Having watched William Wyler’s masterful 1940 film adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1927 play The Letter and having read quite a bit about Broadway star Jeanne Eagels’ remarkable talent, I was expecting to find at least a modicum of interest in Jean de Limur’s 1929 version of Maugham’s crime-of-passion melodrama. I’m sorry to report I was greatly disappointed, even though Garrett Fort’s screenplay is quite similar to the one used in the Wyler version.
Stuck on a Malayan rubber plantation with her aloof older husband (Reginald Owen), British subject Leslie Crosbie (Eagels) finds affection in the person of a lively but womanizing playboy (Herbert Marshall). When he abandons her for a Chinese madam (Lady Tsen Mei), Leslie becomes insanely jealous. During an ugly confrontation, she shoots him dead.
At the ensuing trial, the respectable Mrs. Crosbie is defended by the honorable Mr. Joyce (O.P. Heggie), who also happens to be a friend of the family. Everything seems to be going well and an acquittal is certain – that is, until the defense discovers an incriminating letter Leslie had written to her lover.
The owner of the letter, the Chinese woman, wants 10,000 dollars for it; else, she will hand the evidence to the prosecutor’s office. That would most likely mean the death penalty for Leslie.
Unlike the 1940 remake (or the one in 1947, The Unfaithful, starring Ann Sheridan), this version – made several years before the Production Code became fully enforceable – retains the play’s original ending, with Leslie’s crime going unpunished. That’s the one improvement over the remake, in which Leslie had to get her comeuppance before the final fadeout so the Code’s morality police could be pacified.
In every other respect, the 1929 The Letter is abysmally inferior to the remake. Under de Limur’s flat direction, the film is even more static than many of the other talkies made at the dawn of the sound era, feeling about twice as long as its 61-minute running time. In fact, this version of The Letter is little more than a filmed play featuring stage-trained actors who, with one exception, can’t tell the difference between acting for the camera and acting for a theater audience.
Only Herbert Marshall, an excellent performer who went on to have a lengthy and distinguished film career (Trouble in Paradise, The Little Foxes, The Razor’s Edge, The Fly), manages to appear effortlessly natural. As the soon-to-be-bullet-ridden playboy, Marshall exudes such low-key charm that it’s easy to understand why jilted-lover-turned-murderess Leslie Crosbie is so mad about him. (In the 1940 remake, Marshall plays Leslie’s henpecked husband; in that version, the lover is only fleetingly seen as the murder victim.)
[Photo: Jeanne Eagels as jealous murderess Leslie Crosbie.] Low-key, however, is hardly the appropriate manner to describe Jeanne Eagels’ bombastic talkie début in a role played in London by Gladys Cooper and on Broadway by Katharine Cornell. Eagels, a sensation on stage as Sadie Thompson in W. Somerset Maugham’s Rain and the star of a handful of silent films (e.g., The World and the Woman; The Fires of Youth; Man, Woman and Sin, opposite John Gilbert), acts the part of the adulteress-murderess as if she were playing to the far corners of the gallery. (Rain was unavailable for a film adaptation at the time because Gloria Swanson had produced and starred in Raoul Walsh’s Sadie Thompson the year before.)
Eagels’ performance is all mannerisms – hand to forehead to show distress, trembling voice to show despair – and no emotional core. While Bette Davis’ 1940 Leslie looks and acts like a cool, calculating vixen, Eagels’ comes across like a shrill, uncontrolled ferret. No wonder her lover dumps her for the more self-disciplined Chinese madam.
Especially upsetting is that Eagels’ screeching all but ruins what should have been the film’s climactic last scene, in which the unpunished Leslie defies her husband, society, and morality to declare, “With all my heart … and all my soul … I still love the man I killed!”
Paradoxically, despite my strong reservations about her performance, Jeanne Eagels remains the main reason for watching the 1929 version of The Letter. After all, her Leslie Crosbie is the only extant talking performance of the legendary actress whose tragic life would end as a result of a drug overdose (apparently a suicide) in October of that year. (During his brief directorial career in Hollywood, Jean de Limur also helmed Eagels’ other talkie, the now lost Jealousy, which, curiously, would also become a Bette Davis vehicle: Deception, in 1946.)
Also worth noting is that Eagels received excellent reviews when The Letter came out. She was “considered” for a Best Actress Academy Award for the period 1928–1929 (there were no official nominations that year), thus becoming the first performer to be posthumously considered – or (unofficially) nominated – for what would in a few years be known as an Oscar. Mary Pickford, by the way, won that year for Coquette.
THE LETTER (1929). Director: Jean de Limur. Cast: Jeanne Eagels, O.P. Heggie, Reginald Owen, Herbert Marshall, Irene Browne, Lady Tsen Mei, Tamaki Yoshiwara. Screenplay: Garrett Fort; from W. Somerset Maugham’s 1927 play, itself based on a Maugham story found in the 1924 collection The Casuarina Tree.
Jeanne Eagels/Herbert Marshall/The Letter photo: Warner Bros. Digital Archives