Film: The Letter The Letter
Year: 1929 1940
Director: Jean de Limur William Wyler
Dialogue: Monta Bell/Jean de Limur
Titles: Mort Blumenstock
Adaptation: Garrett Fort
Screenplay: Garrett Fort Howard Koch
Play: W. Somerset Maugham W. Somerset Maugham
Producer: Monta Bell William Wyler
Cinematography: George J. Folsey Tony Gaudio
Film Editing: Monta Bell/Jean de Limur George Amy/Warren Low
Art Direction: Carl Jules Weyl
Leslie Crosbie: Jeanne Eagels Bette Davis
Robert Crosbie: Reginald Owen Herbert Marshall
Howard Joyce: O.P. Heggie James Stephenson
Geoffrey Hammond: Herbert Marshall David Newell
Mrs. Joyce: Irene Browne Frieda Inescort
Li-Ti/Mrs. Hammond: Lady Tsen Mei Gale Sondergaard
Ong Chi Seng: Tamaki Yoshiwara Victor Sen Yung
September 22, 2012
I thought it would be interesting to compare the two versions of The Letter. I’ve seen the 1940 movie about three times and have always thought it was a very well done film in pretty much every aspect of film-making. If you’ve never seen it, then I don’t want to give anything away until you’ve viewed it yourself but suffice to say that it is a film you can watch a second time with a different perspective from the beginning once you know what’s really going on. If you’ve never seen either film, although I usually prefer to watch films in chronological order, I recommend you watch the 1940 film first.
For those of you who were there in October 2009, we got to compare two of the three film versions of the story Miss Thompson. It was also written by Somerset Maugham and the original Broadway play also starred the actress Jeanne Eagles who is the star of tonight’s 1929 film. Caren
The Letter, 1929:
I didn’t find much information about this film, but I did find an essay about Jeanne Eagels which I thought was worth sharing. Caren
Jeanne Eagels was the Marilyn Monroe of the 1920s: beautiful, blonde, talented, vulnerable, mercurial—and a complete and utter mess. Indeed, Marilyn was a model of emotional stability compared to Jeanne. Yet, there’s only been one (slightly dubious) biography and one (hilariously awful) film on Jeanne Eagels since her death in 1929. One of the most acclaimed stage actresses of the 1920s, she only made eight films—but she was quite a character, and she deserves more notice.
According to her own accounts, Jeanne Eagels was born in Boston, the daughter of a Spanish architect. Actually, she was from Kansas City, and her father was a carpenter of Pennsylvania Dutch origin. Amelia Jean Eagles (she would later adopt the spelling “Eagels”) was one of six children (three boys and three girls) born to Edward and Julia (Sullivan) Eagles, on June 26, 1890 (most sources give a later year, but her only biographer, Edward Doherty, stated 1890). By the age of eleven she was acting in school plays; she was too poor to afford drama school but shone as Puck in a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. By the time she’d reached her teens, Jeanne was working as a cashier at a local department store. She seemed rather bitter about her childhood, telling a reporter, “My Father was a dreamer, who never made enough money to support us in comfort. In all my life I have had only a year and a half at school. I have got my education as I went along—got it from life; and life, as I have known it, has sometimes been a queer business.”
At the age of fifteen, she joined the Dubinsky Brothers’ touring stock company. For the next seven years she played one Midwestern whistle-stop town after another, at $25 a week. It was a tough life, but a great acting school. Risking slowly, steadily from chorus girl and bit player to leading lady, Jeanne played everyone from Camille to Little Lord Fauntleroy—both classics and penny-dreadful melodramas. It was the same school of hard knocks that produced Mary Pickford and the Gish sisters. But, sadly, Jeanne didn’t have the close family ties those other girls enjoyed. She was on her own, dealing with rowdy patrons, coarse companions, crooked managers.
She married the eldest of the three Dubinsky brothers, Morris, and had a baby boy during this period. But the marriage quickly fell apart and the baby—who was to be her only child—was given up for adoption. Jeanne learned to roll with the punches and keep her eyes out for the big break. When one actress refused to perform a part in Hamlet, Jeanne jumped at it. “We played several months on the road,” she recalled, “and when the first company came back to New York to play the subway circuit, I was given the role in that company.
It was 1911 when Jeanne hit New York, full of ambition and brimming with talent. She was also a knock-out, as lovely as any of Ziegfeld’s Glorified American Girls. She had delicate, refined features, was as fashionably slim as a tango dancer, and her brown hair was newly dyed a pale blonde. She was as modern as jazz and bobbed hair, but with a sweet Valentine’s face. She played in shows with Ina Claire (1911), Billie Burke (1912) and female impersonator Julian Eltinge (1914).
In 1915 the rising young starlet signed with Pathé to enter films. Charles Pathé had come to the US in 1914 and was trying to strengthen the New York branch of his French company. Jeanne got good notices and positive reaction from fans, but none of her Pathé films were classics and came and went without causing much of a ripple. As they were filmed on the East Coast, Jeanne was able to appear in shows at night while filming during the day. During this time she also appeared on Broadway as Lady Clarissa in George Arliss’s Disraeli.
Jeanne’s last Pathé film was in 1918. That same year, she finally had her first starring hit on Broadway, Daddies. Producer David Belasco spotted Jeanne in one of her small roles and snapped her up. “Her eyes were hard and bitter but shining with ambition,” Belasco later wrote. “Thousands of girls have come to me, but never such a girl as Jeanne Eagels, with the air of a Duse, the voice of an earl’s daughter, and the mien of a tired, starved little alley cat.” With Daddies, Jeanne became the toast of Broadway. But she stormed out of the show halfway through its run, not a promising omen for her future in show business. Not yet thirty, Jeanne already had the demeanour of a major diva: “Never deny. Never explain. Say nothing and become a legend,” she told a reporter in one of her rare interviews.
She had a lot to explain, too. By this time, Jeanne was an alcoholic and was growing dependent on sleeping potions as well. She began seeing one Dr. Edward Cowles, who tried to cure her of her habits—as the years went on, Jeanne spent more and more time drying out in sanatoriums, to no avail. By the mid-1920s she was also using heroin. Her career didn’t suffer, not at first. She starred in several more Broadway shows, but she was only marking time.
Jeanne Eagels finally became a major star on November 7, 1922, when Rain opened in New York. “I felt I would die if I missed the chance to play that role,” she said during the show’s run. “Every time I sit down to put on my make-up, I have as great a thrill as if I were doing it for the first time.” Rain was, of course, the story of Sadie Thompson, a good-natured prostitute locked in mortal combat with a hypocritical preacher. It was a dark, bitter play (John Colton had based it on a story by Somerset Maugham). Jeanne took Broadway by storm with her portrayal of the tough, humorous Sadie Thompson. It was a scandalous play for the time (and, indeed, might cause protests even today). She toured in it for five years, missing only eighteen performances in all that time.
She also cashed in on her stardom—Tallulah Bankhead recalled in her autobiography that Jeanne was paid $10,000 o endorse a cigarette. Her theatrical friends were horrified by this cheapening of her fame, but when Fanny Brice heard of her paycheck, she snorted, “For $10,000, I’d endorse an opium pipe!” Sadly, Jeanne Eagels never filmed Rain. Gloria Swanson and Joan Crawford did bang-up jobs with it, and poor Rita Hayworth struggled through a musical adaptation. But audiences were denied a lasting, filmed performance of Jeanne in her greatest role.
Toward the end of the run, Jeanne—long since divorced from Dubinsky—married Edward Harris “Ted” Coy, a wealthy New York stockbroker and former football star at Yale. The couple wed in 1925 at the home of actress Fay Bainter, they fought like alley cats, and the marriage lasted barely four years. Jeanne’s lifestyle had begun to take a toll on her constitution, and as she entered her thirties, her health began to break down; twinges from previously broken arm and jaw, sinus attacks, kidney problems, infection after infection. Through all her emotional ups and downs, Jeanne remained close to her siblings and especially close to her mother (her father had died some years earlier). Jeanne spoke to her mother on the phone twice weekly, sent her frequent tickets to New York, and bought her houses in New York and Los Angeles.
