The Eagels Has Landed

The only surviving sound film of the innovative and influential Broadway star Jeanne Eagels, the 1929 version of “The Letter” has surfaced courtesy of the Warner Archive Collection; my New York Times review can be found here. Eagels’s raw-nerved, convulsive performance style was decades ahead of its time, and her electric energy comes through vividly in this early sound production, the first all-talking feature to be made at Paramount’s Astoria studios. Eagels died from still-mysterious causes seven months after the film was released (her death has been variously attributed to drug addiction, alcoholism and general exhaustion), but her influence lived on most immediately in the person of a young admirer, Bette Davis, who channeled Eagels’s intensity for her breakthrough performance in “Of Human Bondage” and insisted that Warners buy “The Letter” from Paramount for the William Wyler remake of 1940.

Directed by Jean de Limur and produced by Monta Bell (who had worked together on Chaplin’s “A Woman of Paris”), the 1929 version suffers from some technical limitations but is overall a far more efficient and gripping film than the remake. Wyler, of course, had to deal with the absurd dictates of the Production Code, right up to the ridiculous ending that buries the play’s magnificent curtain line (“With all my heart and all my soul, I still love the man I killed!”) in a sequence that requires Davis to offer herself as a human sacrifice to a cliched Dragon Lady (played in yellowface by Gale Sondergaard).

In the original film, the character is fully developed and played with dignity and sly disdain by the Asian actress, Lady Tsen Mei, who had starred in a silent feature produced and directed by a Chinese American, James B. Leong’s 1921 “Lotus Blossom” (one reel of it survives, and can be seen in the 2004 National Film Preservation Foundation box set, “More Treasures from American Film Archives”).

De Limur, after directing Eagels in the lost “Jealousy,” returned to France, where he continued to work until the mid-40s, apparently without attracting the slightest attention. Yet there is skill and audacity in his work here, both in the building of atmosphere (colonial Singapore evoked with one miniature and three cramped sets) and his continuous, three-camera staging of Eagels’ great monologue.

130 comments to The Eagels Has Landed

  • Robert Regan

    Yes, Patrick, that is indeed Harris in Morocco. This was believed to be her first film, until she was recently discovered singing in Thunderbolt. I have managed to avoid The French Line for a long time. Now i’ll put it high on my list. Thanks.

  • Robert Garrick

    It’s been noted that the Fleischer Color Classic “The Tears of an Onion” (1938) has essentially the same plot as “Poor Little Me,” though the former involves a vegetable and the latter involves a skunk.

    And speaking of skunks . . . after thinking about this for a minute, I believe the two leading “other” heroes in cartoons are Pepe Le Pew (who triumphs notwithstanding his otherness) and Casper the Friendly Ghost (whose relationship with the normal world is more melancholy, though not without a good measure of existential success).

  • Robert Garrick

    Helen Beverley just died. I didn’t know the name either until I read her obit, but she was the female lead in a number of Yiddish films in the late 1930s. She was number two billed in both “Green Fields” (1937) and “The Light Ahead” (1939)–both films directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. She was 94. I hope someone interviewed her about the experience. When I was living in New York in 1976, I went to a Temple somewhere in Manhattan to see those two films.

    Helen Beverley died in Woodland Hills, California, at the Motion Picture Hospital, where scores of movie and television stars, writers, and directors have died over the years. Edgar Ulmer also died there, back in 1972. I went to high school in Woodland Hills (which is a suburban part of the City of Los Angeles) and my friends and I would often talk of all the great names who were living just a mile or so away.

    The only major stars left from the 1930s are Mickey Rooney (on the male side) and Luise Rainer and the DeHavilland / Fontaine sisters (from the female side). Maureen O’Hara is still alive–she was in “Jamaica Inn” (1939). And there are some other people like Ann Rutherford and Deanna Durbin.

  • Steve Elworth

    Robert, You forgot one of the biggest female stars of the Thirties is still with us, Shirley Temple!!
    Barry, loved your writing about Chuck, Daffy and otherness.

  • Junko Yasutani

    Also living is Yamada Isuzu and Hara Setsuko, careers staring from 1930s.

  • Steve Elworth

    Junko, you are right for Japanese stars of the Thirties, From France three great stars of the Thirties are still with us, Danielle Darieux, Micheline Presle and Michele Morgan.

  • Barry Putterman

    Steve, I’m glad that you liked the animation writing. When we were going to NYU and Greg Ford (and others) were writing, Hollywood studio animation criticism seemed on the verge of acceptance at the grown up table. However….

