Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Letter (Paramount, 1929)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I showed Charles one of my once-common but now rare double bills of two versions of the same story: The Letter, the play by W. Somerset Maugham that premiered in New York City on September 26, 1927 and was first filmed by Paramount at their studios in Astoria, Queens in 1929 with the tragically short-lived Jeanne Eagels making her sound-film debut (she had made six minor silents in the 1910’s and a film called Man, Woman and Sin with John Gilbert at MGM in 1927). The rights were later purchased by Warner Bros. and The Letter was remade in 1940 as a star vehicle for Bette Davis, whose career has some quite striking connections with Eagels’. Both were given their star-making roles by actor George Arliss — Eagels in the U.S. premire of Arliss’ stage vehicle Disraeli in 1917 and Davis in the film The Man Who Played God (her first prestige picture and the start of her 18-year stint as a Warners contract player) in 1932. Both achieved major career-boosting successes in stories by W. Somerset Maugham — Eagles on stage in Rain in 1924 and Davis in the first film of Of Human Bondage in 1934. Davis went on to play a character loosely based on Eagels in the 1935 film Dangerous (which won her her first Academy Award) and to remake both of Eagels’ sound films, The Letter in 1940 and Deception (retitled from the Eagels version, which was called Jealousy) in 1946. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Eagles in The Letter definitely comes off as a sort of beta version of Bette Davis.

The 1929 film of The Letter was produced by Monta Bell (who had previously worked with Eagels as director of Man, Woman and Sin) and, like the later version, centers around Leslie Crosbie (Eagels), wife of Robert Crosbie (Reginald Owen), who runs a rubber plantation in Singapore for a company based back in the U.K. Bored with the isolation of life as a planter’s wife, she’s begun an affair with Geoffrey Hammond (Herbert Marshall), another member of Singapore’s English community, only he wants to break it off because he’s fallen in love with Li-Ti (Lady Tsen Mei), a half-white, half-Chinese woman whom he’s made his mistress. The film opens with a bored Leslie writing Geoffrey a letter, which she has one of the native boys who work the plantation deliver, telling him she’s desperate to see him and she needs him to come over that very night. He does so and they play an intense confrontation in which he says that he’s in love with his “half-caste” girlfriend and no longer has any use for Leslie — and she responds by grabbing her husband’s revolver from a convenient table and emptying it into him. He tries to flee and staggers out of the Crosbie home onto its front veranda, then collapses and dies. Leslie sends another one of the “boys” to summon the police and tells a reasonably convincing but obviously well-rehearsed story that Hammond essentially tried to rape her (though even in the genuinely “pre-Code” era of 1929 — at that time the Hays Office had a list of “don’ts” and another list of “be careful’s” but the formal Production Code wasn’t drafted until 1930 — the “R”-word couldn’t be used) and she shot him in self-defense. Despite the influence of her husband and his friends — including prestigious local attorney Howard Joyce (O. P. Heggie, who’s actually billed second, ahead of both Marshall and Owen!) — Leslie is arrested and held in jail until she can be bailed out.

The case goes to trial and Leslie testifies, easily brushing aside the prosecution’s rather lame cross-examination of her, but that night she and Joyce are approached by On Chi Seng (Tamaki Yoshiwara), a servant boy of Li-Ti’s, who tells them that she has the letter and will accept $10,000 for it, otherwise she will turn it over to the prosecutor and he’ll be able to use it to overturn Leslie’s self-defense claim and convict her of murder. Li-Ti makes two conditions — Leslie has to bring the money herself and it has to be in cash — and in what’s by far the finest scene in the film, Leslie has to visit the Chinese quarter of Singapore, witness a fight between a snake and a mongoose, and deal with Li-Ti deliberately keeping her in suspense over whether she’ll hand over the letter or not. What’s more, Leslie has done all this without telling her husband, and has exhausted his total savings to buy back the letter, thereby making them broke just as he was counting on using that money to buy his own plantation in Sumatra. When she finally does have to tell her husband what’s been going on, he not unnaturally demands to see the letter he’s had to pay his entire life savings for, and there’s a famous final scene in which he announces that her punishment is going to be that they will never leave Singapore and she’s going to have to endure the boring life of a planter’s wife for the rest of her life — and she says that his punishment is going to be that he’ll live with her in full knowledge that, as she puts it in Maugham’s famous final line, “With all my heart, I still love the man I killed!” The Letter is an oddly awkward film technically, full of long silent montages for which director Jean de Limur and whoever was in charge of the sound editing (such as it was in 1929) didn’t supply any background audio — not music, not natural noises, nada — and passages of great visual beauty and intense atmosphere (the cinematographer was George Folsey) exist cheek-by-jowl with long, talky dialogue scenes in which de Limur plants his camera front and center and doesn’t even do the standard shot-reverse shot cutting that became the normal way to shoot long dialogue exchanges when sound films matured.

The main interest in The Letter today is Jeanne Eagels’ performance; though hampered by the staginess of the direction and her own obvious discomfort with the medium, she’s still an electrifying screen presence, acting the part with the same mix of bored disinterest and flaring intensity that would later make Bette Davis a major movie star — and, like Davis, she’s not afraid to make herself look ugly, or at least slatternly, when that’s clearly right for the character. Eagels had had a grim history — she was both an alcoholic and a drug abuser, and she died of a heroin overdose at 39 shortly after finishing the 1929 film Jealousy — complete with blown performances and missed roles, as well as an ill-advised decision to follow her huge triumph in Rain with a comedy called Her Cardboard Lover in which her co-star, Leslie Howard, got the raves, but her real-life experience as a hard-bitten woman who’d been kicked around obviously suited her for this part. The other interesting aspect of The Letter is the intensity of the racism depicted in Garrett Fort’s script; Leslie Crosbie’s murderous rage is quite obviously triggered by her former lover’s insistence that he’d rather be with a woman of color than with her, and Leslie’s descent into the Chinese quarter is shown as a fish-out-of-water experience in which Eagels’ distaste comes across as much as racial prejudice as unfamiliarity with, and revulsion by, the Asian culture (or at least the grungy aspects she sees given that she’s dealing with the criminal element of Singapore’s Chinese community — she is, after all, there to pay off a blackmailer). It also helps a great deal that the 1929 The Letter ends the way Maugham’s play does — with Leslie alive, physically O.K. but psychologically a wreck, loudly proclaiming to her husband her love for the adulterous boyfriend she killed — and doesn’t have the tacky compromise ending the Production Code Administration insisted on adding to the 1940 version.