Jeanne was still enthusiastic about her art, no matter how her career turns depressed her. “The thought of the audience always thrills me,” she said, “and yet I never see the people out there in front. I am not really conscious of them—except when people cough! I want to do all kinds of parts,” she said hopefully, “and I know I can do them: sweet young things, tragic Camille, lovely old ladies—everything that is real an thrilling as life is.” Jeanne returned to films with the 1927 MGM production Man, Woman and Sin. It was a pet project of John Gilbert’s, who was Jeanne’s costar. The dark story of a reporter’s tragic affair with his boss’s mistress, it was a hit, though more critically than at the box office. Jeanne—photographed in glorious MGM soft focus—looked like a goddess, and both she and Gilbert gave superb performances, mixing humour and drama.
She returned to Broadway in 1927. She rehearsed for the role of Roxie Hart in Chicago but walked out before opening and was replaced by Francine Larrimore. She then took over the lead in Her Cardboard Lover from Laurette Taylor (opposite Leslie Howard). She also embarked on her last romance, with actor Barry O’Neill, a cast member of the play. The play was successful enough to go on tour—but, in March 1928, she vanished during the Chicago run. Whether her walkout was due to ill health, drink, a fight with O’Neill, or “nervous exhaustion,” Jeanne was suspended by Actor’s Equity and fined $3,600. She took to vaudeville and toured on the Keith circuit, doing scenes from Rain and Her Cardboard Lover.
Films still beckoned, though, and even if Broadway wouldn’t touch her, Hollywood would. Though she was in her late thirties (old by contemporary standards), Jeanne was signed to a $200,000, three-picture contract by Paramount’s East Coast studios. Her first talked was The Letter, 1929. It was one of those tea-cup dramas so popular with early talking films (stationary mikes made such plays easier to film). It wasn’t a patch on Bette Davis’s 1940 remake, but Jeanne got good notices and adjusted well to the new medium. Her second fim was a horror to make: Jeanne’s health was rapidly failing, and she looked frighteningly thin while filming Jealousy. Then her leading man, Tony Bushell, had to be replaced by Fredric March when his voice failed to register well on film. Jeanne refused to make her third picture, The Laughing Lady, and was replaced by Ruth Chatterton. Both the films and the stage had rejected her—or vice versa. “It’s harder to stay at the top than to get there,” she told a reporter.
Jeanne’s work, she once said, “means more to me than anything else in life….It has been my companion in all kinds of experiences, the only companion that I’ve always had with me. It has given me my education, my living, my friends. It has been my real life and my dream life.” Like Bette Midler’s character in The Rose, Jeanne dreamed of returning triumphantly to her hometown. “Kansas City wasn’t even aware of my existence when I used to go back there after one of our box-car pilgrimages. But I’d like to stand on its front doorstep some fine morning and say to the old town: Well! See who’s here! Little Jeanne Eagels has come back to show you what she can do!” Of course Jeanne actually had returned to Kansas City several times, but she enjoyed such self-dramatization.
If Jeanne Eagels lived like Marilyn Monroe, she died like River Phoenix. Jeanne was not well when Jealousy opened in September 1929. She spent ten days in St. Luke’s Hospital, where she underwent an operation for an eye infection, and she suffered from neuritis and breathing problems, exacerbated by her drinking and drug taking. On Thursday evening, October 3, Jeanne and her longtime secretary, Christina Larson, left her apartment at 1143 Park Avenue, arriving at Dr. Cowles’s office at the Park AvenueHospital around 8:00 p.m. Jeanne was hardly dressed for a doctor’s appointment: She wore an evening gown and wrap, also $300,000 worth of jewellery (a pearl ring “as large as a penny,” a six-carat diamond-and-platinum ring, two pearl necklaces, and several other pieces).
Dr. Cowles was not in, but Dr. Alfred Pellegrini showed Jeanne to a room. While she sat on a bed chatting with him, Jeanne suddenly collapsed and went into convulsions. She was dead within minutes. Death was immediately laid to “alcoholic psychosis,” but an autopsy revealed that Jeanne’s system contained not only alcohol but chloral hydrate (a sleeping potion) and heroin. It’s amazing that she even reached the hospital.
She lay in state at Frank Campbell’s FuneralChurch at Broadway and 66th Street while thousands passed before her silver-and-bronze coffin. It was a replay of Valentino’s obsequies at the same church three years earlier. Jeanne wore a peach velvet gown and wrap, and she was surrounded by flowers. In a suitable theatrical finale, Lowe’s Theater just across the street was premiering her final film, Jealousy.
Golden Images: 41 Essays on Silent Film Stars by Eve Golden, 2001
Jeanne Eagels, one of the most intriguing stars of late silent films and the early talkies, was born Amelia Jean Eagles on June 26, 1890 in Kansas City, Missouri, to Edward and Julia Sullivan Eagles. Young Jean was part of an impoverished family of eight, with three brothers and two sisters. She likely stopped going to school when she was 11 years old.
As a girl, she decided to become an actress after appearing in a Shakespearen play. Of that performance, she said, “I played the grave-digger in ‘Hamlet,’ first, at the age of seven. They gave me the chance to play Shakespeare because nobody else of the tender age of seven would do so. They wouldn’t say the rather amazing words…the other kiddies. I took it all quite seriously and said ALL the words without a quiver. Once I had begun I could not be stopped. I was ill when I was not on the stage. It seemed to me I couldn’t breathe in any other atmosphere.”
She followed up the experience up by playing bit parts in local theatrical productions. When she was 12 years old, she became a member of the Dubinsky Brothers’ traveling stock company, appearing at first as a dancer, but eventually working her way into speaking roles. Eagels soon was playing leading roles in the stock company’s repertory, including “Camille,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Later, a myth arose that Eagels’ began her career as a circus performer. The 1957 biographical film “The Jeanne Eagels Story” erroneously depicts Eagels’ beginning as a hootchie-kootchie dancer in a carnival. The Dubinsky Brothers did use a tent to put on their shows, but they did not present carnival acts but performed popular comedies, musicals, and dramas. The tent was only used during the spring and summer months, while during the colder months, the company performed in theaters and halls in the Midwest.
Jeanne Eagels married the scion of the Dubinsky family, Morris, the oldest of the brothers. She was likely in her teens, and probably had a baby by Morris. Stories about Eagels’ past diverge, and in one account, the child was adopted by family friends, while in another, Eagels’ baby boy died in infancy, triggering a nervous breakdown for the bereft mother. Eagels and Dubinky separated, likely due to his infidelity. Jeanne eventually left the Dubinksy company and joined another touring stock company, which eventually brought her to New York City.
Eagels decided to make herself over in New York as she fought her way up in the fiercely competitive theatrical world. A brunette, Eagels dyed her hair blonde and said that she was of Spanish and Irish lineage, and that her surname was originally “Aguilar,” which loosely translates into English as “eagle.” She changed the spelling of her name from “Eagles” to “Eagels,” reputedly as she thought it looked better on a marquee. Eliminating her past, she presented herself as an ingénue rather than as a divorced woman and mother of a dead infant. She also adopted an English accent as David Belasco, the legendary theatrical impresario, had commented that she spoke like an “earl’s daughter.”
She began her climb up the greasy pole of Broadway stardom by appearing as a chorus girl. She even served a stint as a Ziegfield girl, but Eagels was determined to establish herself as a dramatic roles, wining bit parts in the plays “Jumping Jupiter” and “The Mind the Paint Girl.”
Eagels took a trip to Paris, where she likely studied acting with Beverly Sitgreaves, an expatriate American actress who had appeared with Sarah Bernhardt, Eagels’ idol. After Jeanne Eagels’ death, there arose a myth that she was a “raw,” untrained talent who just happened to have the spark of genius on stage. This is demonstrably false as she had a thorough grounding in technique in her six-year apprenticeship in regional stock companies. She also studied acting with Sitgreaves and with acting coaches in New York. The myth likely is rooted in the biography of Eagels’ stage co-star Leslie Howard that was written by his children. Howard was of the opinion that Eagels was untrained, but that likely was rooted in English snobbery vis-à-vis America actors as he had the same opinion of the great Bette Davis. What Howard likely meant that the emotionally erratic Eagels was undisciplined rather than untrained. George Arliss, considered one of the great stage actors at the time he appeared on Broadway with Eagels, would hardly have chosen her to appear in three of his productions if she were not trained and up to giving a fine performance. Arliss was full of praise for Eagels.