    Robert, I’m sure that I saw THE TEARS OF AN ONION a zillion times on New York’s “Sandy Becker Show” in my childhood, but I now have only the vaguest recollection of it. If the review on Imdb is accurate, both films start with the same basic premise but then develop in radically different ways.

  • Robert Garrick

    Steve, you are certainly right about Shirley Temple. In sports they talk about “peak value,” meaning the greatest level of exceptional performance over a short period of time. Well, in the movies no star in history (at least in the sound era in the United States) had more box office “peak value” than Shirley Temple, and she was the biggest thing going for three or four years in a row.

    Jane Withers was a popular child star in the 1930s too, and she’s still alive. And I mentioned Deanna Durbin.

    But other than Rooney, the top male children are all gone: Jackie Cooper, Roddy McDowell, Dickie Moore, Spanky McFarland.

    Notable male performers who date back to the 1930s and who are still with us: Tony Martin (whose credits start in 1935 and who will turn 100 next year) and Herb Jeffries, who will turn 100 in 2013 (he starred in “Harlem Rides the Range” in 1937; he was briefly married to Tempest Storm; and my favorite detail is that he sang the title song over the credits to “Wicked Woman”).

  • Steve Elworth

    The 94 year old Kirk Douglas did not make a film till 46, so he is the other major male star of the 40s to survive. I forgot about Withers as she was not as big as Temple or Durbin.

  • Robert Regan

    My friend, Brian Camp, sent me this list of cinema nonegenarians and centarians just last month.

    “You can see their photos at http://www.genarians.com. They only make up a
    fraction of the total – I think there are well over 300 names there.”

    ACTRESSES:
    Barbara Kent (1906, Flesh & the Devil),
    Dorothy Bartlam (1908, Call Me Mame),
    Carla Laemmle (1909, Dracula),
    Luise Rainer (1910, The Great Ziegfeld)
    Lupita Tovar (1911, Dracula (Spanish), mother of Susan Kohner),
    Paulette Dubost (Rules of the Game),
    Mary Carlisle (1912, Baby Face Morgan),
    Rise Stevens (1913, Going My Way)
    Anna Wing (1914, EastEnders),
    Patricia Morison (1915, Song of Bernadette),
    Olivia de Havilland (1916, Gone With the Wind)
    Isuzu Yamada (1917, Throne of Blood), Zsa Zsa Gabor (Moulin Rouge),
    Googie Withers (The Lady Vanishes), Celeste Holm (All About Eve),
    Danielle Darrieux (La Ronde), Phyllis Diller (Splendor in the Grass),
    June Foray (Rocky & Bullwinkle), Marsha Hunt (Smash-Up), Joan Fontaine
    (Rebecca)
    Janet Waldo (1918, The Jetsons), Marjorie Lord (Make Room for Daddy),
    Mary Healey (The 5,000 Fingers of
    Dr. T), Ellen Dow (Wedding Crashers), Joyce Redman (Tom Jones), &
    Audrey Totter (The Postman Always Rings Twice).
    Marge Champion (1919, dancer and model for Snow White) and Dulcie Gray
    (TV’s Howard’s Way) Michele Morgan (1920, The Fallen Idol), Renee
    Asherson (Henry V, 1944), Maureen O’Hara (The Quiet Man), Dinah
    Sheridan (The Railway Children), Nanette Fabray (The Band Wagon),
    Jayne Meadows (Enchantment, 1947), Ann Rutherford (GWTW), and Noel
    Neill (TV’s The Adventures of Superman).
    Carol Channing (1921, Thoroughly Modern Millie) Elizabeth Wilson (The
    Graduate), Barbara Hale (The Boy With Green Hair), Muriel Pavlow
    (Doctor in the House) and Jean Kent (The Browning Version).

