A curio, the Hollywood film version of W. Somerset Maugham’s story and play The Letter previous to the famous 1940 version that William Wyler brilliantly directed draws attention on two grounds: pre-code, it retains Maugham’s ironical resolution of the plot; it stars Jeanne Eagels, a legendary American stage actress who made nine films beginning in 1915. The Letter was released in 1929, the year of Eagels’ death at age 39; her performance deservedly received a posthumous Oscar nomination dictated by write-in votes; ridiculously and obscenely, however, Mary Pickford, one of the Academy’s founders, won the prize for what has remained the single worst Best Actress-winning performance of all time, in Coquette—a Helen Hayes-stage role that strained and shattered the authentic charm of “America’s Sweetheart.” Soon after, Hayes herself won the prize for her own stupefyingly silly histrionics in The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931). The sins of A.M.P.A.S., I say!
Bette Davis, of course, starred in Wyler’s remake of The Letter, giving a stunning performance as Leslie Crosbie, the wife of a Malayan rubber plantation manager. Representing colonialist presumption, the British couple are riddled with hypocrisy; one night, Leslie shoots and kills her former lover, who is also white and British and who currently favors his native wife—his native mistress, in the 1929 version. There is a trial, damning evidence is suppressed, and the invasive British community closes ranks to declare one of their own “not guilty.” Davis seethes; Eagels, by contrast, barks like a bitch. Her acting is fierce—at times, ferocious. Davis’s acting is profound; Eagels’, somewhat in a single groove.
But Davis, herself, idolized Eagels, and watching Eagels in this Maugham role, one detects its imprint on the Maugham role that made Davis a star: the blood-freezing Cockney vixen Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage (1934). As surely as Brando would owe something to John Garfield, Davis owed something to Jeanne Eagels.
The 1929 The Letter, though, is too slight and insubstantial to merit praise beyond the impression that Eagels makes. It is, simply, a melodramatic marital anecdote. The Wyler version, by contrast, is a towering achievement. This is the address of my blog entry devoted to it, which includes a good deal of background that is equally applicable to both versions:
By the way, Herbert Marshall plays the illicit lover in the 1929 version and the cuckolded spouse in the 1940 version.
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