Jeanne Eagels is one of those film figures who is notorious rather than famous. She was a beautiful stage actress who caused a scandal on Broadway with her erotic performance as Sadie Thompson, the hooker in "Rain". Her film career started promisingly, but her secret drug addiction became increasingly difficult to conceal. By the time she made her last film, her arms and legs were distressingly thin and she looked like a blonde skeleton. She died at 35. Like a few other movie figures (Houdini, George M. Cohan, Fanny Brice) her own movies are less well-known than the movie ABOUT her, in Eagels's case the bio-pic starring Kim Novak (who was much more beautiful than Eagels ever was).
"The World and the Woman" stars Eagels as Mary, a broken-down prostitute in New York City. (An unfortunately prophetic role.) Handsome playboy James Palmer (Thomas Curran) invites her to a high-toned party, then offers her a job as a maid on his country estate, far away from the street lamps and pavements of Mary's cruel world. Grasping a chance to turn respectable, Mary accepts.
Palmer's estate is next-door over to the home of the Collins family. Mary befriends this family's young daughter (well-played by Ethelmary Oakland). Mary accompanies the little girl and her parents to church, where Mary kneels and prays for her redemption.
Palmer, meanwhile, has no interest in going to church ... although he likes to see Mary kneeling. He makes it plain to Mary that he expects sexual favours as part of the terms of her employment ... otherwise, she can go back into the gutter with the other whores. When Mary resists his advances, he tries to rape her ... but she fights him off and flees to the home of the Collinses, who offer her a job as housekeeper and governess for their small daughter.
All is well until the little girl falls downstairs and is paralysed. Through prayer and faith in God, Mary helps the girl recover. Divinely inspired, Mary begins a new career as a faith healer ... until sceptics threaten to expose her past as a prostitute and as the "mistress" (they think) of Palmer. What will happen to Mary?
Jeanne Eagels gives an astonishing performance. In the early scenes as the prostitute, she is appropriately downtrodden and masochistic. We gradually see her developing a sense of self-worth and divine purpose. Some viewers may be put off by the strong religious flavour of this movie (the script bluntly accepts the reality of God and the divine power of prayer), but the story is affecting and impressive even if you don't accept its premise. The script was mostly written by William C. de Mille (lower-case "d"), father of Agnes de Mille and older brother of Cecil B. De Mille (with a capital "D").
As good as this film is, it's difficult to accept Mary's spiritual regeneration as genuine, because we're painfully aware of the real tragedy that had already begun for Jeanne Eagels. At the time she made this film, her drug addiction was already under way. What a tragic waste of a talented life.
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