Jeanne Eagels: The Original Sadie Thompson

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Today is the birthday of Jeanne Eagels (Eugenia, Eagles, 1890-1929). Eagels legend today rests on her performance in the stage version of W. Somerset Maugham’s Rain (1922-26), in the shadow of which all subsequent Sadie Thompsons (Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford, Rita Hayworth) were to suffer.

A native of Kansas City, Missouri Eagels joined the Dubinsky Brothers travelling stock company at age 12, initially as a dancer, but later working her way into speaking roles in the company’s repertoire of melodramas and comedies. A brief marriage to one of the Dubinksy Brothers failed, and Eagels made her way to New York, dyed her hair blonde, and reinvented herself as a chorus girl, eventually getting bit parts in Broadway shows, once again working her way up to speaking parts. By 1913 she also began appearing in films. While a success on both stage and screen by the late twenties she developed a reputation for being temperamental, unreliable and drunk. Her last stage Broadway play was Her Cardboard Lover (1927) with Leslie Howard, which ran for over four months. Then Equity suspended her for bad behavior and she returned to movies, making the talkies The Letter and Jealousy (both 1929). Her performance in the former earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, but unfortunately by that time she was dead. Doctors were in disagreement as to whether the agent of her expiration had been alcohol, tranquilizers, or heroin — it may well have been all three.

The life of Jeanne Eagels was memorialized in the 1957 film Jeanne Eagels starring Kim Novak, although, as in all such films, it is wildly inaccurate in nearly every detail. Here is a scene from The Letter:

For more on early film history don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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