Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Broadway Greats Via The Silver Screen

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.


Kimberly J.M. Wilson said...

Interesting idea for a post. I saw the Eagles version of The Letter recently, too, and have to say her performance was a tad overly dramatic for me. Still, you are right that it is nice to have a preserved piece of film to see her at work.

DorianTB said...

FlickChick, I love this post! I love live performances, but time and money make it difficult to see stage performances, especially since we moved from NYC to NE PA in 2001. I'm so glad you posted all those memorable stage-to-film performances, especially Marilyn Miller's - what a shame she died young from a sinus infection, considering nowadays that wouldn't have been fatal. Indeed, what a shame so many of these performers died too young. When I first saw Jeanne Eagels' 1929 version of THE LETTER. I swear she sounded and acted like she was strung out, so I wasn't surprised when you explained Eagels' sad real-life situation. But I'm happy you included THE MUSIC MAN, one of Team Bartilucci's favorites among Robert Preston's memorable performances! Great post!

Samantha said...

Stage to screen performances, That was a great post and I loved reading about some of the actress I did not know. So sad that they seemed to die so young.

Aubyn said...

This was a great idea for a post and I was fascinated by all your choices. I'll have to look up the Jeanne Eagels version of The Letter.

Unknown said...

Awesome post! I will spotlight your
"Broadway Greats Via The Silver Screen" post, this coming friday.

I also saw the Eagles, version of, The Letter and I have to agree with Kim, her performance was overly dramatic.


I really prefer movies over theater because of their "eternal" appealing. This gets bigger because I live in a small town and theater shows are not common here, but I can watch good movies whenever I want, usually starring people gone long ago.
It's sad that the women showcased here had short lives!

ClassicBecky said...

Wow, Chickie, this is one of my favorite of your pieces! Of course, I grew up listening to Broadway soundtracks, and always have felt it is a terrible loss that we will never see Ethel Merman as Mama Rose in Gypsy, Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza in Sound of Music, so many more. It is wonderful to have a few treasures on film.

I saw the Jeanne Eagels version of The Letter, and your comparison to Davis' performance is right on. I do prefer Davis, although I feel as she did -- she hated the sanitizing of the story, especially the ending. Now that I think of it after reading this, she and Eagels were exactly alike in their styles in those early years. I think perhaps Eagels would have matured and learned to act on film had she been given the chance. I'm sure she was dynamite on stage.

And Helen Morgan -- what a heartbreaker. Ava Gardner was absolutely fabulous as Julie, her best performance I think, but when she sang Bill (dubbed), the total emphasis of the scene was on her beautiful face, close-ups almost exclusively. With Helen, she's an ordinary-looking woman who would never have any trouble finding a man compared to Ava. This to me shows more pathos in the song, and I liked the way it did not linger on her face, but on the meaning of the song and the reaction it got from the people around her. Marvelous.

Don't hate me, but I never liked Marilyn Miller much. Her tap dancing reminds me of Ruby Keeler's heavy-footed tap in 42nd Street, although I do realize that was a popular form back in those days. Forgive me? LOL!

Robert Preston, Robert Preston -- what a man in every way! I fell in love with him in Music Man and still am. His personality is so much like my Dad, so perhaps that old theory is true! Anyway, can you imagine New Jersey Italian Frank Sinatra in that part? I love Frank, but no way! Even Cary, who can do no wrong, is too cool and subtle for it.

I adore Broadway and movies alike. This is a great idea for a piece, and an excellent job!

ClassicBecky said...

Boy did I make a mistake in a sentence about Helen Morgan. I meant to say "an ordinary-looking woman who would have a lot more trouble finding a man to love than Ava!"

FlickChick said...

Kim, I think this woman must have been electric on stage.

FlickChick said...

Thank, Dorian - and just who does not love Robert Preston?

FlickChick said...

Samantha - yes, these ladies didn't seem t last very long, did they?

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Rachel. It seems Jeanne Eagels is an acquired taste, but I think she is definitely worth watching.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Dawn! I guess Jeanne really is an acquired taste!

FlickChick said...

Hi Le - the number of people who see a movie compared to a stage performance is so large - it's so precious to have the work of these great performers forever on film.

FlickChick said...

Okay, Becky, I will try not to growl about Marilyn Miller. At least she doesn't look at her feet like Ruby does! I would ask you to watch her in the "Wild Rose" number. Her dancing is so wonderful - the camera can barely keep up with her. And when she flings those roses at her admirers, well, I think she deserves a few roses of her own.

ClassicBecky said...

Uh oh -- I knew I probably shouldn't have said that about Marilyn. I pulled your focus with that one! Yes indeed, Ruby does spend the whole time looking at her feet! Well, I hope it makes up for it that I so admire all the other people you spotlighted... I promise I will take the first chance to see the "Wild Rose" number.

FlickChick said...

Oh Becky - I forgive you for! Sometimes it is really hard to see the appeal in these antique films. The quality is poor and these artists are not film artists. Most of them did not stick around long enough to get accustomed to film acting. Preston came from movies to the stage, so his film performances were polished and assured. Marilyn did appear in a Broadway show with Fred Astaire. I would have loved to have seen that one! (but I'd be about 100 years old now!)

ClassicBecky said...

Oh gosh, I need to correct your birthday card -- I thought you WERE going on 100. Wa-wa-wa ......

FlickChick said...

And looking mighty good for my age, I might add!

Elizabeth Boyde said...

You did know -- TCM is showing Jeanne Eagels in the THE LETTER (1929) on Saturday 8/16.

Program that DVR! :)