Broadway vs. Hollywood - it's always been a case of apple and oranges. Hollywood stars don't always shine as brightly on the stage and stage legends don't always make the grade on the screen and whichever you prefer, it's always a matter of taste. However, there is one thing the movies have over the stage and that is permanence. After a great stage show, it all becomes just a memory. Once that performance is filmed it lasts, one hopes, forever. Especially in the early days of sound, many great stage stars tried their hand at movies and, while most didn't achieve great stardom in that medium, we are thankful that their talent is preserved.
Jeanne Eagles - The Letter
The great Jeanne Eagels. She is a stage legend and I was so thrilled to catch her only surviving sound film, 1929's "The Letter," on TCM recently. Yes, it is ancient and the sound technique positively antique, but the vibrancy and ferocity of Jeanne Eagels cannot be denied. Like a raw, jumpy nerve, she vibrates just on the edge of self-control. At the time this movie was filmed, Eagles was was in the throes of drug addiction and would be dead 6 months after the picture's release.
Watching Eagels, it is impossible not to compare her performance to that of Bette Davis in the 1940, slightly more sanitized, version of the same W. Somerset Maugham story. Davis, the film actress supreme, is smoother and much more subtle. But film acting had come a long way from 1929 to 1940 and something about Eagel's performance reminded me of something else - Bette Davis' 1934 breakout performance in "Of Human Bondage."
Here Davis acts in that raw nerve style similar to that of Eagels. Bette Davis was an admirer of Jeanne Eagels and it's fun to see the evolution of great dramatic film acting in such a short period of time. It's even more fun to have a permanent record of the great Ms. Eagels, for her's was an important talent.
Helen Morgan - Show Boat
Helen Morgan was a legendary torch singer who created the role of Julie in the original stage production of "Show Boat." She is an unusual performer for film, as her voice was rather reedy and she was not a traditional beauty. One thing Helen Morgan could do, though, was break your heart. Wildly popular in person, she had a lukewarm film career. She was a sensation in 1929's "Applause," but she was too unusual for film stardom. Luckily, she was asked to play the role of Julie in the 1936 film version of "Show Boat." Anyone who has heard her sing "Bill" can never forget it.
"Show Boat" would be Helen Morgan's last film. Her struggle with alcohol is written all of her face. Sadly, she passed away at age 41 in 1941 from the ravages of that disease. Happily, her great talent is preserved for all to admire.
Marilyn Miller - Sally
How do I love Marilyn Miller? Oh, in just so many ways. The original MM (for who the second MM was named), Marilyn Miller was a huge star and the darling of the Great White Way. A Ziegfeld protege and ex-wife of Jack Pickford, she was a diva deluxe who backed her demands with talent. Her dancing was legendary and she, like so many other stage stars, was courted by Hollywood at the birth of the all talking, all singing, all dancing musical craze.
Marilyn's greatest stage hit, "Sally," was brought to the screen by Warner Brothers in 1929. Filmed in early Technicolor, it only survived for many years in a tattered black and white version. Seeing Marilyn like this it is hard to fathom her appeal. She looks like a painted doll, as the Technicolor make-up looks flat and harsh in black and white. Added to unflattering looks, her singing voice is less than attractive. However, once she starts dancing, well, it all becomes clear. Filmed in full body shots like Fred Astaire a few years later, her love of dancing and entertaining cuts through all of the technical drawbacks of the era.
Some years ago an original Technicolor portion of "Sally" was discovered. Here, she is much lovelier (the make-up now giving her a flattering glow) and her elegance, joie de vivre and enthusiasm is on full display. Filmed on a set that was over 90 degrees, the energy of the dancers is impressive.
After 2 other films, Marilyn Miller headed back to Broadway. Musicals were dying at the box office and this diva was not interested in failure. Sadly, after one last stage triumph, Marilyn Miller would die in 1936 at the age of 38 from complications related to a sinus infection. Her signature song from "Sally," Look for the Silver Lining, is preserved forever and I am grateful.
Robert Preston - The Music Man
I am falling over myself with love for Robert Preston as Professor Harold Hill, but while it seems that absolutely no one else but he could play that part in the 1962 screen adaptation on the stage show, Preston was not Hollywood's first choice. Apparently Frank Sinatra and Cary Grant were considered, but, thankfully, reason prevailed.
Preston took an unusual path to stardom via this film. A well known film actor, Preston never quite made the "A" list during his years in Hollywood (1938 through the 1950s). He was handsome, appealing, a good actor, but a tad intense. There was something larger than life about him and, from 1952 through the 1970s, Robert Preston found his true home on the stage, solidifying his superstar status from 1957-1961 as "The Music Man."
And so, here is is - the only actor we can ever imagine in this role.
Preston's movie stardom was sealed with this film and he went on to have the pick of film and stage roles for the rest of his life. And boy, did he make every film he appeared in better for his presence.
Stage vs. Film: always a debate, always a matter of taste. But, thankfully, the fixed, forever nature of film preserves those legendary artists who, without it, we could only dream about.