In Paris, Eagels attracted the attention of Julian Eltinge, the famous Broadway female impersonator, though they were not introduced. Ironically, when he returned to New York, Eltinge found out that Eagels was to be his co-star in what turned out to be a long tour of the play “The Crinoline Girl.” The two became good friends.
Eagels won the role of a prostitute who becomes a faith-healer in the touring company of the play “Outcast” by modeling herself after the play’s star, Elsie Ferguson, for her audition. She won the part, and also won great reviews during the tour’s swing through the South. When the touring company returned to New York for an off-Broadway engagement, some critics were there to see if Eagels actually did live up to the road reviews of her “Outcast” performance. She did, and the critics were suitably impressed.
The Thanhouser Film Co. cast Eagles in the film of “Outcast” in 1916, which was entitled The World and the Woman (1916) upon its release. Eagels was working during the daytime in films and at night on the stage. Suffering from fatigue and insomnia, she sought treatment and likely became hooked on drugs during this period. With the aid of physician-prescribed dope, Jeanne Eagels continued her hectic dual-career of making movies during the day while acting on stage at night. The routine continued until 1920. Suffering from chronic sinusitis and other maladies, Eagels descended the slippery slope of self-medicating her ills, an unfortunate situation exacerbated by her fondness for drink.
Eagels received great reviews when she starred with George Arliss in the Broadway hit “The Professor’s Love Story” in 1917. She followed up their joint triumph with two more co-starring ventures with Arliss, “Disraeli” and the even-more-popular play “Hamilton.” Of his co-star, Arliss said that each of the three distinctly different parts she acted were “played with unerring judgment and artistry.”
In 1918, she appeared in Belasco’s production of “Daddies,” an original play about the plight of war orphans starring George Abbott. She quit the hit show either due to exhaustion or because, as rumor had it, she was fed up with Belasco’s sexual harassment, though she praised him as a producer.
“Often in the theater there is a feeling of commercialism in every detail; it may not touch one directly, but it is there, and the consciousness that the financial success of the play is perhaps of first importance is decidedly unpleasant. Now, Mr. Belasco puts acting, like every other element of a production, upon an artistic basis. He makes you feel that a thing is important artistically or not at all. Money seems never to be a consideration, yet the making of it follows as a result of making the production as nearly perfect as possible…. That point of view on the producer’s part means a great deal to the actor; it leaves him free to do so much, and is an incentive to work toward a faithful portrayal of character. To me everything about Mr. Belasco’s theater points toward that one ideal of his — perfection.”
She next appeared in the comedy “A Young Man’s Fancy” (1919), followed up by “The Wonderful Thing” (1920). By the time she appeared in the latter, a modest success that played for 120 performances, she had become a true Broadway diva, having to wait for the applause to die down after her entrance before she could deliver her lines. She had her own distinctive ideas on how to give a fresh impression to the audience for each performance:
“Audiences mean as much to an actress as the acoustics of a concert hall mean to a musician. The musician must vary his playing according to his acoustics–according to the sort of room in which his concert is given…. A sort of sixth sense enables me to discern the character of an audience within a few minutes after I have begun to play, and it is only the people for whom I am making this lovable girl live at that one performance that matter. Former audiences are swept from my thought as though they had never been. As far as the audience of the moment is concerned others have never been. What I have done, or have not done, for them doesn’t matter to the folk who have come to see the play to-night. I am so very conscious of this that I am able to play to them as though I were creating the part for the first time… I do wrong in speaking of ‘playing to an audience,’ however. A true artist never ‘plays to the audience.’ Rather he or she keeps his or her own vision true, and the creation evolves itself.”
Her next Broadway appearance, “In the Night Watch” (1921), was another modest success, but she soon was to appear in the play that would make her lasting reputation. The opportunity came her way when another actress turned down the role of the prostitute Sadie Thompson in the theatrical adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham‘s short story “Rain.”
On the road in Philidelphia, the play received discouraging reviews, necessitating a rewrite of the second act. By the time the rewritten “Rain” debuted on Broadway on November 7, 1922, at Maxine Elliott’s Theatre, all the kinks had been worked out, and the play was a smash, running for 256 performances. When the company returned to Broadway after the road show, re-opening at the Gaiety Theatre on September 1, 1924, “Rain” starring Jeanne Eagels ran for another 648 performances, transferring to the New Park Theatre on December 15, 1924. “Rain” elevated Jeanne Eagels into the pantheon of American theater greats.
John D. Williams, the director of “Rain” said, “In my score of years in the theater Miss Eagels was one of the two or three highest types of interpretive acting intelligences I have met. To work with her on a play was once more to feel one’s self in the theater when it was in its finest estate; when a play was not a ‘show,’ nor even a performance, but a work, which because it had something to say that might clarify life, was a living thing and simply demanded to be heard. It was then that somebody, known or unknown, wrote something that deserved fanatically true fulfillment–and somebody else of magic touch acted it…. Miss Eagels had that touch of magic in character interpretation- the quick exchange of ideas as to the sense of the scene. And then would come the superbly tragic entrance, for example, of Sadie Thompson in the last act of ‘Rain,’ with its flawless blend of bitter disillusionment, irony, revenge, terror.”
Eagels’ great performance was acknowledged as responsible for the great success of the play, and although Gloria Swanson had some success playing Sadie in the silent movie version of the play in 1928, Joan Crawford did less well in the role in the 1931 talkie version. Both Swanson and particularly Crawford were upstaged by their leading men, Lionel Barrymore and Walter Huston, respectively. Rita Hayworth‘s version in 1953, opposite José Ferrer, is barely remembered. Sadie Thompson belonged to Jeanne Eagels, and the touring company of “Rain” toured for four years.
In 1917, Eagels had said, “I am timid and afraid of men and far too busy to become well acquainted with them. My work fills my life, and I should not care to fall in love or marry before I am very, very old — about thirty-five — because a woman gives too much of herself when she loves, and that would interfere with her career.”
By the time Eagels married her second husband, the stockbroker Edward H. Coy, in 1925 at the age of 35, she had developed a reputation as a temperamental actress who was a hard drinker. Coy had achieved Ivy League gridiron immortality as a 6-foot, 195-pound fullback at Yale, where he was named an All-American in 1908 and 1909 but had turned to the sauce for solace now that the cheers had faded. The incompatibility between the two did nothing to ameliorate her problems with her mood swings or with drink.
After “Rain,” she took time off, either turning down offers such as the role of Roxie Hart in “Chicago” (1926) or quitting plays she did sign up for during rehearsals. Finally, she made her Broadway return in the George Cukor-directed light comedy “Her Cardboard Lover” (1926) opposite Leslie Howard. Broadway critics and audiences had grown accustomed to Eagels in more substantial fare, and on opening night, it was Leslie Howard whom the audience cheered, calling for Howard to take curtain calls. Controversially, Eagels took Howard’s curtain calls, thanking the audience “on behalf of my Cardboard Lover.” The critics, too, wound up praising Howard rather than Eagels.
Eagels fondness for medicating herself and for drink caused problems during the run of the show. Her on-stage behavior could be egregious, as when she stepped out of character and, thirty for the sauce, asked Howard’s character for a drink of “water.” This caused the stage manager more than once to bring down the curtain during a performance, and Howard left the stage in a huff at one point.
About bad acting, Eagels blamed it on “…[N]ot being a good listener. So few people are. For instance, when you and I are talking here and I say ‘no’ very deeply and quietly, your reply will be ‘yes’ with something of a rising inflection, a lighter modulation. You have listened to me and have made a correct tonal reply. On the stage, most of the actors and actresses know their cue words and take their cues, but they haven’t listened to the speech preceding their own. The result is a correct enough answer as to word, but not as to tone. There is not tonal intelligence in the reply. Good listeners…so rare.”
John D. Williams, her director in “Rain,” attributed her greatness on the stage to her great ability to listen while on stage.
“First off, she knew to perfection, and adhered to as to a religion, the art of listening in acting. At every performance, whether the first, or the hundredth, the speeches of the character addressing her were not merely heard but listened to. Hence there was always thought and belief and conviction behind every speech and scene of her own– the essence of theater illusion.”
