin" (1927). Given her growing stage fame, she did not return to films until talkies took over two years later.
When Eagels did venture into talkies, it was in two torrid melodramas at Paramount for the rather obscure journeyman director Jean DeLimur. Her last film, "Jealousy" (1929), teaming her with Fredric March, was no great shakes. The other film, though, "The Letter" (1929), an adaptation of another Maugham tale of deception and hollow sexual and colonialist values, was more worthy of her. Although suffering from the staginess which infected most Hollywood product of that technically troubled time, this film centered squarely on Eagels. Her voice harsher and deeper than one expects, her brittle good looks already cracking under her addictions and personal problems, the sometimes theatrical but always riveting and often brilliant Eagels tore into her script with a vengeance. As Pauline Kael writes, "Those blessed with movie-loving parents may still retain images of Eagels' corrupt beauty, and of her frenzied big scene when the heroine tells off her husband."
Eagels justly won an Oscar nomination for her efforts, but her career, already burning itself out, ended abruptly with her death from a heroin overdose at the age of 39. Her volatile persona instantly became the stuff of legend; Hollywood tried to cash in on it with a standardized biopic, "Jeanne Eagels" (1957), but Kim Novak in the title role, burdened by her script, suggested only a little of the original's vulnerability and less of her vibrant talent.