powered by AFI
Harry Cohn, Columbia's querulous studio head, intended Jeanne Eagels to feature Kim Novak in her first solo starring role. Prior to this 1957 biopic about an explosive 1920s stage and screen actress, Novak had costarred in such films as Picnic (1955), The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), and The Eddy Duchin Story (1956) with high-profile male stars whose characters were the center of the action. InJeanne Eagels, the action was not only driven by Novak's character but the young actress appeared in almost every scene. Cohn's plan was standard practice in the star system during the Golden Age whenever a studio was developing a major movie star.
Cohn had groomed Novak to be a love goddess for the silver screen in the mold of Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe, and Rita Hayworth. The latter was also under contract to Columbia, but she had disappointed Cohn with her marriages and her rebellious behavior toward him and the studio. His plan was to replace the mutinous Hayworth with his new sensation, Novak. However, Novak balked at his machinations and at the sex goddess image he created for her.
In her early films, Cohn clearly cast her to display her glamour and sex appeal, and the accompanying publicity campaign followed suit. In Pushover (1954), she plays the femme fatale; in Picnic, she plays Madge, the town beauty who embodies male desire and aspiration; movie magazines called her the girl with the lavender-tinted hair who liked to sit among her lavender cushions. Yet, Novak's interpretation of the love goddess did not simmer and burn with passionate desire; instead she played her characters coolly, passively, and with little expression. At best, her demeanor gave her characters a vulnerability, or made them as enigmatic as the Sphinx; at worst, her characters seemed emotionless, leaving Novak open to criticism that she possessed a limited acting range. Much has been written about her passive-looking face and anesthetized vocal delivery. Detractors denigrate her abilities, while supporters claim her style was a deliberate attempt to add class and mystery to her sex-symbol image. Either way, a tension exists between Novak's image as a love goddess or sex symbol and her refusal to play into it. Leave it to Alfred Hitchcock to understand the nature of this tension and then to exploit it. In the first half of Vertigo (1958), Novak does not actually play a character but a cool, enigmatic "ideal" that the protagonist falls in love with; in effect, he falls for an illusion that has been made up, or created. In the second half of the film, she plays a down-to-earth character whose honesty and dimension hold little appeal for the protagonist.
Jeanne Eagels differed to a degree from Novak's other roles. Cohn and the studio hoped to increase her cache as a movie star by showcasing her in a meaty role that would reveal her potential as a serious actress. In promotional material from Columbia, the real-life Jeanne Eagels was touted as the "best native actress of the century," a stretch even by the standards of Hollywood publicity. Eagels had been an unpredictable and temperamental actress who became famous for her starring role as Sadie Thompson in Rain. She made a few films, most notably The Letter and Jealousy (both 1929), before she died in 1929. Reading between the lines of the promotional material, the idea was to compare Eagels and Novak; if Novak was playing someone designated the "best native actress," then she too must be worthy of such praise. The public was warned, however, not to expect the film to be faithful to the facts. Jeanne Eagels opens with the contradictory statement, "...all events in this photoplay are based on fact and fiction."
Yet, no one wanted the public to forget that she was the studio's major female star and its premiere love goddess. The opening credits of Jeanne Eagels are played over a scene in which a wide-eyed, spirited Novak strides into view from the background. She walks briskly up to the camera until she is caught in a perfect medium shot. As she smiles, a title card flashes "Starring Kim Novak." No other actor appears in the credit sequence, and viewers are immediately reminded that it is completely Novak's vehicle. The lighting by cinematographer Robert Planck enhances her star status, often bathing her in light, or outlining her feminine silhouette in high-contrast lighting. To underscore Novak's sex appeal, the first dialogue scene involves Eagels showing off her body in a swimsuit to a traveling salesman who has coaxed the young girl into entering a beauty contest at the local carnival. (Novak had also been a beauty queen. Supposedly, she had been the reigning Miss Deep Freeze for an appliance company when she came to Hollywood.) Later, Eagels works the carnival as a scantily clad "cooch" dancer. When she is arrested on a morals charge for her provocative dance, the carnival manager gets her off the hook with the judge by comparing her physique to the Venus de Milo. In a visual joke, Novak's extended chest and exposed abdomen are tightly framed in the foreground, but her head is cut off in the composition so that she resembles the famed statue. The astonished judge is so taken by the young woman's physique that he dismisses the case-a humorous reminder that Kim herself was famous for her full figure. The publicity may have been designed to promote Novak as a serious actress but certain scenes and shots in the film recalled her star image-a classic cake-and-eat-it-too scenario typical of the star system.
Challenged by the role of Jeanne Eagels, Novak immersed herself in learning all she could about the ill-fated actress who died from drug addiction and alcoholism at age 35. She read a great deal about Eagels, plastered photos of the actress in her dressing room, and listened to phonograph records of music from the 1920s. She requested that an accordionist play "Poor Butterfly" on the set to set the proper mood, which was a throwback to the silent era when music was played on the set to keep actors in character. More significantly, Novak played Eagels at a higher energy level than was typical for her. From the moment when a young, smiling Jeanne first bounces across the screen, Novak offers more emotion, more expressions, and more vocal changes than in any of her earlier films. The high point of Novak's performance was the scene near the end of Eagels' marriage to John Donahue when the two spend New Year's Eve together drinking in excess. Eagels turns to wish Donahue a "Happy New Year" only to discover he has passed out. She screams the words in his ear, passionately kisses her unconscious husband, and then throws herself on top of him. The scene is raw with emotion and brutal to watch, but Novak effectively captures the character's tortured soul. Rarely in her career would she play such a temperamental and unpredictable character that would prompt her to push beyond the cool, complacent surface of her star image.
Despite Novak's atypically expressive performance, Variety claimed that she was "dull," and not "tempting or temperamental" enough. But, they were also critical of other cast members, including Jeff Chandler, who costarred as colorful carnival manager Sal Satori. Chandler, who was a popular actor with female audiences during the 1950s, was prematurely gray, which lent his characters an air of authority. Unsung in this role because it was Novak's vehicle, he offers a heart-wrenching performance as Sal, who begins as Eagels' protector, climbs to new heights as her lover, and then falls in status when his carny background becomes a hindrance to her career.
Working on Jeanne Eagels exhausted Novak, and the film's mixed reviews were a disappointment. When she discovered that Chandler had received $20,000 for his role, and she received only $13,000, she took on Harry Cohn. She fired her agent, hired the William Morris Agency to represent her, and refused to report for her next film. Cohn immediately suspended her, but William Morris paid Novak the equivalent of her salary, so she rode out the suspension. Eventually, Cohn relented and offered her a contract worthy of a major star.
Producer: George Sidney
Director: George Sidney
Screenplay: Daniel Fuchs, Sonya Levien, and John Fante, based on a story by Fuchs
Cinematography: Robert H. Planck
Music: George Duning
Editor: Viola Lawrence and Jerome Thoms
Art Director: Ross Bellah
Costumes: Jean Louis
Cast: Jeanne Eagels (Kim Novak), Sal Satori (Jeff Chandler), Mme. Neilson (Agnes Moorehead), John Donahue (Charles Drake), Al Brooks (Larry Gates), Elsie Desmond (Virginia Grey), Equity Board President (Gene Lockhart), Frank Satori (Joe De Santis), Chick O'Hara (Murray Hamilton), Quartermaster Bates (Snub Pollard).
by Susan Doll