More small roles followed in stellar films such as “A Tale of Two Cities” (1935), “Lost Horizon” (1937), “Gone with the Wind” (1939), “Northwest Passage” (1940), and “High Sierra” (1942). Such was her success that in the ’30s and early ’40s, Jewell earned as much as $3,000 a week as an MGM contract player. Over her career, from 1930 to 1972, she made more than a hundred films. Despite her film success, she began a slow descent into obscurity and self-destruction.
But 50 years after her death, her star burns as brightly as it did during her heyday. Isabel Jewell remains the embodiment of the adage “There are no small parts, only small actors.” No matter how minimal the role, she made it memorable. As journalist-lyricist Robert Musel declared of Jewell’s talents, “She is the girl tossed into a picture to make the rhinestone stars sparkle. A few minutes before the camera, an explosion of emotion.”
Two films with Ronald Colman (though hardly a “rhinestone star”) convey that explosion of emotion. In Frank Capra’s “Lost Horizon,” Jewell makes an early impact as the consumptive, shady lady Gloria, trapped on a crashed plane with diplomat Robert Conway (Colman) and fellow passengers in a desolate, blizzard-swept area near the Tibetan border. As Conway tries to reassure the travelers, a maniacal cackle arises from the passenger seats, and Gloria cries out: “That’s perfect, just perfect. What a kick I’m going to get out of this. A year ago, a doctor gave me six months to live. That was a year ago. I’m already six months to the good. I’m on velvet. I haven’t got a thing to lose. But you—you, the noble animals of the human race, what a kick I’m going to get watching you squirm for a change. What a kick!” Her words then dissolve into a tubercular cough.
Jewell gives perhaps her finest film performance in “A Tale of Two Cities,” MGM’s lavish adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel, set during the French Revolution. Colman stars as Sydney Carton, the dissolute British barrister who decides to switch places with his look-alike friend Charles Darnay, sentenced for execution by the Reign of Terror. Carton resolves to do “a far, far better thing than I have ever done” by taking Darnay’s spot on the guillotine. As the condemned inch toward their death, Carton comforts a terrified seamstress (Jewell). “You’re not afraid,” she tells Carton. “The others are only pretending, but you … it’s almost as if you welcomed it. You’re so brave. When we go to the guillotine, will you let me hold your hand? That might give me courage, too.” With this five-minute scene in the movie’s last reel, Jewell commands the camera and gives the film’s most heartbreaking “explosion of emotion.” Carton reassures her that “yes, I’ll hold [your hand] to the last” and then adds “keep your eyes on me. Mind nothing else.” She responds, “I can bear it so long as I’m near you.” Even Madame Defarge, had she been within earshot, would have to crumble.