The drink and drugs apparently were eroding that greatness. However, despite her on-stage antics, “Her Cardboard Lover” was another modest success, playing for 152 performances. After shooting the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film Man, Woman and Sin (1927) with John Gilbert, she toured with the play in the large cities.
Eagels’ behavior during the filming of Man, Woman and Sin (1927) was atrocious. Gilbert, whom she reportedly had an affair with, said Eagels was the most temperamental actress he had ever worked with. She would appear late at the studio, and once, she disappeared for several days. The Hollywood trade press credited Eagels disappearance to a drink binge, and at one point, she took off on a two-week vacation to Santa Barbara without informing her director, Monta Bell. Bell asked studio management to terminate Eagels’ contract, which they did. Fortunately, there was enough footage so Bell could salvage the film without re-shooting.
John Gilbert said of Eagels, “She seemed to hate the movies for a popularity they could not give her….[The] blind, unreasoning adulation of the movie fans was a type of popularity she spurned. Fundamentally, Jeanne was much superior to us. Movie actors are crazy to be worshiped. Jeanne Eagels wanted to be understood and appreciated.”
When the film was released, Eagels’ performance received mixed reviews, but the picture was a failure primarily due to the poor reviews garnered by Gilbert. Critics rejected the great lover playing a naive mama’s boy in this film. Gilbert’s career was salvaged shortly thereafter by the release of his second film with Great Garbo, Love (1927), which was a smash hit at the box office.
When Eagels began touring the East Coast in “Her Cardboard Lover,” the Boston engagement was cut in half to one week as Eagels reportedly was ill. After the play moved to Chicago with a revivified Eagels, she divorced Coy in 1928, citing physically abuse and accusing him of breaking her jaw. Eagels claimed that Coy had threatened to wreck her budding movie career by ruining her face. Coy, a heavy boozer like his soon-to-be ex-wife, pleaded no contest and the divorce was granted.
The Mid-Western tour of “Her Cardboard Lover” moved on to Milwaukee, but Eagels was a no-show at both the Milwaukee and the subsequent St. Louis performances. She claimed that she was suffering from ptomaine poisoning, but eye-witness accounts placed her in Chicago on a long boozing binge when she was supposed to have been in Milwaukee. Her indefensible and unprofessional behavior brought her an 18-month suspension from Actor’s Equity, which banned her from performing on stage with any other Equity actor for the length of the suspension. The ban essentially ended her stage career in New York and the rest of the country, although it could not stop her from appearing by herself on stage in non-Equity venues. Eagels hit the vaudeville circuit, performing scenes from “Rain.” She also appeared in movies as producers were desperate for trained stage people with the advent of sound, and she eventually made more money from the film industry and vaudeville than she ever had from the “legitimate” stage.
Ironically, it was Monta Bell, now working at Paramount’s Astoria Studios in New York, who hired Jeanne Eagels for her film comeback. In 1929, Bell announced that even though Equity didn’t want Eagels, he wanted her, for she had been the consummate professional during the making of Man, Woman and Sin (1927). The man who had urged the MGM brass to fire her now told the press that he had actually urged MGM to sign Eagels to long-term contract for more pictures.
The first movie Eagels made for Paramount was the Monta Bell–produced The Letter (1929), which reunited Eagels with W. Somerset Maugham. Katharine Cornell had had a Broadway hit with Maugham’s play as the murderous adulteress, and Eagels delivered an electrifying, legendary performance in the role on film. After Eagels received rave reviews for her The Letter (1929), Paramount took Bell’s advice and signed her to a contract for two more pictures, Jealousy (1929) and The Laughing Lady (1929).
She began shooting “Jealousy” (1929) with the English actor Anthony Bushnell, whom she had hand-picked to be her leading man, but during filming it was apparent that Bushnell’s voice was not registering well on the sound equipment. Bushnell was replaced by the up-and-coming star Fredric March, who later said Eagels was “great” to work with, but that the movie they made together was a “stinker.” There were rumors that Eagels had suffered a nervous breakdown while filming “Jealousy”, but Paramount denied there had been any trouble with their new diva. However, Eagels asked to be let out of her contract for “The Laughing Lady” on the grounds that she was either ill or because she didn’t like the script, and the studio obliged, replacing her with Ruth Chatterton.
About her management of her personal affairs, Eagels said, “I cannot bear to transact any of my own business or make any of my own professional arrangements. I have an aversion to it I cannot overcome. I can’t read the papers, either. Mention of my personal life, even tho I expect it, acts terribly on my nerves. I suppose I’m an odd person.”
It was reported that now that the Actors Equity ban was due to expire in the fall of 1929, Eagels was preparing to return to Broadway. In September, Eagles underwent successful surgery to treat ulcers on her eyes, a condition was caused by her sinusitis. Two weeks after surgery, on the night of October 3, 1929, as Eagels was preparing for a night out on the town, she fell ill and was taken to a private 5th Avenue hospital. In the hospital waiting room, she suffered a convulsion and died.
Three autopsies were conducted over the following three months and reached three different conclusions as to the cause of her death, which was variously attributed as an overdose of alcohol, the tranquilizer chloral hydrate, and heroin in the successive autopsy reports. All three substances likely were in her system when she died, and it was suggested that the unconscious Eagels had received a sedative from the first doctor to treat her, and that subsequently a second doctor, not knowing she had already been sedated, had unknowingly given the unconscious actress a second shot, thus causing the overdose that killed her.
When her estate went through probate, it was worth an estimated $52,000 (approximately $562,000 in 2005 dollars) after her debts and funeral costs were deducted. Dying intestate, the estate went to her mother. A wake was held at Campbell’s funeral home in New York City, the same establishment that had handled Rudolph Valentino’s funeral. Reportedly, her movie “Jealousy” was playing across the street from the funeral home as she lay in her casket, finally at peace. Her body was sent to Kansas City, where a Catholic mass and requiem was held, and she was laid to rest with her father and a brother.
Eagels was posthumously nominated for a 1929 Best Actress Academy Award for her role in “The Letter,” the first actor to be so honored. She lost out to superstar Mary Pickford, one of the founders of the Academy, who took the Oscar home to Pickfair for her performance in “Coquette,” her first talkie.
Jeanne Eagels’ life was limned in the 1957 film _Jeanne Eagels_, which starred Kim Novak. This film is fictionalized biography that whitewashed the truth about Eagels’ life. In recent years, there have been rumors that Eagels enjoyed same-sex relationships with other women, but the rumors remain unsubstantiated. In her lifetime, she was romantically linked to many famous men, including the conductor Arthur Fiedler, the gambler “Nick the Greek” Dandalos, and the theater critic Ward Morehouse. She was pursued by producer David Belasco, theater owner Lee Shubert, and the Prince of Wales, the future Duke of Windsor.
About actors, Jeanne Eagels was quoted as saying, “We are glorious, unearthly people, set above all others because of our genius, our capacity to sway others, to make them laugh and cry, or make them live a romance we but play.” In the Academy Award-winning All About Eve (1950), writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz has the critic Addison DeWitt tell the great fictional diva Margo Channing (played by Leslie Howard‘s other great “untrained” co-star, Bette Davis), “Margo, as you know, I have lived in the theater as a Trappist monk lives in his faith. I have no other world, no other life — and once in a great while I experience that moment of revelation for which all true believers wait and pray. You were one. Jeanne Eagels another.”
The actor playwright Noel Coward said, “Of all the actresses I have ever seen, there was never one quite like Jeanne Eagels,” while actress-playwright-Academy Award-nominated-screenwriter Ruth Gordon, a friend of Eagels, said of her, “Jeanne Eagels was the most beautiful person I ever saw and if you ever saw her, she was the most beautiful person YOU ever saw.”
Kathleen Kennedy, her co-star in “Rain,” said, “I sincerely doubt if Jeanne Eagels really knew, in spite of her pretensions, that she was a great actress. She was. Many times backstage I’d be waiting for my entrance cue and suddenly Jeanne would start to build a scene, and [we] would look up from our books at once. Some damn thing- some power, something- would take hold of your heart, you senses, as you listened to her, and you’d thrill to the sound of her.”
