The Letter (1929)

Synopsis:

In Singapore, a respected businessman’s wife, Leslie Crosbie (Jeanne Eagels, Man, Woman and Sin), shoots an old friend to death. Leslie vigorously claims that the friend was trying to rape her. The case goes to trial, and it looks like Leslie’s testimony is supported by the evidence. However, a letter written by the defendant on the night of the crime could change the outcome of the trial.

Reaction & Thoughts:

 “I’ve made such a mess of things, haven’t I?”

Initially thought to be lost, The Letter, directed by Jean de Limur, has been made available to the public via Critic’s Choice Video. The print isn’t very good, but a bad copy is better than no copy at all. In any event, this is a flawed but fascinating early talky, where troubled actress Jeanne Eagels gives a performance hard to forget.

Naturally, this early adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1927 play isn’t as well-known as the 1940 version, with Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie. 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 creaky. Eagels’s fine performance remains the film’s most interesting element.

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

Eagels is fidgety to an almost surreal degree. That manic personality works to the actress’s advantage, though. Strangely enough, the weird mannerisms make her stand out among her co-stars, who are still operating on silent mode. By the way, Eagels entered the history books as the first person to receive an Oscar nomination posthumously.

I don’t want to be too hard on Eagels’s fellow actors. This is an early sound movie, so the actors were still learning how to work with the sound equipment. Herbert Marshall, who plays Eagels’s lover (interestingly, he plays the husband in the remake) is actually pretty good. Lady Tsen Mei is appropriately menacing as the Asian woman who blackmails Eagels. O.P. Heggie (Bride of Frankenstein) plays Eagels’s lawyer.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Although hard to find, The Letter is worth seeking out. It was remade in 1947 under the title The Unfaithful (a loose adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s story), with Anne Sheridan. It was remade yet again as a TV movie, with Lee Remick as Leslie Crosbie. For more on Jeanne Eagels, I recommend movie buffs to watch the 1957 biopic Jeanne Eagels, with Kim Novak as the ill-fated actress. B&W, 65 minutes, Not Rated.

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