Saturday, 27 August 2016

Jeanne and John… Man, Woman and Sin (1927)

“The popular opinion that Miss Eagels is highly temperamental and is hard to work with has no foundation in fact, I know of no other actress I would rather have working under me than Miss Eagels.”

Monta Bell clearly believed in Jeanne Eagels who seems to have been one of those charged characters whose startling expressiveness drew heavily on an inner turmoil. A major star on Broadway, when her creative energy would tune with the live audience, she apparently doubted herself more in front of the camera and as a result, this film took a little longer than expected to make.

Jeanne also had problems with drink and drugs or rather her self-medication in response to stress-induced anxiety we can only guess at. She deserves the utmost respect for what she achieved all in spite of those personal odds.

Joining her in body and the spirits was of course John Gilbert – maniacally handsome and a winsome performer again in this film, top-billed, co-writer and giving an outstanding performance not only against type but also one of genuine pathos and subtlety. JG's a man as much sinned against as sinning and one whose only crime was to love the wrong woman (in fact and fiction...).

Jeanne Eagels and John Gilbert
Only a few of Jeanne Eagels films survive, including Man, Woman and Sin and The Letter – an early talkie also produced by Bell, for which she would receive a posthumous Oscar nomination. She died aged 39 in October 1929.

Having starred for four years on stage in Rain she was more than ready to play Vera Worth a street smart, society editor who just happens to be having a relationship with her paper’s owner Mr Bancroft (Marc McDermott). She’s a tough-talking hot-metal vet whose heart beats pure ink and which has healed over so many times it’s unlikely to ever break again.

Into her life walks Al Whitcomb (Gilbert) a cub reporter so green and trusting in the nobility of female spirit that surely she’ll just find him a laugh, toy with him and cast him away once boredom and the need for her expensive treats-in-kind kicks in.

Jeanne Eagels strikes a pose for the film's publicity team
We first see Al as a child (played by Philip Anderson) who lives in very humble circumstances down an alley where his mother earns a crust by ironing. The alley is mixed race and, strikingly for a film of this vintage, little is made of this: the neighbours just get on.

Out in front is the big house where rich folks live. Al takes the laundry round for the mother and falls for her pretty and completely unattainable daughter. One house in the street is said to be haunted and one day Al goes in and emerges as cool as he can, impressing the whole gang but especially the girl. One kid remarks that gangsters probably hid out there whilst the girl above his station drops her candy in admiration.

She’s already on a pedestal and her mother will make sure that Al never pulls her down.

Al at work
Fast forward and Al is now John Gilbert, still attached to his mother and still very earnest. He gets a job packing newspapers for delivery and starts to make his way.

Shockingly, aroused by pictures of movie stars in the paper, he decides to visit a brothel where, before things can develop too far, he has to come to the aid of one of his journalistic colleagues who has gotten too drunk and opinionated for house rules to accept. Sobered up and grateful he tells Al to report for a junior reporter’s job the next day.

Now things start to move, and Al is asked to attend the Presidential Ball with Vera. Kevin Brownlow has said that parts of the film had been cut because originally Gilbert was to be seen interviewing President Calvin Coolidge and locations were filmed around the White House. Eventually the politicians got cold feet and pulled these intriguing scenes... which is a shame as they would have lent considerably more depth to this broadsheet morality tale.

The presidential ball
John Gilbert, who co-wrote and partially directed said that the film “…could have been great but it wasn’t…” quoting “private reasons” which may have been Jeanne Eagel’s challenging working practices or, more likely, this interference from the Executive.

Al’s coverage of the Ball goes down a treat and Kevin Brownlow has described the sequence when he returns to the Bull Pen eyes glazed with the story he now has to write, as silent film at its best. There are no title cards just close-ups of Gilbert’s intensity: he has found his forte and maybe more…

Al in the newsroom
Even Vera, whom he describes as the most beautiful woman at the Ball, is starting to be won over by his puppy dog presence and, tiring of Bancroft’s variable enthusiasm, she starts to encourage his affections.

But can it last and once Bancroft discovers the two alone in her apartment – provided by him naturally – Vera tries to protect him by saying he’s been pestering her, but Al won’t have it and keeps on wanting to say the truth. Tempers flare and Bancroft lifts up a heavy lamp… the camera drops to focus on the men’s flailing legs as they battle for the weapon only for the older man to fall, dead, to the floor.

No spoilers!
This much the film’s promotional posters give away, but the question is now about consequences and whether Vera will work with Bancroft’s men to cover up and push the blame on Al – or will she finally commit to her own truth and save him…

Man, Woman and Sin is an unusual film for the period in its handling of relationships, leading men, smoking – Vera’s intake is mentioned a number of times – and race. Politics would have been on that list too… no doubt Louis B. Mayer would have hated it!

John Gilbert gives an outstanding performance – up to The Big Parade standards, whilst Jeanne Eagels shows what a strong performer she was: it was a privilege to see one of her few films and good to find a new, old name to remember.

Man, Woman and Sin is officially hard to find but I was lucky enough to attend a private screening on 35mm: maybe one day it will be shown again?

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