John D. Williams, the director of “Rain,” called her an acting genius. “Acting genius–that is, the power of enhancing a written character to a plane that neither author nor director can lay claim to — Miss Eagels had at her beck and call, whether in tragedy or in comedy.”
IMDb Mini Biography by Jon C. Hopewood
The Letter, 1940:
“You would never have thought that this quiet, refined woman was capable of such a fiendish passion,” wrote Somerset Maugham in his celebrated 1926 short story “The Letter”: a key line for comprehending Katharine Cornell’s special fascination in the role of Leslie Crosbie when she played it on Broadway in the fall of 1927.
Then a drama student in New York, nineteen-year-old Bette Davis had made repeated visits to the Morosco Theatre, when Cornell’s controversial performance of this latest of her “loose, dissolute women” was to become emblematic of Bette’s own aspirations as an actress: aspirations that, in Bette’s view, Wyler ha finally helped her to realize during the making of Jezebel.
When one considers the importance that seeing The Letter on Broadway had had for Bette, it is certainly not too much to suppose that she might have discussed the Cornell production with Wyler during the filming of Jezebel. In any event, that Wyler privately associated the role of Leslie Crosbie with Bette long before it had been arranged for them to do it together at Warner Bros. is indicated in the director’s preliminary notes by his use of Bette’s name in place of Leslie’s (whereas all other characters are routinely referred to by the names Maugham gave them). And that he had scant interest in directing another actress in the part is made clear in the April 9, 1940, contract that Wyler’s agent, Leland Hayward, negotiated with Warners’ general counsel Roy J. Obringer, where it is stipulated that Wyler had the right to withdraw from the project should Bette decline to do it. This stipulation may also suggest Wyler’s lack of certainty about whether Bette would want to work with him again after he had directed Merle Oberon in Wuthering Heights and—more troubling, no doubt—married Margaret Tallichet.
Wyler had not been the first director to propose The Letter for Bette Davis at Warner Bros. Studio records show that Edmund Goulding had “plugged” it to Hal Wallis and others on numerous occasions. But in the spring of 1938, when Jack Warner submitted the text of Maugham’s play to the Production Code Administration, head censor Joseph I. Breen replied that there could be no question of his approving “the story of a wife, who murders her lover, but who, by lying, deceit, perjury, and the purchase of an incriminating letter, defeats justice, and gets off ‘scott free.’” Besides the murder, particularly distressing to Breen’s office were what he characterized as “all the sordid details of the illicit sex relationship between the married woman and her lover,” as well as “very numerous references to the second mistress of the murdered man, who is characterized as a China woman.”
Like other stories in Maugham’s 1926 collection The Casuarina Tree, “The Letter” is said to have been based on an actual occurrence in the English colony in Malaya, where it had been Maugham’s custom to gather material for his fiction. The source in this case appears to have been Singapore press reports concerning the sensational trial of Mrs. Ethel Mabel Proudlock for the April 23, 1911, murder of William Crozier Steward, whom she accused of having attempted to rape her while her husband, headmaster of a school in Kuala Lumpur, had been dining out with a member of his staff. Whereas the English colony as a whole seemed to believe Mrs. Proudlock’s contention that, surprised by Steward’s unexpected visit and appalled by his sexual advances, she had shot him six times in self-defense, the prosecution maintained that the headmaster’s wife was, in fact, one of Steward’s two mistresses: the other being a local Chinese woman.
According to the prosecutor, there had been no attempted rape at all, just simple jealousy of Steward’s involvement with the Chinese woman: hence the crime of passion, for which Mrs. Proudlock was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. Although the murderess was subsequently pardoned, she is recorded to have died not long afterward in an English insane asylum.
To this source material Maugham added the melodramatic plot device of the incriminating letter, which the murderess sent her lover, urging him to visit while her husband is away; and which her lawyer must retrieve from the Chinese woman afterward, lest she turn it over to the prosecution. For his short story and the 1927 stage dramatization based on it, Maugham also significantly altered the outcome of the trial, allowing the murderess to go “scott free” (as Hollywood’s Production Code Administration noted with particular horror): her sole punishment suggested in the pungent line with which Leslie Crosbie famously closes the play: “With all my heart I still love the man I killed.”
In spite of Joseph Breen’s 1938 pronouncement, Wyler’s personal papers show that he was actively pursuing the project in the summer of 1939 when he and Robert Stevenson conducted extensive talks that resulted in Stevenson’s August 26 “Suggested Methods of Treatment” for a second film version of The Letter (the first having been made at Paramount in 1929, with Jeanne Eagels as Leslie Crosbie: a picture that, Breen noted in his letter to Jack Warner, had aroused “nation-wide protest” at the time of its release).
Although by September of 1939 it was being said at Warner Bros. that Wyler was on the verge of convincing Samuel Goldwyn to secure the motion picture rights to The Letter, this was probably just Wyler’s devious way of reviving Jack Warner’s interest in the Maugham project much as the director had once manipulated Goldwyn into buying Wuthering Heights by indicating that Warner wanted it. On September 28, Hal Wallis’s executive assistant, Walter MacEwen, informed his superior about Goldwyn’s purported “interest” in The Letter, the rights to which were being offered to Warner Bros. for $25,000. Another factor besides Bette’s presence at Warners (and Jack Warner’s perpetual distaste for loaning her out to other studios) made Wyler want to direct, The Letter there rather than for Goldwyn, to whom he remained under contract: what he perceived as Goldwyn’s nettlesome tendency to take personal credit for Wyler’s artistic achievements, as when Goldwyn reportedly declared, “I made Withering [sic] Heights, Wyler only directed it.”
By this point in Wyler’s career, the credit he received for a picture had come to be far more important to him than the money he was being paid: or so it seemed to Hal Wallis, who, after making the deal with Wyler to film The Letter, recorded the director’s preoccupation above all else with being given “the proper billing and publicity.” Thus in his April 9, 1940 contract, besides spelling out the credit he required onscreen, Wyler wanted it specified that his name would appear in “all paid advertising and publicity…in type 33 1/3% the size used for the title.” The size of Wyler’s ego and the extent to which Goldwyn may have pierced it is suggested by the Warner Bros. general counsel’s August 1, 1940 warning to director of advertising and publicity S. Charles Einfeld that the studio “religiously” give Wyler precisely the credit indicated in his contract, lest the director “raise a lot of hell,” as he seemed most likely to do should they disappoint him.
In addition to the potential problems of censorship that both MacEwen and producer Robert Lord had warned would have to be dealt with I Warner Bros. was to bring The Letter to the screen, from the first Hal Wallis appears to have been concerned about the difficulties presented by “photographing a play” that struck him as “very wordy.” Wallis feared that if Wyler did not find precisely the right tempo for the material, if the action was somehow allowed to be too slow, the finished film might turn out to be dull.
Some of this, naturally, seems to have been the residue of Wallis’s earlier conflicts with Wyler, whose directorial style had seemed so entirely out of place at Warner Bros. when he filmed Jezebel there in 1937/38. Since then, however, the immense triumph of Jezebel on all conceivable levels should have extinguished any doubts that Wallis and others may have had about Wyler’s professional competence. But even now, as evidenced by the usual blast of threats, insults, and diatribes, there remained abundant concern at Warner Bros. about what was still widely perceived there as the inefficiency of Wyler’s working methods.
Wyler’s marks and notations on Robert Stevenson’s August 1939 treatment and on the various drafts of The Letter completed by screenwriter Howard Koch at Warner Bros. provide rare glimpses of the director working through his material prior to filming it. (Talli Wyler recalls that whenever he began a new project, her husband’s all-embracing concentration was such that it was almost as if he had suddenly gone “under water,” where inevitably he remained for the duration.) Already, on the first page of Stevenson’s pre-Warner Bros. treatment, Wyler’s pencil marks seem to sketch out what he and cameraman Tony Gaudio would do in the opening moments of The Letter. Stevenson devotes some fifteen lines and three short paragraphs to describing what he envisions as the film’s initial images, “establishing the Crosbie bungalow and the native huts around it”: alongside which copious account, in the right-hand margin Wyler has scratched two thick black lines, one beside the first paragraph, and another beside the third; and then, to link them, he has traced a kind of semicircle, apparently to represent how he would film all of what Stevenson describes in paragraphs one to three—the slumbering dogs, the native houseboys, the fluttering birds, as well as the murder itself—with a long, elegant sweep of the camera.
