In the following video, I’ll discuss an actress who played Hitchcock villains across both the silent and sound eras. Isabel Jeans starred in one Hitchcock film (Easy Virtue) as a victimized socialite but it’s her performances as two upper crust baddies (Downhill and Suspicion) that are really interesting.
Pampered predator…victimized vixen…gambling gal pal. No matter who she’s playing, Isabel Jeans got to show off her range in three films directed by Alfred Hitchcock. She usually plays a figure established in high society whose romantic relationships are incredibly messy. She is…Hitchcock’s salacious socialite.
In her Hitchcock debut, and my favorite of her three performances, Jeans plays a vicious villain, an actress named Julia Fotheringdale. Julia has expensive tastes in cloaks and dresses and a parasitic financial relationship with most of her boyfriends.
The movie is Downhill and the protagonist, Roddy, is going to regret meeting Julia. She meets him as a penniless teenager who’s just been disowned from his family. Roddy clearly has a crush on her but it’s not until a relative dies and he comes into an inheritance of 30,000 pounds that Julia starts to show him any interest.
Once she does, Roddy unwisely agrees to pay for her expensive tastes. They marry and it doesn’t take long for Roddy’s bank account to be overdrawn. When he confronts Julia about it, he discovers she’s been cheating on him with another actor. In the ensuing fight, Julia shows that she cares much more about her material possessions than Roddy’s well-being. And in a final twist of the knife, she tells him to leave the apartment because it’s in her name.
Roddy definitely made some poor decisions to get in his situation, but I think it speaks to Jeans’ commitment to the character that you can understand why he does. When she’s seducing him, she’s very gentle and warm. It’s only when he’s caught in her web that her true nature comes out.
Also, her best costume is a shiny pajama pantsuit with fringe, pearls, and fur. It’s a gaudy display of wealth that really speaks to the character’s over-the-top sense of style.
In her next collaboration with Hitchock, Jeans gets the lead role. In Easy Virtue she plays Larita Filton, a woman who’s trapped by scandal and uses a young suitor as a life preserver. The setup is surprisingly similar to Downhill, except neither character is has ill intent. Larita doesn’t tell her husband the truth about her past, which she definitely should because it leads to a lot of trouble for her later once she meets the mother-in-law, but Larita’s never portrayed as a villain.
Jeans gives a quality performance, but I’m never completely sold by the film itself. It mostly involves punishing a woman for the indignities visited upon her by a misogynist society, so it’s not a great watch. However, Jeans fulfills the requirement of the character, giving the audience someone to root for while all the other characters are mean to her.
And now we transition to the sound era. Hitchcock works with Jeans one final time in 1941’s Suspicion. It’s her smallest part but it’s always fun to see a silent film star transition to sound. In the film, she plays Helen Newsham, a friend of Johnnie, played by Cary Grant. Again, Hitchcock casts her as a member of the upper crust. She gets to act opposite Joan Fontaine and reveal that her new husband Johnnie is not all he’s cracked up to be.
Jeans is excellent at implying a lot with her dialogue. The words alone seem harmless enough on the page but the way she delivers them is incredibly catty. The character clearly relishes knowing something that Joan Fontaine doesn’t and enjoys playing with her emotions.
All in all, Isabel Jeans had a fruitful partnership with Hitchcock. Although her lead performance is in a less than stellar film, she got to play two high society villains that reveled in toying with weaker characters.
It’s also exciting to see her perform in two different decades, twice in the 20s and once in the 40s, and see that she’s just as confident working in the silent or the sound era.
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And as always…the Sarris Wheel spins on.