- The Letter movie (1929) review: Creaky yet a must-see as murderess + adulteress Jeanne Eagels’ sole extant talkie
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.)
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.
Screenplay: Garrett Fort.
From W. Somerset Maugham’s 1927 play, itself based on a Maugham story found in the 1924 collection The Casuarina Tree.
Cast: Jeanne Eagels. O.P. Heggie. Reginald Owen. Herbert Marshall. Irene Browne. Lady Tsen Mei. Tamaki Yoshiwara.
Cinematography: George J. Folsey. Film Editing: Monta Bell & Jean de Limur (both uncredited). Producer: Monta Bell (supervising producer).
The Letter 1929 cast and crew info via the AFI Catalog website and other sources.
Jeanne Eagels and Herbert Marshall The Letter image: Warner Bros. Digital Archives
Congratulations on a fine review. I agree with you, and I rarely read reviews. I found the film to be cinematically disappointing. I wanted to find the director and slap him. Jeanne’s timing is off, and she looks frumpy in most of her scenes. She seems mostly off kilter. The scene that makes me cringe is the one in which Ong (Tamaki Yoshiwara) shows the letter to Mr. Joyce (O.P. Heggie), Leslie’s attorney. He mugs, he rolls his eyes, he sighs-it’s actually painful to watch. Regardless, this film is a jewel. We have Eagels, and we have a superb play. I’ve read Maugham’s short story and seen the Bette Davis version (yes, superior) and the Eagels’ version-each has a different ending. I have not read the play.
I’d encourage you to have another look. Here’s Andrew Sarris on this film: “Where Eagels attains her epiphany of emotion is in the trial scene in which she gives testimony to her defense attorney played by O.P Heggie. Here De Limur [the director] holds down on the reaction shots so as to give Eagels sufficiently long takes to establish an intense lyricism in her elaborate lying; With Eagels we know all [about the murder she committed] before she opens her mouth on the witness stand, but she nonetheless succeeds in leaving our mouths open with a passionate duplicity that verges on sociological schizophrenia. Indeed, she leaves us suspended helplessly in that ironic limbo between the inferno of her private passions and the paradise of her public protestations. And irony of ironies, it is when she is reciting the litany of the nice girl fending off the male predator that she becomes most lascivious to all the patriarchal types on the bench and the jury box. It is the actress here first and foremost taking off on her own into those indeterminate realms were a very marginal art is enriched by a very powerful myth. This one sequence alone constitutes one of the greatest passages in the history of screen acting. The ending is almost equally stunning with Eagels releasing all the demons of her hypocrisies with her raucous defiance of her disapproving husband: ‘I STILL LOVE THE MAN I KILLED!'”
i knew tamaki yoshiwara do you have any photos of him?
I still remember seeing this with you at Cinecon 2004 - the first words I heard when the lights came up were “that sucked!” Thank you for expanding on your reasoning a bit for this review. :-)
As they say: LOL
Just a quick note.
I had no intention of rewriting history. Those were just my impressions of Jeanne Eagels in a particular film role.
I’ve been told she’s excellent in a silent called “Man, Woman and Sin,” with John Gilbert.
Well, let’s see…….I think the fault here would have to be the ineffective direction by Limur……..as a matter of fact, he only directed three films in the U.S and was unceremoniously fired and shipped back to France afterward………where he was a director as well but not for the last 31 years of his life……I wonder why?…….perhaps his inability to translate stage actors to film, his complete inability to understand the new sound process unlike, let’s say Roland West……and maybe almost as important…….his inability to speak english or desire to learn……..a handy skill perhaps when directing english speaking actors……..I don’t know, maybe that’s just me……….in order to know how good or bad Eagels was as an actress, we can only go by the eyewitness accounts of all the great actors and directors who knew her on stage who apparently feel she was one of a kind and magical to work with and watch and so forth……….my only suggestion here would be not to try to re-write history on the basis of a film “crafted” by an unimportant hack director whose only real claim to fame is that he knew the actors.
i stll wish i could see this version i have heard so much about her she seems to be a real mystery to me