The Letter (1929)

The Letter (1929)


In British Malaya, Leslie Crosbie (Jeanne Eagels, Man, Woman and Sin) and her businessman husband (Reginald Owen, Mrs. Miniver) live pretty conventional lives. One night, Leslie shoots an old friend (Herbert Marshall, The Little Foxes) to death. She claims that the friend was trying to rape her. No one doubts that such respected woman was forced to defend her life. The case goes to trial and it looks like Leslie’s testimony is supported by the evidence. However, a letter written by the defendant could change the outcome of the trial.

Reaction & Thoughts:

Initially thought to be lost, The Letter, directed by Jean de Limur, has been made available to the public via Warner Archive Collection. The print isn’t very good, but a bad copy is better than no copy at all.

Naturally, this early adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1927 play is not as popular as the 1940 version with Bette Davis. Personally, I had a lot of fun pointing out the similarities and differences between the two films. Quality-wise, there is no comparison. The 1940 film is a classic, and this film is slow and talky. Eagles’s fine performance remains the film’s most interesting element.

Something immediately caught my eye — stylistically, Jeanne Eagels and Davis aren’t that different. Both actors are edgy and anxious so one could say that they’re sisters under the skin. I can’t explain Davis’s wonderfully nervous fingers, but in the case of Eagles, they were the product of a serious drug addiction — she died of a drug overdose not long after completing the film.

Eagles entered the history books as the very first person to receive an Oscar nomination posthumously. She is fidgety to an almost surreal degree. That manic personality works to her advantage, though — it makes her look much more modern than the stilted manner of her co-stars.

I don’t want to be too hard on the actors. This is one of Paramount’s first sound films and actors had to adjust their performances to the limitations of the technical equipment. Herbert Marshall gives the second best performance in the film (he plays Leslie’s husband in the remake). Lady Tsen Mei is appropriately menacing as the Chinese woman who blackmails Mrs. Crosbie. O.P. Heggie, who plays Leslie’s defense lawyer, has gained immortality as the blind-man in James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Warner Bros. reworked the play for The Unfaithful (a very loose adaptation of Maugham’s original), with Anne Sheridan. It was remade yet again as a TV movie, with Lee Remick as Leslie Crosbie. For more on Eagles, I recommend movie buffs to watch the 1957 film Jeanne Eagles, with Kim Novak in the title role. B&W, 65 minutes, Not Rated.

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