Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Jeanne Eagels (1957)

Besides being an obsessive collector of films (despite the figure in the sidebar to the right, I was up to 5273 at the last count), I also have an impressive collection of film-themed books. Some of these have been read cover to cover, others I regularly consult for reference, a few have been comprehensively skimmed, while others sit glaring at me from their shelves daring me to digest them. I guess I am something of a hoarder. Perhaps if I live to be 150 and retain all my senses (fat chance!) I will actually read them all, to say nothing of finally seeing all the elusive movies on my famous list and re-watching the pick of my collection. I must be a hopeless romantic...

One book that I certainly have read and enjoyed is titled "Lost Films of the Fifties" by Douglas Brode, published in 1988. The purpose of his selection is to showcase movies that were popular in their day, but which have become little known subsequently, overshadowed by those films of the decade which have come to be considered 'classics' -- even if they were not then the more successful films of their time. The above title is one of many that he includes and there are a surprising number of others that even I, the so-called film buff, have not seen; most of them are no longer shown on television nor have they been considered sufficiently worthy for release and reconsideration on disc.

"Jeanne Eagels" is the highly-fictionalised biopic of a real-life star of the early 20th Century, who has been forgotten as well. It features two of the most popular actors of the 1950s, Jeff Chandler and Kim Novak, in a tawdry version of Eagel's life. Although she was born into poverty, she was something of a child prodigy and appeared in Shakespearian productions from age eleven, touring with a travelling theatre company. She made a run of shorts and early features between 1913 and 1919, before conquering the Broadway stage in the 1920s. She originated the role of Sadie Thompson in "Rain" in 1924 and played the part for an amazing 648 performances. However a combination of drink and drugs eventually undermined her career, and after a last silent movie in 1927 with John Gilbert and two early talkies, she died young. Her performance in "The Letter (1929) earned the first posthumous Oscar nomination.

Instead of this largely illustrious life-story, this film opts for a seamy scenario and features Novak as a hoochie-coochie dancer in Chandler's travelling carnival, yearning to be a 'Becky Sharp' on the New York stage. When he joins his brother at his Coney Island enterprises, she bullies a famous acting coach, played by the wonderful Agnes Moorehead, into getting her an understudy role; of course she emerges as a budding talent to be reckoned with. She next grabs the opportunity to  appear in "Rain", the rights stolen from an on-the-skids actress (Virginia Grey) who has sought her help and who subsequently commits suicide. Despite being madly in love with her, Chandler can not easily forgive such self-serving behaviour and he is pushed further aside when she ups and marries a famous Princeton football star to better herself. As that relationship descends into a flurry of drunken orgies, Eagels increasingly needs 'something to calm my nerves' before taking the stage. Her flighty behaviour and her new nickname of 'Gin Eagles' cause Equity (which she had always refused to join) to ban her appearing on Broadway and it's back to Chandler and Coney Island. Naturally, as the movie would have it, she manages to fight her demons and stages a comeback -- although there is a swarmy Murray Hamilton waiting in the wings with his handy flask. The last shot is of a tearful and still adoring Chandler watching her charm a cinema audience with her latest hit musical -- a film she never made. The author of the book describes the movie as "irresistible trash" and I can not disagree with this very accurate description.

Kim Novak was never much of an actress but rather a beautiful object to be adoringly photographed. Even in her best-known movies, both comedies and dramas, she never seems quite real or shows much nuance. In this film she demonstrates her sexual, screen appeal, but it is only in the over-acting silent film sequences that she shows any real attempt to emote, albeit well over the top. Chandler died young and his Westerns and action movies are now largely forgotten too; he is probably best remembered for his role as Cochise in 1950's "Broken Arrow". I never thought of him as anything more than a 'hunk' of the period, but in this film he manages to show a surprising sensitivity and likeability. Mind you, the movie is all sheer schmaltz.

Perhaps I should return to Mr. Brode's book and list out some more of his 'lost' films that I've not seen and to discover whether they too can be 'found' lurking in YouTube's vaults.  


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