Acting, like singing, is full of historical characters. If you are in the theater, or a live performer of any sort, most great performances are completely ephemeral, gone as soon as the curtain comes down and the audience shuffles out. Nevertheless, all over the world, people still talk about the great live performers who probably expired years before they were born, performances that live on in legend. Before moving pictures, none of these could be captured, of course, but people still talk of them as though they still walked among us. Richard Burbage! Henry Irving! Mrs. Campbell!!
One of the women whose star never dimmed was Jeanne Eagels, a Broadway leading lady who died a heroin addict at age 39. She created the role of Sadie Thompson, the prostitute led astray by a preacher, in the play “Rain”, based on a story by Somerset Maugham, whose specialty was white people going bonkers in the tropics. (The horror, the horror! and the heat!)
Of course, the role of any woman of ill-repute was catnip to me from the time I was very young. I read the play, saw all three movies based on it, (Gloria, Joan, Rita) and thoroughly enjoyed the cheap thrills of vicarious sinning. Although Jeanne Eagels was one of the biggest stars working at the time, but there was no film of her in “Rain” and I despaired of ever seeing her with my own eyes.
A couple of years ago I discovered that she had made a movie of “The Letter”, based on another short story by Somerset Maugham. Well, there she was, and I had my chance to see what it was that everyone was talking about. It was a revelation.
“The Letter” takes place in Burma, (or someplace similar, I forget) on a rubber plantation. She is, of course, Madame Bovary, lately come from civilization, and isolated on her husband’s plantation. Jeanne was fantastic. Her voice was quite odd, high pitched, with an upper-class accent I couldn’t quite place. In the movie, she kills her lover, and nearly gets away with it, until the letter she has written to him is turned over to the police by his other lover and…oh, never mind. Suffice it to say, she has one helluva scene near the end where she goes mad, screaming “Rubbah! Rubbah! Rubbah!” It’s hair raising, I tell ya.
Another performer who might never have been captured on film is Mae West. She was a huge star on Broadway in her own productions of her own plays, and she wound up in Hollywood almost by accident.
I have been watching Mae West movies recently, to get a bit of a leg up on her. HBO wants to make a movie of her life, and it was quite a life. Mae was a breath of fresh air in those constricted times. Where other fallen women would be punished cruelly by having fallen so low, Mae’s characters positively reveled in their lowly status. She not only enjoyed being bad, she and her characters always made a fortune out of it. She completely upended the idea that the bad girl had to pay for her sins. Covered in diamonds she had earned honestly through her illegal labors, she loved sex, made the strait-laced furious, and everyone else howl with laughter. She had a great run until the Hays Code shut her down. The best thing she did was kill a few cinema stereotypes along the way…For all those fools who say women can’t be funny, take a look at Mae. She rocks.