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In Kansas City, Missouri, in the late 1910s, Jeanne Eagels, a young waitress filled with dreams of stardom, enters a beauty contest at the local carnival. Although a traveling salesman had promised Jeanne first prize in exchange for sexual favors, carnival owner Sal Satori awards the prize to another contestant. As the carnival packs up that night, Jeanne approaches Sal, and claiming that she rightfully won the contest, brashly asks him for a job. The coarse Sal begrudgingly hires Jeanne, and after becoming romantically involved with her, promotes her to the position of "hootchy kootchy" dancer. One day, the police come to the carnival and arrest Jeanne for her "obscene" dancing. At the trial, the judge is so dazzled by Jeanne and her skimpy, bespangled costume, that he dismisses the case. Exhilarated by their court victory, Sal decides to sell the carnival and go into business with his brother Frank in Coney Island. As soon as they reach New York, Jeanne informs Sal that she has arranged to take acting lessons from renowned drama coach Mme. Neilson. Although he wants to settle down with Jeanne and start a family, Sal resigns himself to Jeanne's decision, hoping that she will soon tire of acting. When Jeanne meets with the imperious Mme. Neilson, however, the teacher calls her a cheap carnival performer. After Jeanne reacts vehemently, Neilson, impressed by her fervor, agrees to take her on as a student. Jeanne begins her climb to fame after the star she is understudying goes on vacation and Jeanne takes her place to much acclaim. When Jeanne spurns Sal's family celebration in her honor for a press party, Sal returns to Coney Island, angry and alone. Later that night, an elated Jeanne comes home, sheds her clothes and plunges in to the sea. Sal runs in after her, and after they reconcile, he proposes. When Jeanne replies that she is auditioning for a new play, Sal realizes that they have grown apart. After the play opens in Washington, D.C. to scathing reviews, theatrical producer Al Brooks escorts Jeanne to a party held at the estate of a wealthy dowager. There, Jeanne meets the dowager's indolent nephew, the soon-to-be-divorced John Donahue, whose sole achievement in life was to be named All American in college. Now promoted as "the golden girl," Jeanne fears that her play will fail on Broadway. Outside the theater one day, actress Elsie Desmond, who was once considered a golden girl until her career was dimmed by alcohol and drugs, approaches Jeanne and shows her a copy of Rain , a play she optioned in the hope of making a comeback. Jeanne promises to talk to Brooks about the play, but upon reading it, envisions herself as its star. Upon discovering that Elsie's option has lapsed, Jeanne lies that Elsie wanted her to play the lead and convinces Brooks to produce it. When Sal learns of Jeanne's betrayal, he accuses her of acting despicably and breaks off their relationship. On opening night, just as Jeanne is about to walk on stage, Elsie stops her and denounces her as a monster. When the audience, unable to contain their admiration for Jeanne's performance, breaks out in applause in the middle of the second act, Sal leaves the theater, defeated. After Elsie publicly accuses Jeanne of stealing her play, Jeanne goes to talk to her, but when she arrives Elsie's hotel, Jeanne finds a shoe on the windowsill and sees Elsie's body lying in the street below, a victim of suicide. Racked by guilt and remorse, Jeanne is comforted by Sal, but she lashes out at him and turns to John. Soon after, John informs Jeanne that his divorce is final and asks her to marry him. Two years later, as Jeanne begins to drink heavily, the press tags her with the sobriquet "Gin Eagels," and when her drunkenness causes the cancellation of several of the play's performances, Actor's Equity complains that Jeanne's absences are depriving the play's actors of their paychecks. Meanwhile, Sal has become a successful businessman, having opened a of chain theaters and carnivals with his brother, but still longs for Jeanne. As the years pass, Jeanne and John descend into the depths of alcoholism, causing their relationship to deteriorate. While Jeanne is in Hollywood filming a movie, the stagehands derisively refer to John as "Mr. Eagels." Their marriage now meaningless, Jeanne divorces John and is forced to pay him a large settlement. As Jeanne prepares to open a new play in New York, she finds Sal standing in an alley in back of the theater, gazing at her poster. After Jeanne bitterly asserts that she plans to "stay on top," Sal rejects her offer to attend the opening. That night, a drunken Jeanne arrives at the theater and sends for an unscrupulous doctor to administer sedatives to keep her going. After the doctor injects the drug, Jeanne goes on stage and begins to behave irrationally, finally collapsing in front of the audience. After Jeanne's play is cancelled, Actor's Equity forbids her to work on the legitimate stage for eighteen months. Witnessing Jeanne's desperation and humiliation, Sal offers her a job at his vaudeville theater, performing in between the trained seal act and the slapstick comedians. One day, a wistful Jeanne visits Sal at the amusement park and after confessing her desperate unhappiness, asks him to marry him. Although he still loves her, Sal replies that Jeanne is "not the marrying kind." Later, in her dressing room, Jeanne is sexually accosted by a leering comedian. When she tries to resist, the man throws her to the floor, calls her a drunken tramp and leaves. Hysterical, Jeanne swallows a handful of pills, causing her to hallucinate. Thinking that she hears her cue, Jeanne collapses and dies while descending the stairs to the stage. A few days later, after Jeanne's last film opens at a New York theater, a tearful Sal sits in the audience, watching the shadowy figure of Jeanne singing "I'll Take Romance."