The Letter (1929)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB

USA, 1929. . Adaptation by , dialogue by Jean de Limur, based on the play by . Cinematography by . Produced by Monta Bell. Film Editing by Monta Bell, Jean de Limur.

W. Somerset Maugham’s play is better known through the 1940 version starring Bette Davis, but watching the original is a great way to chart the development of the art of film both technically and narratively. Former Ziegfeld Girl and Broadway star , who had made a number of films since the early teens, sadly appears in her final year on screen in a movie released not long before she died of a drug overdose at the age of 39, receiving a posthumous Oscar Nomination at that award’s second ceremony a year later.

Eagels is terrific as Leslie Crosbie, the wife of a British Singapore rubber plantation owner, who has recently ended a secret affair with Geoffrey Hammond (, who later played the husband in the Davis remake) thanks to his having “gone native” with a Chinese mistress named Li-Ti (played by stage and screen sensation ). Leslie writes Geoffrey a note on a lonely night asking him to come over and he does, but they quarrel when he refuses to come back to her and she responds by plugging him full of lead from her husband’s gun.

In court, Leslie tells the jury that she was acting in self defense after Geoffrey came to her house uninvited and pressed himself upon her, but the letter she wrote to invite him is evidence to the contrary, and Li-Ti won’t give it to her without making Leslie’s husband clean out his bank account first.

The moral conundrum in which this character finds herself challenges the wisdom of racial hierarchies in colonized countries, Leslie is proud of having no association with the Chinese people that she pushes into the background, and Li-Ti’s financial demands seem to be in the name of removing her ability to keep this up, making the film’s (typical for the time) indulgence in Asian character stereotypes feel a little bit more subversive than usual; in the ornate remake, one of the best directorial jobs of William Wyler’s career, fatalism takes precedence over moral instruction and a rather two-dimensional case of Orientalism is combined with an increased sense of enigma in the main character, most of whose ridiculous dialogue has been thankfully shorn to a minimum.

Eagels would certainly have been forced to learn a few more on-camera acting techniques had she not had the misfortune to die so young, she’s too twitchy in just about every shot, but she does have a great deal of natural complexity that shows that she understands that, even in these early days of talkies where films were more or less filmed plays, she needs to do more than just stand there and talk. Her face delivers no end of emotional range and her physicality suggests that even if she had to stand in one place to make sure the microphone picked up her dialogue, she knew to justify that position and find a way to make it dramatically exciting.

There’s no way that this version will ever surpass the accomplishments of the Wyler film, but there’s plenty to make this one worth checking out.

Academy Award Nomination: Best Actress (Jeanne Eagels)


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