Almost always it is the visual—or potentially visual—things that Wyler seizes upon. Marking off Stevenson’s notes on Leslie Crosbie’s incessant lacework, he anticipates the presence of this motif in the film as well as the importance the film will place on Leslie’s hands to convey inner turmoil, by contrast with her outward air of control. It tells us a good deal about Wyler’s priorities that in the finished film, he eschews the very elaborate lacemaking process as Stevenson describes it for something far simpler: preferring to use gesture to reveal character rather than for purely decorative effect.
With evident excitement, Wyler scratches numerous lines beside what Stevenson proposes as the theme of the play: the difficulty of guessing what is going on inside someone else’s head, even someone you might think you know well.
Wyler’s preoccupation with this theme, and how the actress playing Leslie Crosbie must embody it, is carried over in his annotations on Howard Koch’s second draft script for The Letter, dated April 10, 1940. The director’s handwritten notes emphasize what he at one point calls the “great deliberateness” of Leslie as addressing someone “with perfect control,” Wyler underscores the description for emphasis. Several lines later, where the actress’s instructions read: “her control slipping a little,” Wyler first underscores “a little,” then change “a” to “very”’ and then, evidently still dissatisfied with this characterization, he crosses out the directions altogether, apparently preferring Bette at least temporarily to maintain the appearance of “perfect control” established moments before.
Wyler’s marginalia suggest that for him, part of the “action” of The Letter must be the subtle alterations in Leslie Crosbie’s manner as we come closer and closer to the truth of what happened in her cottage on the night of the murder. Only when we are almost exactly midway through the script (having reached the pivotal scene, in which Leslie’s lawyer suddenly confronts her with disturbing questions about the incriminating letter) do the director’s marginal notes indicate that Wyler is finally willing to allow her “perfect control” to show some cracks: “This is the first time she lies badly,” Wyler remarks of Leslie’s nervous speech when asked about the existence of the letter. “Up to this point she has played it as if truly innocent—with a straight, frank and convincingly honest countenance—no by-play, etc.”
Whatever anxieties Wyler may have ha about whether Bette would want to work with him again were soon dispelled when she accepted the role of Leslie Crosbie with an enthusiasm that she rarely allowed herself to express at Warner Bros. Aside from the personal associations the Maugham play had long held for her, Bette possessed a fair idea of what Wyler had done for her career in the past and was most anxious to be directed by him again.
Still, much as Wyler seemed to have anticipated, Bette’s personal feelings about him were distinctly mixed. For all that she had been through with various lovers in the interim, Bette continued to harbour a good deal of resentment toward Wyler for so abruptly terminating their affair at the end of Jezebel. Whereas he reportedly ha regarded their relationship as little more than a “fling,” Bette had clearly attached far more importance to it at the time than he—and even seemed briefly to have held out hopes for some sort of future with the director.
Now and for the rest of her life, she would wonder whether Wyler had been sincere when, in the third week of shooting Jezebel he had tantalized her with the role of Cathy in Wuthering Heights. Not long after she expressed interest in the part of Jack Warner, Samuel Goldwyn had snatched up the Hecht-MacArthur script, and “Bette’s” role had gone to the unlikely Merle Oberon. Had Wyler, in putting her up to seeing Warner about the Brontë project, merely been using her to generate interest in Goldwyn’s camp?
To make matters worse—although it is doubtful that Wyler knew she had become pregnant in the course of their affair—there was the problem of Bette’s lingering bad feelings about her second abortion, especially now that Wyler had only recently become a father. The summer before, Talli had given birth to their first child, whom they called Cathy (after the role in Wuthering Heights that Wyler had promised to Bette!).
By contrast with the domestic happiness Wyler had so successfully built for himself since Jezebel, Bette’s personal life seemed a pitiful shambles, particularly after Litvak’s standing her up in Honolulu; a painful humiliation Bette feared Wyler would have heard about from Litvak or another of the men in their garrulous set.
All this Bette was determined to conceal from Wyler when she and her friend Robin Brown returned from Honolulu, more than three weeks before she was set to begin work on The Letter, on May 27, 1940. Much as Bette privately dreaded meeting Talli and hearing all about the Wyler’s new baby, she braced herself to behave with perfect equanimity throughout, lest her former lover be allowed to perceive her agitation. Bette knew that the affair with Wyler during the making of Jezebel was no secret at Warners; but now she was anxious that others see their relationship as “businesslike.”
Whether Wyler understood her struggle to hide her turbulent feelings about seeing him again is impossible to say; but there can be no question that the struggle fed into the intense performance he got from her in The Letter. During the first week of shooting, Bette seemed to get through it all fairly well: even Talli Wyler’s visit to the set, when Willy presented her to Bette for the first time. But then, as the week drew to a close, Bette was appalled to discover that she might quite possibly be pregnant again, whether by Arthur Farnsworth, Anatole Litvak, or Bob Taplinger she had no idea.
Was it her imagination that during the second and third weeks of filming, cameraman Tony Gaudio kept casting “sideways” glances at her? As Bette would have learned by now, cameramen, having trained themselves to be acutely sensitive to anything that affected the physical appearance of the people they photographed, often intuitively monitored such ostensibly private matters as menstrual cycles and pregnancies. Although not a word on the subject passed between them, Bette was racked with anxiety that Gaudio sensed she was pregnant—and, far worse, that he might tell Willy Wyler about it.
Intent on masking her distress from co-workers, in private Bette cried endlessly at the prospect of a third abortion, which—she recalled years afterward—she feared would make it impossible for her to have a baby should she ever marry again. Still, after she saw a doctor on Wednesday, June 5, to confirm her pregnancy (having called in sick at the studio, Warner Bros. records show), Bette declared that she knew what she “had to do.” And so it was that, on Saturday, June 15, a free day during the third week of filming, Bette underwent a third abortion.
Aside from the fact that she was free that Saturday, the timing must have seemed optimal, since according to Wyler’s production schedule, Bette was not due to go in front of the cameras again until Thursday, June 20, for the sequence in which, dressed in a form-fitting white eyelet evening dress, Leslie steals off with her attorney to retrieve the incriminating letter. Bette had hoped to handle the abortion secretly, but the moment she appeared on the set in the white eyelet dress, she heard Tony Gaudio exclaim, “Jesus, Bette, it looks like you’ve lost five pounds over the weekend!”
During the making of Jezebel, Bette had taken immense comfort in what she found to be the soothing repetitiveness of Wyler’s notorious multiple takes. Now she learned the pleasures (and, more important for her art, the theatrical effect) of another kind of repetition: the subtle but precise echoing and modulation of gestures and moves from one sequence to another. Although Bette’s own annotations on the script for Jezebel show her beginning to pencil in connections between shots, all evidence indicates that she continued to conceive of her role largely in terms of individual sequences, leaving the overall unity of the piece to her director.
All this changed by the time of The Letter, whose complex structure, based on three interlocking “confession sequences (Leslie’s intricately woven “web of lies,” as Katharine Cornell had described it), required Bette to develop what Wyler taught her to call “unity of conception.”
In his preliminary notes, Wyler repeatedly scrawled “THE END” beside Leslie’s astonishing admission to her husband that she still loves the man she killed. His words indicate that for the director, this was the point toward which all the film’s action is inescapably headed and in relation to which all must be played (notwithstanding the additional scenes that eventually were tacked on to satisfy the Production Code Administration’s demand that Leslie be punished for her sins).
Thus, at the time of Leslie’s first “confession,” when she claims to have killed Hammond after he attempted to force himself upon her, although we cannot yet be certain that she is lying, the actress paying Leslie must at all times be conscious that her character has indeed fabricated the entire story, however successfully she puts it across to her listeners, who include her husband, her lawyer, and the callow young district officer whose unhappy task it is to arrest her.
At the time of the New York stage production in 1927, one reviewer had written of Katharine Cornell in this scene that the actress managed to tell her tale “as though at every instant a crack might open in the lacquer of falsehood.” Indeed, this scene was one of the principal reasons Cornell took the role.
