Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Letter (1929)

Director: Jean de Limur                                Writer: Garrett Fort
Film Score: Stock Music                              Cinematography: George J. Falsey
Starring: Jeanne Eagels, O.P. Heggie, Reginald Owen and Herbert Marshall

The first filmed version of Somerset Maugham’s play The Letter, it’s fascinating to compare this pre-code version and Warner Brothers' remake a decade later with Bette Davis. Previously thought to be a lost film, a 35mm print was discovered that was missing the music track. Fortunately most of the dialogue track is still intact and has also preserved one of the ultra-rare appearances in the talkies of Jeanne Eagels. Eagles was a Broadway star who was notoriously difficult in Hollywood. Drug addiction led to her death after finishing her next, and final film, Jealousy with Frederick March. Eagels is an interesting actress. She had a halting style of delivery and odd physical movements that makes one wonder if it wasn’t due to her drug use. But she was also quite a commanding figure on the screen.

Eagels plays the wife of a plantation owner in Singapore and Herbert Marshall plays her lover. In an ironic twist, Marshall wound up playing the part of the husband in the remake with Davis. Reginald Owen, who had a long career in Hollywood, played the husband in this version. O.P. Heggie, most famous as the blind hermit in Bride of Frankenstein, is on hand as the defense attorney for Eagels and Irene Browne plays his wife. The plot revolves around a letter that Eagels wrote to Marshall on the night that she killed him. The Chinese woman he was living with has the letter and is holding it as blackmail in exchange for ten thousand dollars. Japanese born Tamaki Yoshiwara plays the Chinese assistant of Heggie and is the go between for the transfer of money to Marshall’s Chinese mistress, Lady Tsen Mei who wants it delivered by Eagels herself.

Where the 1940 version was done in the style of a noir film, and the ending changed to reflect that, the original is still very close to its roots on the stage. The scenes have the usual stage bound quality of the early talkies, though there are a few interesting camera setups by director Jean de Limur. It’s easy to fault de Limur’s uninspired direction, but it’s certainly no worse hundreds of other talkies during the same period. It also doesn’t help that the music is gone. Of course, what music that existed in early talkies always came from situations in the film itself, what theorists call diegetic. In this case there is a small group of musicians outside of Eagels’ house as well as a group of Chinese musicians in Marshall’s house that are both mute. It would have been nice to have the entire music track, but during a dance scene and a snake charmer scene there are a couple of pieces of music still in existance. The Chinese are of course played as stereotypes, but otherwise the overt racism seems very much part of the story and the setting.

Though little more than a filmed play, it’s still a powerful story and the film itself has great interest because of the appearance of Eagels. Is that enough to recommend the film? On the whole, yes. As long as one can see it in its historic context and is prepared to judge it in that way it can be a fantastically rewarding experience. If not . . . then probably not. Ultimately the original version of The Letter is an important piece of film history and one well worth watching.

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