August 1, 2015

Jeanne Eagels, The Letter

as LESLIE CROSBIE
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I remain endlessly fascinated by Jeanne Eagels. There's something in the way she blazes through The Letter, with a fiery bravura that is so raw and unlike anyone else she was competing with on 1928-1929's Best Actress shortlist, that has me in awe. I suppose it's because watching her play original Leslie Crosbie is like getting a rare and cruel sneak peak into all that could have been. We could have been blessed with a storied career on her end, we could have seen her star as Sadie Thompson(!!), we could have access to her second film released that year (with my favorite male actor of the era to boot!!), but the fateful Movie Gods above just didn't allow any of that to happen. So I use the term "cruel" because I find Eagels to be so good here, and to be spoiled by her skill here, to want to see more of her, is all for naught. I think that I am more impressed by her this time around because I watched her via the DVD version, instead of via the shoddy, grainy copy I had; with the restored DVD you are witness to a lot more subtlety in the way Eagles acts, and I was surprised to find that she had such a deep way of conveying Leslie's feelings across her face. In a way it seems like the role is fit perfectly for her; you can't help but think about her tumultuous substance abuse in the scene in which she lashes out at Herbert Marshall for having kept her from his presence for months, for he is essentially a drug to Leslie after all. I was so impressed by how she seamlessly fluctuates between hateful, bitter, sensitive and hopeless in the scene, and overall she brings a voracity that pumps up the film, even in spite of its early-sound awkwardness. Whereas Bette Davis' Leslie was tightly wound and slowly un-peeling, I find Eagels' Leslie more impressive and enthralling in the way she wears her heart on her sleeve. Her closing scene with her husband is absolutely killer, with Eagels expertly striding a delicate balance between explosive and tragic all at once. The thing I found most impressive is how Eagels performs with a determination that looks as though she has something to prove; she's in it to kill and she knows it, and that in turn grounds the film and makes everyone around her look like amateurs. Such a vibrant, authoritative performance, a turn which both acts as a sampling of what Eagels was capable of as well as being the only existing piece of her legacy available for the modern masses. And what a great one it is.


5 comments:

  1. Okay, I just put it on my Amazon wish list, and the comments there certainly echo you. Another lost Eagles, the silent, "Man, Woman, Sin" with John Gilbert has fascinated me too. Had she lived, I wonder how hard Thalberg would have lobbied to get her in an MGM contract, and how Greta, Norma and Joan would have regarded the added competition.

    By the way, Davis never hoped to outdo the Eagles version, and in fact revered Eagles herself. It was merely an opportunity to retell this strong story twelve years after sound film making had matured.

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    1. It's such a shame really, that's the only word that comes to mind when I think of Eagels and the trajectory of how her life/career came to an end. If only her movie with Fredric March (Jealousy) could be found already!!

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  2. This is really a fascinating performance

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    1. I'm glad you agree!! Do you prefer Eagels or Davis?

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  3. I would need to re-watch them both (which I will do someday)...

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