    ACTORS:
    Johannes Heesters(1903, Die Fledermaus 1946),
    Herb Jeffries (1911, The Bronze Buckaroo),
    Tony Martin (1912, Till the Clouds Roll By, Mr. Cyd Charisse),
    Richard Coogan (1914, Captain Video) Norman Lloyd (Saboteur),
    Harry Morgan (1915, TV’s M*A*S*H), Wally Cassell (Sands of Iwo Jima),
    Frank Cady (Green Acres), Eli Wallach (The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly),
    Don Keefer (1916, Sleeper), Kirk Douglas (Spartacus),
    Herbert Lom (1917, A Shot in the Dark), Ernest Borgnine (Marty), John
    McCallum (Miranda), R.G. Armstrong (Stay Hungry), George Gaynes
    (Police Academy),
    Allan Arbus (1918, TV’s MASH), Efrem Zimbalist, (Wait Until Dark),
    Eddie Lawrence (1919, The Night They Raided Minsky’s), Louis Jourdan
    (Gigi), Al Molinaro (TV’s Happy Days) & Alan Young (TV’s Mister Ed)
    Mickey Rooney (1920, National Velvet)
    Frank Thornton (1921, Are You Being Served?), Abe Vigoda (TV’s Fish),
    and Harry Carey (The Searchers)

    DIRECTORS:
    Manoel de Oliveira (1908, I’m Going Home),
    Kurt Maetzig (1911, First Spaceship on Venus),
    Kaneto Shindo(1912, The Island-1962),
    Norman Felton (1913, The Man From UNCLE)
    Pat Jackson (1916, TV’s The Prisoner),
    Carlo Lizzani (1917, Achtung Banditi),
    Ted Post (1918, Beneath the Planet of the Apes) & Gabriel Axel
    (Babette’s Feast).
    Lester James Peries (1919, Rekava aka The Line of Destiny (1956) &
    Paul Bogart (TV’s All in the Family)
    Michael Anderson (1920, Logan’s Run), Lewis Gilbert (The Spy Who Loved
    Me), and Andrew McLaglen (TV’s Gunsmoke).

    PRODUCERS:
    Run Run Shaw (1907, Princess Yang Kwei Fei),
    Elmo Williams (1913, Tora! Tora! Tora!),
    Sherwood Schwartz (1916, TV’s The Brady Bunch),
    AC Lyles (1918, Apache Uprising), Artur Brauner (Europa Europa), Hal
    Kanter (TV’s All in the Family).
    Saul Zaentz (1921, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)

    MISCELLANEOUS:
    Frederica Maas(1900, screenwriter, Flesh & the Devil),
    Roy Douglas (1907, orchestrator, Major Barbara),
    Douglas Slocombe(1913, cinematographer, Raiders of the Lost Ark),
    Gilbert Taylor (1914, cinematographer, Star Wars),
    Van Alexander (1915, composer, TV’s I Dream of Jeannie), Oswald Morris
    (cinematographer, Fiddler on the Roof),
    Stanley Kauffmann (1916, critic),
    Fay Kanin (1917, screenwriter, Teacher’s Pet),
    Blaine Gibson (1918, Disney animator), Shinobu Hashimoto
    (screenwriter, Rashomon),) & Bob Schiller (screenwriter, I Love Lucy).
    Chris Challis (1919, cinematographer, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”) &
    Walter Bernstein (screenwriter, Fail Safe)
    . Ray Harryhausen (1920, special effects creator, Jason & the
    Argonauts).
    Bob Godfrey (1921, animator, Great – 1975)

  • Peter Hogue

    Dickie Jones (110 credits between ’34 & ’65, featured TV roles in “The Range Rider” and “Buffalo Bill Jr.”) is still around as well…

  • Robert Garrick

    Great work Robert R. I don’t think it adds any “major” actors to the 1930s list, but it’s amazingly comprehensive and useful.

    I believe Sherwood Schwartz (from the Producers section) died last week. I just saw Eli Wallach (age 95) in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” (hey, I’ll watch anything). He looked different in “Baby Doll.” Sylvia Miles was in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” too.

  • Robert Garrick

    P.S. We lost Googie Withers last week too.

  • Robert Regan

    You’re welcome, Robert G., but the thanks really go to Brian Camp. Yes, in the 25 days since I received the list, we have lost some of these people and, I dare say, we will be losing more soon enough.

  • Dear Mr. Dante: I don’t think Scorsese’s film essays are ever off topic! Particularly in this case. I happened to saw A Letter to Elia at Sodankylä Midnight Sun Film Festival and it was one of the highlights of the programme.

    I must admit I had taken Kazan’s films for granted. But when I saw Stathis Giallelis getting his face wet from salty sea water on the deck of a ship going to America, I was hooked. Haskell Wexler’s startling b/w cinematography in a beatifully restored copy of America, America (-63) was a revelation. Had to order the DVD immediately on the train trip home. And it didn’t disappoint: what a great film, and a continuation of the Sodankylä festival’s “hidden” Armenian theme brought there by Atom Egoyan and his films. (Kazan’s Greek uncle figure has an Armenian friend in the Anatolian mountains.)

