A shot in the night, a faithless wife, a vengeful woman and a damning billet-doux!
US / 61 minutes / bw / Paramount Famous Lasky Dir: Jean de Limur Pr: Monta Bell Scr: Garrett Fort Story: The Letter (1927 play) by W. Somerset Maugham Cine: George Folsey Cast: Jeanne Eagels, Reginald Owen, Herbert Marshall, Irene Brown (i.e., Irene Browne), O.P. Heggie, Lady Tsen Mei, Tamaki Yoshiwara.
This is the first screen adaptation of Maugham’s famous stage play; it was remade in 1940 as the far better known movie The LETTER, dir William Wyler, with Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall and James Stephenson. (Intriguingly, Marshall played the adulterous lover in the first version, the wronged husband in the second.) Until 2011 the 1929 adaptation was effectively a lost movie, all of it that survived being a nitrate work print (which you can view here); but in that year it was restored and released as part of the Warner Archive Collection. I’ve included a couple of screengrabs from the work print below to give you an idea of the near-miraculous job the restorers have done.
We’re on a Singapore rubber plantation, and a wonderful long approach shot takes us through the plantation to a bungalow room where Leslie Crosbie (Eagels) is sitting doing her lace while husband Robert (Owen) is inspecting one of his rifles. It’s a scene of placid domesticity, one that’s hard to reconcile with the fact that—as we soon discover—Leslie has been having a torrid, longstanding affair. One can imagine why she’s been seeking some excitement where she can, though, because the dreariness of plantation life, and of marriage to Robert, becomes evident as the couple talk:
Robert: “It’s only wives like you can make these godforsaken places bearable, Leslie. Seven years on a rubber plantation, with no company but natives and a lot of dowdy planters’ wives.”
Leslie (wearily): “Yes, Robert. That ought to be a test for the good wife.”
A snug domestic scene with Leslie (Jeanne Eagels) and Robert (Reginald Owen) Crosbie.
Leslie (Jeanne Eagels) looks up sardonically from her lace — a first hint that she’s not quite the Little Wife that Robert imagines her to be.
Robert decides to pop into town for the night to get his rifle fixed, and Leslie immediately dashes off a billet doux to her lover, Geoffrey Hammond (Marshall), begging him to come to the villa:
“Robert will be away for the night. I absolutely must see you. I shall expect you at eleven. I am desperate and, if you don’t come, I won’t answer for the consequences.”
A domestic scene with Hammond (Herbert Marshall) and Li-Ti (Lady Tsen Mei).
Hammond is canoodling with his new live-in mistress, Li-Ti (Mei), when the messenger arrives with the note. He reads the missive, casually lies to Li-Ti about its content, then hotfoots it over to the Crosbie place to try to get it through to Leslie that their affair is finally over. There he lies just as smoothly to Leslie about his relationship with Li-Ti:
Leslie: “Geoffrey, will you swear to me that she is not your mistress?”
Leslie: “On your honor?”
Hammond: “On my honor.”
Leslie: “It’s a lie!”
Hammond: “All right, then. It’s a lie. In that case, why don’t you let me go?”
In other words, it’s easy for him to swear on his honor because he doesn’t have any. She deals with him appropriately.
Leslie (Jeanne Eagels) confronts Hammond (Herbert Marshall) about his faithlessness.
Maddened by jealousy, Leslie (Jeanne Eagels) snatches up a revolver and empties it into the cad.
In court, on trial for the shooting, Leslie tells, at the prompting of her counsel, Howard Joyce (Heggie), a fanciful tale of Hammond having come to the lodge on a pretext and then attempting to rape her. She’d seized the gun and shot him in self-defense. The prosecution shows little interest in pursuing the case and the jury seems sympathetic. Joyce eagerly predicts that she’ll be a free woman in the morning.
In court, her lawyer Howard Joyce (O.P. Heggie) extracts a self-exculpating testimony from Leslie (Jeanne Eagels).
The clerk of the court (uncredited) is visibly skeptical of — or feasibly turned on by — Leslie’s testimony.
But what neither of them know is that, after reading that letter, Hammond crumpled it up and dropped it on the floor, whence Li-Ti picked it up.
