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Letter, The (DVD Review)

25 Jul, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated
Stars Jeanne Eagels, O.P. Heggie, Herbert Marshall, Reginald Owen.

Somerset Maugham’s 1927 play is best known today as the source for the 1940 Warner Bros. version in which William Wyler directed Bette Davis — the best director of her career, and, yes, she always knew it, even though their battles were legion.

But. This comparably stilted and nearly “lost” screen predecessor, released by Paramount early in the sound era, is very much worth seeing — primarily because it preserves one of the first performances ever nominated for the best actress Oscar: by famed stage actress and legend-of-the-day Jeanne Eagels not long before her death at 39. Eagels’ reputation was such that almost 30 years after her death — when there were no cable movie stations or websites to keep the flame alive — Columbia Pictures mounted a large-scale biopic of her with Kim Novak, which showed up on last year’s Sony-released Novak box.

Actually titled Jeanne Eagels, it was enough of a bomb (Novak playing a stage legend remains a stretch) to do some harm to the younger actress’s career. But this hour-long drama of adultery/murder — 35 minutes shorter than Wyler’s remake — does offer evidence for today’s audiences that Eagels could act. And unlike Davis, whose overall performance is inarguably stellar, Eagles really does look like someone with alluring looks that are now fading some — putting her in enough of a desperate state to shoot a long-time lover (Herbert Marshall) who has thrown her over for a Chinese alternative. This version’s treatment of racism, by the way, is more on the button than the overall superior remake’s — which was compromised on this and other levels by Hollywood’s clueless (in terms of recognizable human behavior) Production Code.

Eagels’ wife has strayed in the first place due to years of being stranded on a Singapore rubber plantation that is obviously not as much fun as its Indonesian counterpart in the Clark Gable-Jean Harlow classic of orneriness, Red Dust. Life with her husband (Reginald Owen, a role played by Marshall in the remake) has driven her over the edge; even if he didn’t ignore her for work, no one would peg him as much of a gangster of love in the first place. She cracks up and shoots her lover — many times, bam! — but despite the suspicious zeal indicated by the tally of shots, the victim is portrayed as a longtime family friend who simply got out of hand one night after showing up inebriated while her husband was away. If it sounds a little fishy, the assailant’s social standing would probably be enough to avoid conviction were it not for an incriminating letter.

The movie is only a little more than a photographed stage play, but the hot-house atmosphere is fairly convincing, allowing for the primitive filmmaking origins. It reminds me a little of Paramount’s 1931 Tallulah Bankhead remake of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1915 The Cheat, which showed up in last year’s Universal box set devoted to pre-Code Paramounts from the early 1930s. To my ear, in fact, Eagels’ voice even registers a little like Bankhead’s.

Though Eagels made a handful of silents, no talkie cross-reference exists because her only follow-up (the same year’s Jealousy, opposite Fredric March) is a lost film. Ten days after the latter came out — and about six months after The Letter’s release — the actress was dead under still murky circumstances, though the heroin found in her system was definitely a contributor. It is said that in Jealousy, Eagles looked a physical wreck, and her Letter Oscar nomination was a posthumous one (still one of the few).

Frequently — but most prominently at the very beginning — the surviving print utilized for this on-demand release is minus any sound recording. But almost all of the dialogue remains intact, including the actress’s still powerful “big scene” at the end, which sets up a remarkably uncompromised finale for its day. It excites the film historian in me to see The Letter again in what, overall, is a surprisingly satisfactory print. When I saw what was then a very rare 16mm copy of it at the Museum of Modern Art in either 1970 or ’71, I felt privileged and felt that this was probably “it” for my lifetime.

The early sound years witnessed a number of fatalities involving major or perceived major talents whose future in talking movies is now conjecture. Director F.W. Murnau had the chops to succeed artistically under any system, but could his largely non-commercial directorial sensibilities have survived the moneymen? Let us hope. In terms of performers, the evidence indicates that Lon Chaney, Sr., (whose 1930 The Unholy Three was his only talkie) would have made the transition, just as the now obscure Robert Williams very well might have become a major comic force (he died of peritonitis in 1931 just as Frank Capra’s Platinum Blonde, with his film-stealing performance, was expanding beyond big-city engagements). From the ammo evidenced here, one would have to guess that Eagels would have also been a “go” — though possibly in predominantly neurotic roles (“not that there’s nothing wrong with that”).

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