    Also Scorsese managed to show details of such and old war horse as East of Eden in a new light. The shadowy figure behind the tree in the garden, the dancing steps of James Dean hopping off the train…

    The essay also had one thinking how much – if at all – Kazan’s broadly precise, even theatrical film style has perhaps affected Scorsese’s later films.

    Off-off topic: In light of all that’s been talked about here lately, it was painful yesterday to watch Mildred Pierce on tv and see (and hear) the film’s black maid stereotype. What on earth did they think they were doing? Otherwise a fine film, of course.

  • Robert Regan

    I too just saw A Letter to Elia and was deeply moved and impressed by Scorsese’s “personal essay”. His non-fiction films are on an extremely high level, and are something much greater than “timeouts” from his feature films. He reminds me of the “men of letters” who seemed to thrive in earlier centuries. Being about the same age as Scorsese, I went through similar filmgoing experiences in the fifties. Kazan was one of my first “auteurs”, though, of course, we hadn’t yet imported that word. It was arguably the director’s richest period. More than a half century after seeing Wild River on a Thursday afternoon in the practically empty Loew’s State in New Brunswick NJ, it is still for me Kazan’s masterpiece.

  • Has anyone else here listened to the audio commentary on Robert Wise’s ‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’? It’s terrific.
    Martin Scorsese is on it briefly, Paul Newman has a phone-call appearance (you can tell Wise is quite pleased about this) and the commentary track is organized quite ingeniously as when Newman is beating the other boxer in the final match, there is the same kind of success story on the audio track, as Wise is explaining his progression into Hollywood from hauling prints to being an editor to finally directing.
    On the subject of Scorsese, you can see the similarities between the scene in ‘Somebody Up There’ where the young thugs steal the fur coats and the truck robberies in ‘Goodfellas’.

  • Robert Garrick

    Robert R., I agree about “Wild River” (which I saw at Doc Films circa 1978). The British auteur critics always made a fuss about that film but it never seemed to get much attention in the U.S. It’s got some thematic elements in common with “Magnificent Ambersons,” though the demographics are 180 degrees away.

    My second favorite Kazan would probably be his adjacent color film, “Splendor in the Grass.”

    Kazan was another director I tried to promote to Sarris when I had him on campus back around 1975, but Sarris was dismissive. He did say, though, that Kazan was probably the greatest director ever when it came to working with actors, and that’s not a bad legacy.

    Kazan made some films that are downright embarrassing (“Gentlemen’s Agreement”); some that are a little too establishment-friendly (“Gentlemen’s Agreement,” again, and “On the Waterfront”); and a few expressive and personal ones of the sort beloved by auteur critics. “Wild River” tops this last category.

  • Robert Regan

    Robert G., I think you’re a bit hard on Gentlemen’s Agreement. What redeems it for me are the two complex and richly played female characters. On the other hand, I still have some problems with Splendor in the Grass, though it is indeed a favorite of many cinephiles I respect highly. Some of the acting is too much for me, and I thought the period costuming too “stylized”. However, I still find the last scene tremendously moving. One of the things that struck me in the Scorsese film was that Kazan did indeed “become” Kazan with On the Waterfront which began nearly a decade of intense creativity culminating in Wild River. And, whatever faults he may have had, my blessings on him for introducing Lee Remick as well as providing her best role.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    Another unheralded director – Otto Brower. I’m watching his 1932 Fighting for Justice, starring Tim McCoy, a sub-hour programmer shot by the reliable Ernest Miller (d.p. many Republic films for years as well as The Steel Helmet). Like other Brower westerns of the 1930s, it is rich in visual appeal beyond its poverty row roots (this is Columbia, so a bit elevated from that, but in 1932, not much). There are elements in this film that remind me of later Fords, particularly in the ease in which the hero is presented as iconic and how the community is blended into the story.

    Brower mostly worked for Gower Gulch companies until 1936, when he went to Fox for the final decade of his career, where most of his work lies unexposed (I’ve only seen 3 of these 14).

    Apart from this film, my vague positive memories include his Scarlet River, Postal Inspector, The Gay Caballero and Behind Green Doors.

  • jbryant

    If nothing else, the switch in topic allows us to offer a slightly belated congratulations to Scorsese and Kent Jones for their Emmy nominations for directing the A LETTER TO ELIA.