After more than ample rehearsals of this first “confession” sequence with Wyler (per the director’s custom), Bette was all nervous anticipation as they began the filming on Friday, May 31, 1940. at the exacerbated fears that she might be pregnant and by Tony Gaudio’s failing ill barely an hour after they had begun to shoot, so that a replacement cameraman had to be summoned at the last minute.
The entire company had had the previous day off, during which Bette seems to have gone through her script with a pencil, expunging any ellipsis marks and repetitions of words, presumably to make her speech pour out more quickly.
As the lawyer Howard Joyce (actor James Stephenson) will later suggest, for all the effectiveness of her initial presentation, Leslie rather too precisely and meticulously repeats her version of what occurred on the night of the murder every time she relates it (“The story she told him the first time he saw her, “ Maugham writes in his short story, “she had never varied in the smallest detail”): an indication perhaps that it has all been very carefully thought out in advance lest any incriminating contradictions, any cracks in “the lacquer of falsehood,” be discovered.
As anticipated in Bette’s notations, she plays a good deal of the scene on top of her lines, rushing ahead with her “confession” at full blast, sometimes almost as if she can’t stop herself. Her momentum here is assisted by Wyler’s uncharacteristically emphatic cutting, making for a total of twenty-one shots, whose rhythms convey the artfulness with which Leslie Crosbie manages to glide through this first version of the killing: by marked contrast to the single languorous long take that dominates the painful second “confession” sequence, as we watch the murderess falter for the first time.
Bette’s lying back on a sofa through a fairly large segment of the first “confession” concentrates much of her physical expression in her hands, whose incessant hysterical fidgeting with a handkerchief (“Movement never lies”) hints at a truth entirely at odds with the “perfect control” of Leslie’s deftly orchestrated speech. As in a Martha Graham dance where movement expresses passionate, irrational depths of the self, Leslie’s gestures allude to what she cannot yet say with words (“With all my heart I still love the man I killed”). Following the recounting of the murder, Wyler cuts to a close-up of her right hand as it unconsciously, involuntarily assumes again the strange shape it took in the aftermath of the killing: fingers oddly splayed, as if misshapen by the horror of it all.
While in Maugham’s stage play Leslie makes a big point of wanting “to sit upright” before she begins her initial account of the murder, the film’s placement of her on a sofa, with the camera hovering (almost obscenely) close above, makes her appear terribly vulnerable: so much so that we may think, surely she must be innocent, or the most brazen of liars. And there is the added advantage of giving Leslie’s speech several beats as she punctuates her account with a series of small, precise movements (all of them to be almost exactly repeated later, at the time of the third “confession”): first sitting up, then rising; then turning her back to her listeners and to the camera, as if to conceal her face as she re-enacts the murder—this last a touch borrowed from Katharine Cornell, who had done it on Broadway to great effect.
“This is the first time she lies badly,” Wyler noted of Leslie’s second “confession,” filmed on Monday, June 10, during the third week of shooting. Only one other person is present: the lawyer who, in the course of visiting her in prison, confronts Leslie with the existence of the incriminating letter. Now we watch her breezy self-assurance about the outcome of her case metamorphose into agonies of apprehension. (Bette’s impending abortion, scheduled for the end of the week, and her own desire to conceal the condition, must have made performing this scene in which Leslie vainly endeavours not to give herself away a vertiginous experience.) On account of the especially intricate blocking and reframing required throughout the sequences, which covered some six pages of script, Wyler had rehearsed Davis and Stephenson all day, Saturday, June 8 from nine in the morning until five-thirty at night; running through it all again for two hours and forty-five minutes on Monday morning before shooting a total of fifteen takes (which Lord justified to Wallis with the explanation that “Wyler made so many takes with the roving camera because he did not know exactly what speed and movement would cover the dialogue to go over them”).
Whereas the cutting rhythms in the first “confession” register the deftness and fluency with which Leslie initially tells her tale, the long take that dominates this second sequence—spanning the time between Joyce’s appearance and Leslie’s frantic denial that the letter is hers—adds considerable tension and suspense by refusing to mask the agonizing passage of time as Leslie’s panic builds to a crescendo. The relentlessly “roving camera” to which Lord refers in his June 10 memorandum heightens our sense of Leslie’s frenzied struggle to escape the trap the lawyer has set for her.
After Leslie hastily concocts an absurd story about having invited Hammond to her cottage to seek his advice on a gift for her husband, the murderess realizes the ineptitude of this newest lie and galls into a faint. Wyler follows this with a piquant little scene in the prison’s first aid room, where, by contrast with the bold full-body acting she has just been called upon to do, Davis must accomplish everything with scarcely more than her left arm (extended upward and poised against the wall) and the crown of her head, as this is all we are permitted to see of her as she lies in shadow on a cot with her lawyer hovering above. When the lawyer informs Leslie that her letter to Hammond is in the possession of his Chinese wife, her reaction takes the form of a dancelike “succession”: a subtle fluid movement through Davis’s upper body that starts in the fingers of her left hand as they curl slowly into her palm, followed by an agonized flexion of the wrist, then a small shudder at the back of her head as at length we hear a low mournful sound issue from her throat.
“Can’t we go back to plantation for the end?—so Leslie can be at the same place where she loved and killed Hammond?” Wyler had scribbled on the second draft script in April 1940.
The idea did not find its way into the finished film, however. As it is, the third “confession” sequence takes place in Howard Joyce’s house, where a party is to be given in honor of Leslie’s acquittal. It is here that Leslie’s husband, Robert Crosbie, discovers the contents of her letter to Hammond; and here that she tells the truth about the murder at long last, in a scene whose nuances of blocking and editing echo those of Leslie’s first “confession” (providing the satisfying sense of balance that Wyler presumably had once hoped to achieve by returning to Leslie’s cottage at the end).
At the time his stage play was first produced, Maugham had experienced considerable trepidation about whether audiences would sit for another long narrative from Leslie in the final moments of Act Three. After two or three rehearsals, he replaced her final account of the murder with what he called a “throwback” scene, in which (the stage having darkened for a moment) we cut back to the night of the murder, to observe the actual quarrel that led to Leslie’s shooting her lover. Maugham believed that the realistic re-enactment of Leslie’s final meeting with Hammond avoided the “tediousness” inherent in her simply retelling the tale in the form of a dramatic monologue.
Robert Stevenson seems to have been attracted to this approach in the pre-Warner Bros. treatment he prepared for Wyler in August 1939; but where the treatment proposes the possibility of using “flashback construction,” Wyler scrawled an emphatic “NO!” in the margin: anticipating similar objections to the flashback in Howard Koch’s second draft screenplay (Wyler’s April 1940 annotation: “NO FLASH-BACKS”), according to which Leslie would recall the murder in a voice-over, while the actual events leading up to Hammond’s death were shown on-screen in “pantomime.”
Wyler does not appear to have shared Maugham’s fear that another long narrative from Leslie might bore the audience. Possibly because from the first Wyler had envisioned doing The Letter with Davis (with whose capacity for expressive movement he was abundantly well acquainted), he repeatedly declined to insert a flashback in place of Leslie’s third “confession,” believing that its dramatic interest was far less the rather lurid events she recounted than her manner of recounting them.
How does a woman tell her husband that she has made a cuckold of him? Where Katharine Cornell is said to have played the scene all anguish for what she has done, Bette’s Leslie is harsher, more sadistic: sister to her Mildred in Of Human Bondage (except that Leslie’s “good breeding” makes the violent passions that erupt here so much more astonishing). To judge by his notes, Wyler seems from the first to have encouraged Bette in this interpretation: so much so that at one point, he demanded that she play it rather more “strongly” than she was prepared to do. Having conceived of everything in the film as leading ineluctably to the moment when Leslie tells her husband that she still loves the man she killed, Wyler instructed Bette to look Robert in the face as she hurls these appalling words at him: the first direction of Wyler’s that Bette is recorded to have resisted, on the grounds that any woman would look away upon uttering a truth so harsh.
Although, in due course, Bette deferred to her director’s judgment and delivered the line as instructed, the disagreement quietly marked a major turning point in their working relationship.