Their ignorance doesn’t last long. Through Joyce’s clerk, Ong Chi Seng (Tamaki), Li-Ti informs Joyce of the letter’s contents and of the price for which, in order to keep Leslie’s guilt from the court, he might purchase it: S$10,000. Tamaki, in his sole movie, gives an admirable rendition of the young Chinese–Malay clerk; if Ong isn’t complicit in the blackmail, it’s quite obvious that he’s (understandably) happy that for once it’s whitey’s turn to get shafted.
Ong (Tamaki Yoshiwara) tells Joyce about the existence of the letter . . . and about the proposed deal.
The casual racism of the plantation community has already bubbled to the surface in the tale. Leslie herself has made disparaging racist remarks about Li-Ti; she’s done so in open court, to boot, little realizing that the insulted woman was in the audience. (We can imagine this — rightly — doubled the market value of the letter!)
Li-Ti (Lady Tsen Mei) reacts to Leslie’s public description of her as coarse and common.
Joyce, although we can see him sympathizing with Ong’s attitude, is a part of this too, albeit in a more genteel, resigned manner. Here he is informally summarizing a main prop of the case for the defense:
“The fact, which was discovered after his death, that he’d been living with a Chinese woman robbed him of any sympathy for him that might be felt in the minds of all respectable people.”
Robert (Reginald Owen) reassures Leslie (Jeanne Eagels) that she’ll soon be free.
Li-Ti insists not only on the S$10,000 but that Leslie bring it in person to her. The rendezvous she decrees they use is a seedy dive, ostensibly a café for lowlifes but evidently in effect a brothel. Li-Ti takes pleasure in making Leslie abase herself to the “vile yellow thing like you”—to use her own loathsome phrase—in front of a gaggle of derisive tarts, and even indicates that the Englishwoman might find her services being sold to a Chinese john.
I’m not sure how these sequences might have played to a 1929 audience. Today we can see that the Chinese woman’s vindictiveness is fairly well merited: Leslie has not only murdered Li-Ti’s lover but behaved abominably toward her in public. (The scene in the bordello can be viewed as a sort of mirror of the one in court.) We can also relish the reversal whereby Leslie, who has habitually sneered at the locals as dirty and all the rest of it, is for once getting a dose of her own medicine—discovering what it’s like to be on the receiving end. I suspect that in the widely racist US audiences of 1929, however, there might have been far more sympathy for her plight in the face of Li-Ti’s venom—and far less for her adultery and the ensuing crime passionnel.
Li-Ti (Lady Tsen Mei) hammers it home to Leslie (Jeanne Eagels) which of them is the one in charge now.
The raucous whores mock the humiliated Leslie.
The ending of the 1940 adaptation opts for melodrama—and not just because we have Bette Davis thesping in all directions. Here we have instead a conclusion that’s if anything even more chilling. Husband and wife in effect each condemn the other to a living hell, one that there’s no prospect of either being able to escape. The movie’s final moments thus pack quite a punch; it’s only after the screen has faded to black, though, that you realize quite how heavy that punch has been.
The worm turns: Robert (Reginald Owen) spells things out to Leslie (Jeanne Eagels).
The Letter really belongs to its two female leads, and most especially to its villain, Leslie. This was Eagels’s last movie; a few months after its release she was dead at the age of just 39 from a drugs overdose, the culmination of a years-long defensive war this immensely talented and highly respected stage and screen actress had waged against alcohol and heroin. In a couple of places here there’s a sense that, although clearly she’s in control, there’s a slight muzziness behind the eyes. There are also occasional subtle reminders that her earlier movies were silents: in her rendition of Leslie she veers, sometimes within a matter of seconds, between excellent naturalistic acting and the kind of eye-rolling more typical of life before the talkies. Even so, her performance here earned her the Academy’s attention for a possible Oscar nomination, the first time this had ever been considered posthumously.
The 1929 version of The Letter is a movie worth watching not just because of the fascination of the comparisons between it and the 1940 remake but as a powerful piece in its own right. It’s by no means flawless—for one thing, its division into discrete, rather static scenes betrays its stage origins—but it has a kind of vitality that makes it seem far more immediate, far more present, than many a movie made decades later.