Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday and another installment in our series of posts comparing the Pre-Code and Under-the-code versions of several classic films. This week we’re covering The Letter, originally produced in 1929 with the legendary Jeanne Eagels, and then remade in 1940 with Bette Davis. (There are also several other foreign language adaptations — along with other American productions — but those are exempted from today’s discussion.)
From a wonderful TCM entry on the 1929 Paramount film: “The character of Leslie Crosbie gave Eagels a lot to work with. The Letter closely followed the events and tone of [W. Somerset] Maugham’s play, which was taken from a story included in a 1926 compilation titled The Casuarina Tree. The narrative is set in the British colony of Malaya (near Singapore) and centers on the bored wife of plantation owner Robert Crosbie (Reginald Owen), who is more interested in his rubber crop than his neglected wife. Leslie has been carrying on a torrid affair with cad Geoff Hammond (Herbert Marshall), but he has transferred his attentions and affection to a half-Chinese woman named Li-Ti (Lady Tsen Mei). In a heated argument, Leslie shoots and kills Hammond after he admits he prefers the exotic charms of Li-Ti to her. On trial for murder, Leslie makes a believable claim of self-defense, alleging that Hammond was trying to rape her. The trial seems to be going her way until Li-Ti contacts Leslie’s lawyer (O.P. Heggie) about an incriminating letter that proves Leslie is lying.”
The 1929 adaptation, directed by Jean de Limur (with able support from Monta Bell), was regarded as a major step forward in synched sound filmmaking, although to viewers of today, the production aesthetics are likely to disappoint. Truthfully, the film, which runs a crisp hour, looks no worse than other films from 1929 that we’ve covered here, and while its reputation for innovation may be lost on modern audiences, the theatricality of the playing thrusts attention onto the story. This is a benefit, for the narrative is very tautly told, and while there are moments that play a bit too languidly for contemporary sensibilities, there’s nothing in the script that pads out the drama unnecessarily. And because most viewers today will have a difficult time actually watching the physical film, the storytelling is a worthy hook and serves as a means by which I can easily recommend this film.
Of course, the most obvious reason for seeking out the 1929 adaptation is to witness the only surviving sound film of iconic stage actress Jeanne Eagels, who died six months after the realease of The Letter. Long regarded as an influential artist whose mode of playing was fresh and unlike her contemporaries, the author of the aforementioned TCM article puts it well: “Eagels’ approach to acting has been dubbed ‘naturalism,’ but contemporary viewers might find her twitching, nervous gestures, and wide-eyed expressions in The Letter too obvious in comparison to today’s acting styles, which lean toward underplaying. However, dramatic stage acting in Eagels’ era focused more on elocution than emotion; that is, enunciating lines in a way that gave primacy to a play’s literary devices. In contrast, Eagels played the emotion of a scene, reacting and responding to the other characters, or interpreting her character’s state of mind.”
I must admit that when I first watched this film, I was taken aback by Eagels, whose physicality threatened to take me out of the scene and its truth. But in viewing the entire picture and reflecting on the material and how she presented it, I understand her power. In fact, it’s almost an awesome force — because the perhaps artificial “twitching” belies a heightened sense of truth, one that’s both external and internally charged and committed to the inherent drama. It’s not the type of acting we see today, but it’s shockingly effective, and in fact, perfect for the melodrama that Maugham’s play invokes. (The only moment that didn’t quite work for me was the scene in which her lawyer confronted her with the letter; the wide-eyed bit didn’t strike me as motivated choice; otherwise Eagels is breathtakingly nuanced and truly a revelation, dwarfing all of her scene partners, who seem distant and untouchable by comparison. The final scene is a wow-er. (Find it on YouTube.)
Bette Davis plays Eagels’ role in the 1940 adaptation and fortunately, she lives it entirely different than her predecessor, with more emphasis given to Leslie’s complex interior life, rotting away from doubt and guilt, but maintaing that trademark Davis strength. In other words, Davis’ Leslie is a cold customer, a heartless figure who has no problem lying and repressing all of the accompanying neuroses. This subtext is amplified by the genius direction of William Wyler, who brings an intimacy to the cinematography, thus allowing Davis the opportunity to perform the character with a sense of realism more attuned to what would be considered passable by today’s standards. While Eagels is powerful in what she shows, Davis is powerful in what she hides, and that justifies appreciation for both performances — as different as they are.
But Wyler’s direction is just as much a star as Davis, and if there’s any doubt, his skill makes the 1940 version a much better work of cinematic art — and it’s not just due to the accelerated technology; there’s a real sense of mastery here. Take for instance the infamous opening shot, a large sweeping spectacle that culminates with Bette Davis following a stranger out onto her porch and shooting him dead. (Talk about starting off with a bang!) Meanwhile, the supporting cast is much stronger in the 1940 film, particularly James Stephenson as the lawyer, whose scenes with Davis are the highlight of the film, and Herbert Marshall, who instead of playing the lover (as he did in the ’29 film), takes on the role of the snookered husband. Because of their strength, the picture becomes less microscopic in its view — it’s not just about Leslie, it’s about the rippling consequences of her actions and everyone who’s affected.
Consequences is an appropriate segue into the remake’s narrative flaws. Yes, with the implementation of the Production Code, there was no way that Leslie could get away with adultery and murder. In 1940, her character had to die. But it’s very narratively unnecessary and leaves the film less the uber-powerful ending that Maugham first granted in the play: “I still love the man I killed.” Yes, that moment still happens, and Davis is electric, but it’s no longer the button that it should be. Furthermore, the boyfriend’s “china woman” mistress is cleaned up to be a Eurasian wife. It’s another unfortunate change, but the scene where Leslie visits the other woman is more tension-filled and suspenseful here — despite the fact that the wife is played by a non-Asian actress, Gale Sondegraard. (The representation of the Asian characters is not 2016-PC in either incarnation of the film, but frankly, we’ve seen a lot worse.)
So, as usual, the final verdict remains similar. If you want to follow a juicier story, go to the Pre-Code version. If you want to see a better film, stick with Wyler and WB’s glossy rendition. As for the leading ladies, well, I’m going to call it a draw!
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in on Monday for another forgotten musical!