Bette Davis, A Biography by Barbara Leaming
The role of Leslie Crosbie in Somerset Maugham’s The Letter had already been played by a bevy of distinguished actresses by the time Davis finally essayed it in 1940. Gladys Cooper had originated it in a London play in 1927. Later Katharine Cornell had played it in New York. By 1929 it was a Hollywood movie with the great Jeanne Eagels, who died soon after its release.
The plot of The Letter is melodramatic and lurid. But in the 1940 film version it was admirably scripted by Howard Koch, photographed to wonderful atmospheric effect by Tony Audio (on whom Davis had insisted), and directed by William Wyler with a painstaking, multiple-take thoroughness that had by then become his trademark, and that won the picture, and Davis, Academy Award nominations for 1940.
The Letter contains one of Davis’s greatest performances. She played Leslie Crosbie not in the emotional, throat-clutching way Jeanne Eagles had in the earlier picture but in a tense taut, controlled manner that heightened the tension enormously. And in his second picture with Wyler, she submitted, despite the usual arguments, to his ideas and came through with a polished, disciplined subtle performance that could not have been bettered.
Her romance with Wyler was several years in the past by 1940, so they worked together as professionals who thoroughly respected each other. She still found his methods nerve-racking and annoying, and there were a number of shouting matches on the set, but when she saw the rushes, with their flattering camera angles and shrewd highlighting of her best features, as well as the sterling characterization Wyler had forced out of her by his usual endless retakes and demanding methods, all she could feel was a profound gratitude.
Davis was later to pay tribute to Wyler as one of the very few directors whom she could trust completely, and to whom she would subordinate her own instincts and judgment. “That is a very rare quality in a director, I had so few of them I really respected and trusted. I had implicit confidence in Willie in that picture. In our last picture (The Little Foxes) we might have had creative differences, but in those first two I allowed his will to prevail and later blessed him for handling me with such disciplined firmness.”
James Stephenson, the English actor who had been playing small supporting roles in Warner films, including Davis’s The Old Maid and Elizabeth and Essex, came into his own under Wyler’s guidance in The Letter, and in his role as the doubting, disillusioned defence attorney he wound up getting critical acclaim almost equal to Davis’s own. Unaccustomed to Wyler’s methods, Stephenson, a product of London theatre training, at times revolted vociferously (as had another English actor, Laurence Olivier, from whom Wyler forced a performance that made him an international star). Several times he walked off the set. Davis later recalled that each time he did that, she went after him, promising that if he returned and submitted to Wyler’s methods, it would mean the great breakthrough he had not yet found in America. Later, Stephenson tendered Davis heartfelt thanks for her support.
Herbert Marshall is very fine as Davis’s deceived husband, loving and loyal throughout the trial of someone he loves and believes innocent, heartbroken, disillusioned but still forgiving when he finds out the sordid and pathetic truths of his wife’s infidelity. In the 1929 Jeanne Eagels film version, Marshall, curiously enough, had been the murdered lover. In the 1940 version, he was played by a hapless young actor named David Newell, who is seen only momentarily stumbling out onto the porch to die in the dirt below the steps of the plantation house.
In the London play, the action had ended with Leslie’s words, “With all my heart, I still love the man I killed.” a fitting curtain on a stage production free of censorship, but the Hollywood Production Code people demanded that Davis be punished for her sins. Accordingly, Howard Koch had to write a scene in which she goes out to meet her death at the hands of the Eurasian wife of the victim. Then, something had to be done about “punishing sufficiently” murderess number two, so as Gale Sondergaard, who played the role, leaves the scene with a confederate, she is accosted by a policeman. Davis recalled late that there was great concern at the studio that such bowdlerization might injure the realistic approach Wyler was trying to achieve, but the feared minus turned into a plus, when it was revealed that the haunting camera effects, the dramatic play of light and shadow, and the musical inspirations of Max Steiner had added, in Davis’s own death scene, an exciting new dimension to the proceedings.
The Maugham story proved so popular that it was remade several times—each time with inferior results. A rather hasty, slapdash, melodramatic version called The Unfaithful appeared in 1947, directed by Vincent Sherman with, of all people, Ann Sheridan in the Davis role. (Ann, likable as she was. in no way measured up to Davis’s interpretation; she lacked the depth, passion, and technique for it.) As late as 1982, a telemovie version, directed by John Erman, featured Lee Remick in yet another of the roles that were beyond her depth. To this day, the Davis version stands as the definitive one—and deservedly so.
In one breathtakingly sinister scene, guided by Wyler from start to finish with painstaking professionalism, Gale Sondergaard receives Davis at her dwelling. She has demanded that her husband’s murderer come in person to get the letter in exchange for the $10,000. As Wyler directs the scene, Davis advances toward Sondergaard, who is standing on an elevated level. The widow’s eyes glitter with hatred; they stare at each other for what seems an eternity; Davis, eyes widening, fearful yet determined, waits for the evidence that would potentially damn her. Sondergaard slowly extracts the letter from her sleeve and contemptuously throws it on the floor, forcing Davis to stoop to retrieve it. This is a salient example of the excruciating tension Wyler could inject into a scene, editing out of it anything extraneous or superfluous.
In future years, whenever she spoke of The Letter, Davis mentioned the enormous contribution Stephenson and Sondergaard had made. “It always meant so much to me,” she said more than once, “to have fine actors playing opposite me; they gave me something sterling to play against, and enhanced my own performance accordingly.”
At this point Davis was still “between husbands,” and though her romance with Farney was catching fire despite the three thousand miles that separated them most of the time, she was not immune to the manly charms of one particular actor named Bruce Lester, who was, as she later recalled in somewhat sugary terms for her, “the essence of winsome sweetness.” Lester had several good scenes with her—he was an assistant to the defence attorney who commiserated with her, being ignorant of her guilt—and she went out of her way to put him at ease and ensure that he would give a creditable performance.
Soon they were seen lunching together and leaving alone in her car after the day’s shooting ended, and rumours of a Bette Davis-Bruce Lester romance began circulating. Lester, of whom little was to be heard thereafter, was a very sincere, decent young man who was not at all sure that acting was what he really wanted. Later he praised Davis for her encouragement and concern at that point in his life. The romance, such as it was, seems to have come to nothing. “She found Bruce attractive and sweet, but he was a bit tame for her speed,” Jerry Asher later said.
The New York Times reviewer extolled The Letter, when it opened in New York on November 22, 1940,. as “a superior melodrama, compounded of excellent acting, insinuating atmosphere and unrelaxed suspense,” with Davis described as “a strangely cool and calculating killer who conducts herself with reserve and yet implies a deep confusion of emotions.” Stephenson came off as “superb,” and of Wyler the review stated, “His hand is patent throughout.”
Fasten Your Seat Belts: The Passionate Life of Bette Davis by Lawrence J. Quirk (1990)
- This long opening shot in The Letter is, in my opinion, the finest opening shot I have ever seen in a film. This was due to the genius, and I use the word advisedly, of William Wyler, our director.
- Gale Sondergaard’s performance in The Letter, as the Eurasion wife of the man Leslie Crosbie killed, was breathtakingly sinister. I was so lucky that she was cast in this part.
- Every time Jimmy would leave, I would run after him and make him come back, saying, “It will be worth it, Jimmy—don’t go. You will give the great performance of your career under Wyler’s direction.” He would go back on the set. The day the notices appeared in the New York papers, he received much personal acclaim. We were both having lunch in the Green Room at Warner Bros. He came to my table and said, “Bette, I’ll thank you all my life for making me stay on the picture.” Willie believed in one thing while directing a film. It didn’t matter how many differences of opinion or how many upsets occurred during filming—the only thing that mattered with the finished product, what was on the screen after the film was completed. I personally, after Jezebel, would have jumped into the Hudson River if he had told me to. That’s how much belief I had in his judgment as a director.
- I completely agree with Mr. Wyler. The motion picture is the director’s medium. He is completely responsible for the “finished effect.” He is the person “who makes the film and okays it.” What Mr. Wyler cannot say is that there are few great directors that the actor can completely rely upon for his or her performance, to say nothing of the finished product. Many a film has been murdered by the lack of judgment in editing our work after it is finished.
Mother Goddam: The Story of the Career of Bette Davis by Whitney Stine
With Running Commentary by Bette Davis