A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Letter (Jean de Limur, 1929)

Her fascinating performance in this version of the Somerset Maugham melodrama might have won Jeanne Eagels an Oscar -- the second one ever given for best actress -- if the Academy hadn't been determined to give it to Mary Pickford, who had been one of its founders. Certainly Eagels outshone Pickford's ridiculously hammy Southern belle in Coquette (Sam Taylor, 1929). Though there were no "official" nominations for the award this year, Academy records show that Eagels had been under consideration -- as well she should have been. Her Leslie Crosbie is edgy, nervous -- a sharp contrast to the grim, icy Leslie that Bette Davis created in the 1940 remake of the story. Only at the end of the film, in a blazing release of the tension she has stored up does Eagels demonstrate the full power of the character, with her celebrated pronouncement, "With all my heart, with all my soul, I still love the man I killed." In sharp contrast to the later film, made under the watchful eye of the Production Code, which insisted that all criminals must receive their due punishment, this version ends with Leslie walking free, though she's hardly in an enviable emotional state. Eagels had been a sensation on Broadway in another Somerset Maugham vehicle, playing Sadie Thompson in Rain in 1922. Her stage career was troubled by her alcoholism and addiction to heroin, but the reception of her performance in The Letter suggested that she could have made a remarkable career in Hollywood. Six months after the film's release, however, she died suddenly; the toxicology report found alcohol, heroin, and chloral hydrate, which she took to help her sleep, in her system. Both versions of The Letter, incidentally, feature Herbert Marshall, though in this one he plays the man Leslie murders, whereas in the 1940 film he is Leslie's husband. But Eagels is pretty much the main reason for the survival of this version. As a very early talkie, it feels almost primitive: There's no music track, and throughout the film there's very little ambient sound. We see the streets of Singapore which, though they're thronged with people, are shown with no crowd noises, and even when we get to the Crosbies' plantation we see men playing on musical instruments from which no sound comes. This was Jean de Limur's first film as a director -- he had worked as an actor and writer in Hollywood. George J. Folsey, the film's cinematographer, later claimed that it had really been directed by the more experienced Monta Bell, the credited producer, who wanted to launch de Limur's directing career. After making one more film, Jealousy (1929), also starring Eagels, de Limur moved to his native France, where he continued his directing career into the 1940s.

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