Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Jeanne Eagels in The Letter

Back in October 2012, I mentioned that TCM was going to be showing the 1929 version of The Letter, a movie I had not seen before. It's airing again tomorrow morning at 6:15 AM on TCM, and it's well worth watching.

Eagels stars as Leslie Crosbie (the role taken by Bette Davis in the famous 1940 version), the wife of Robert, who works as a manager at a rubber plantation in British Malaya. It's a boring life for her, and she's decided to pass the time by taking up a lover, Geoffrey (Herbert Marshall). Things go wrong, however, and she shoots the boyfriend dead, claiming self defense.

That something wrong is a letter that Leslie wrote to Geoffrey discussing her love for him, but that letter has wound up in the hands of one of the locals. It's going to come out at the murder trial, and there goes any chance of a self-defense claim. Although, to be honest, we already know that Leslie's claim is bogus, at least in the Jeanne Eagels version. The 1940 version starts with that famous scene of Bette Davis shooting the gun again and again as she's retreating frmo her bungalow. In this version, we get to see some of the relationhsip Leslie and Geoffrey had, especially their meeting at the Crosbie bungalow on the night where she shoots him.

That's one big difference between the two versions. The other is in the ending. By 1940, movies had to conform to the Porduction Code, so Leslie Crosbie had to be either found guilty and sentenced to hang, or get caught in some other way along the lines of what happens to Lana Turner and John Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice. 1929 was before all of that stuff, so we can see movies like Night Nurse in which the protagonist's boyfriend gets away with murder, even if it is in a good cause. Here, the result is somewhat different, as Leslie suffers what may be a proverbial fate worse than death (sorry if the writing looks so bad, but I'm trying to couch this post in a way that doesn't give the ending away).

Jeanne Eagels is fascinating to watch in this movie. She was a raging heroin addict and had been for years by the time she made this movie, and it shows. That whole "heroin chic" thing of it keeping you thin has left Eagels gaunt, almost to the point of being called skeletal. It almost gives the impression that life in this backwater part of the British Empire has reduced her to this, even if that's not an impreesion the filmmakers intended. Eagels is particularly convincing in her final scene.

The bad news is the physical state of the movie. The print TCM showed last time didn't look terrible, but it did look at times as though it was the only surviving print of the film, wiht points where I was wondering whether there was something missing. I don't know whether the film was originally planned as a silent and then converted to sound during production, or whether the producers just found it easier to have a lot of establishing shots be done in such a way that any background sound could be added in post-production, but it's something quite noticeable in several places. Those problems aside, this version of The Letter is still quite a compelling movie.

Although the 1929 version of The Letter was made at Paramount, it was sold to Warner Bros. when they were going to make the 1940 version. As such, it's Warner Home Video that's been able to release this movie to DVD as part of the Warner Archive.

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