    Last night I watched THE WORLD AND THE WOMAN, the Jeanne Eagels vehicle that was linked to above. The first act or so is pretty impressive, with an interesting variety of shots and brisk editing (Frank Lloyd and Eugene Moore are listed as co-directors on imdb; the Thanhouser print credits only Eagels, the writer and the editing/titling team). Once Eagels’ prostitute becomes a faith healer, the melodramatics dominate. Nonetheless, Eagels is superb throughout — and she’s clearly a natural film actor, with few traces of theatricality even when the story seems to be insisting on it. I’ll definitely check out THE LETTER when I get a chance.

  • Otto Brower is best known to film history as the director of the gross-out footage in John Ford’s stern warning to randy GIs abroad, the 1942 Signal Corps production “Sex Hygeine.” He was a busy second unit director who made the occasional Poverty Row feature; my favorite is probably the Mascot serial “The Phantom Empire” (co-directed with B. Reeves Easton), a science-fiction Western that has a 76-year jump on “Cowboys & Aliens.”

  • Richard T. Jameson

    Otto Brower directed some of the most dynamic footage in other, often duller directors’ movies–which is to say, doing second-unit action and spectacle. He did invaluable backup work at Fox, and his and B. Reeves Eason’s contributions to Duel in the Sun seamlessly abet King Vidor’s efforts.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    He didn’t quite make 90 – Michael Cacoyannis has died at 89.

  • Joe Dante and Hannu, I agree with you about Martin Scorsese’s LETTER TO ELIA, it’s a deeply moving and personal essay, and the visual quality of the excerpts is brilliant. Three weeks ago in Bologna I saw for the first time Kazan’s MAN ON A TIGHTROPE. On display was a fine Twentieth Century Fox studio print. I was surprised to discover that it’s a personal film, too, reflecting the black list mentality into the Stalinist harassment beyond the Iron Curtain, and casting Adolphe Menjou as a Stalinist secret police officer (the character is punished, because he is considered too lenient!).

  • Antti, from your Film Diary I understand America, America was there also to be seen!

    Surely I’ll have to rethink this man Kazan, and admit having great holes in my knowledge of his filmography. “Everybody” says that Wild River is among his greatest and I only have a dim memory of it from a distant showing on tv, maybe in black and white… I just noticed, that most of Kazan’s films were b/w, but not Wild River.

  • The main article mentions “A Woman of Paris”. By coincidence, I saw that film just last night, it is very interesting, a rare drama from Chaplin. I am doing a study right now of Chaplin’s features and a few of his shorts (the ones available to me) in chronological order. My goal is to get a focus on Chaplin as an artist. I want to see how his craft developed from his short films into his features.

    I’m trying to really find a purpose under his work and I think all of his features have an overriding theme. Modern Times dealt with the machine age. The Great Dictator was to satarize Hitler’s regime. City Lights was about the purity of love. However, with The Gold Rush, I am trying to understand what Chaplin was trying to accomplish. Sure, it is a comedy, but what is he really trying to achieve here? The Tramp was always a symbol of the little guy fighting back against a brutal world, but in The Gold Rush, I’m not sure what he’s trying to do. Maybe I’m overthinking it.

  • Gregg Rickman

    Jerry, I would strongly recommend you watch the recently restored Keystone shorts of Chaplin’s; I watched them all a couple of months ago and they were quite the revelation. Raw, really funny stuff. His complete works (all the other shorts, and the features) are now all more or less easily available and amply repay close viewing.

    I don’t know if Chaplin’s features translate into easily graspable themes, but THE GOLD RUSH is obviously influenced by the then two-decade old gold rush in the Yukon, and more generally the practice of risking one’s life for gain. Certainly the scenes of two or three starving men in a cabin trying to kill and/or eat each other (the highlights of the film, in my opinion) offer a brilliant parable of … shall we say… Capitalism? But my appreciation of Chaplin’s films are not for their Big Themes but for the humor, and for the mercurial flow of Chaplin’s performances (particularly after 1940, when he’s not playing The Tramp anymore).

  • Simone

    By the way, Jean de Limur will direct, in 1943, a very interesting Italian film, Apparizione. It is a meta-cinematographic divertissement about film stardom as sociological phenomenon. Starring Amedeo Nazzari (Matarazzo’s leading actor) as himself, it also anticipates Nazzari’s role in Fellini’s Le notti di Cabiria (and Fellini, in fact, worked as uncredited screenwriter for Apparizione).

  • Thanks, Simone, for the information about Jean de Limur. None of his films have surfaced in my part of the world apart from “The Letter.”