Saturday, November 11, 2017

Stubs: The Letter (1929)


The Letter (1929) Starring: Jeanne Eagels, Reginald Owen, O.P. Heggie, Herbert Marshall. Directed by Jean de Limur. Screenplay by Garrett Fort. Based on the play The Letter by W. Somerset Maugham (London, 24 Feb 1927). Produced by Monta Bell. Run Time: 61 minutes USA Black and White Drama

With the coming of sound, Hollywood went through a lot of changes. It’s pretty well known that many silent film stars were replaced by stage actors. Paramount Pictures even marketed their slate of talkies as serious filmmaking, focusing on the theatrical experience of the stars and the dramatic content of the stories. Monta Bell, their East Coast production head, had the idea of producing talkies with prominent stage stars in adaptations of well-known plays. His approach was not mere canned theater, but an attempt to blend the best of the Broadway stage with cinema.

Case in point, The Letter (1929), the first sound feature film made by Paramount Pictures at their Astoria Studios in New York. The Letter was a well-known play by W. Somerset Maugham, first produced in London in February 1927 and later that year on Broadway for 104 performances.

To star in this adaptation, Bell nabbed Jeanne Eagels, who had become a Broadway star with the lead in Rain, a play written by John Colton and Clemence Randolph, based on a short story by W. Somerset Maugham that debuted on Broadway in November 1922. Eagels had made a film for MGM, Man, Woman and Sin (1927) opposite John Gilbert and was available. While on tour with Her Cardboard Lover opposite Leslie Howard, Jeanne had missed several performances as a result with her own struggles with alcohol and drugs. As a result, in 1928, she was banned from the stage for 18 months by Actors Equity. She signed on to make three features for Bell.

For the film, in addition to Eagels, Bell brought in O.P. Heggie, Herbert Marshall and Reginald Owen, all actors with more stage experience, though a few had some experience with films as well. Heggie was an Australian actor who came to Broadway in 1915. In 1927, he was seen by Norma Shearer and her husband, producer Irving Thalberg, in the Players Club revival of Trelawny of the Wells. The couple encouraged him to move to Hollywood. He appeared in his first film opposite Shearer in The Actress (1928).

Herbert Marshall, an English actor, had been acting since 1909 and had debuted on the London stage in Brewster’s Millions in 1913. At 24, Marshall enlisted in the British Army and served during World War I, losing a leg in the process. But with a prosthetic, Marshall continued acting after the war. By 1922, he was making regular appearances on Broadway. In 1927, he made his film debut in the silent British film Mumsie.

Reginald Owen, another British actor, had been working on Broadway since 1920. His first film was Henry VIII (1911), a silent British film. He would continue to make films in Britain while acting on the stage, including Possession (1922) and The Grass Orphan (1922).

Robert Crosbie (Reginald Owen) informs his wife, Leslie (Jeanne Eagels), that
he's going into town to exchange his hunting rifle.

The Letter is set on a British-run rubber plantation outside of Singapore, headed by Robert Crosbie (Reginald Owen). With him is his wife Leslie (Jeanne Eagels), who acts like an attentive wife while he fiddles with a hunting rifle. Feeling that it’s not heavy enough for the type of hunting he wants to do, he tells Leslie that he plans to go into Singapore that night to exchange it.

Geoffrey (Herbert Marshall) and his mistress Li-Ti (Lady Tsen Mei) before the letter arrives.

But no sooner has he ridden off on his motorcycle, then Leslie writes a letter which she has one of the manservants deliver it to Geoffrey Hammond (Herbert Marshall), her lover. But Geoffrey is not alone, but is with Li-Ti (Lady Tsen Mei), his lover. The note is delivered and Geoffrey reads it, though he lies to Li-Ti about who it is from. He makes an excuse and leaves, though he drops the letter on the floor. Li-Ti can’t help herself but read it. She realizes that he has lied to her.

Li-Ti finds the letter on the floor and reads it.

When Geoffrey arrives, Leslie professes her love for him, but he tells her that he has tired of her and is in love with Li-Ti. Leslie is openly prejudiced against the locals, feeling they are beneath her.

Leslie (Jeanne Eagels) professes her love for Geoffrey.

But when he insists on being with Li-Ti, Leslie can’t understand. She becomes enraged and shoots him as he is leaving. And she shoots until the gun is empty.

Leslie does not take rejection well.

In the next scene, Leslie is in the midst of her murder trial. When asked by attorneys to tell her story, she makes up a somewhat believable story that Geoffrey came over while her husband was away. He was drinking heavily and forced himself on her. Rather than be raped, she found the pistol and shot him, not even realizing she had emptied the chamber. Everyone seems sympathetic to her.

Leslie bears false witness at her murder trial.

Her lawyer, Joyce (O. P. Heggie), is feeling pretty sure that she will be cleared. Her husband is so confident that he promises her that they’ll go to London on a holiday after her acquittal and then he plans to buy his own rubber plantation in Sumatra with the money he’s managed to save.

 Robert plans to take Leslie away when the trial is over.

Everything is looking good until Joyce’s Chinese assistant, On Chi Seng (Tamaki Yoshiwara), is approached by an emissary of Li-Ti’s about a letter she has. She gives Seng a handwritten copy of the letter, which he takes to Joyce. Li-Ti wants $10,000, a lot of money, but also demands that Leslie bring the money to her herself. After reading the copy, Joyce decides that the letter could lead to her being found guilty and he advises her to make the payment.

Chi Seng (Tamaki Yoshiwara) informs Joyce (O. P. Heggie) about the letter.

Joyce manages to get Leslie released into his custody and she delivers the money to Li-Ti at her house of ill repute. We witness Chinese men gambling on the outcome of a fight between a mongoose and a cobra. The actual battle is obviously borrowed from another film, the background makes this clear as it doesn’t match. I read somewhere that the footage was taken from an unknown silent German film.

Li-Ti makes Leslie bring the money for the letter herself.

Leslie is anxious to make the payment and take the letter, but Li-Ti makes her wait. A Chinese man comes into the room to examine women that Li-Ti has locked up in a cage. He doesn’t seem to find one to his liking and even gives Leslie a long leering look, much her humiliation, before he leaves. During the exchange, Li-Ti purposefully lets the letter fall to the floor, so that Leslie has to debase herself by picking it up at Li-Ti’s feet. She, along with her prostitutes, laugh at Leslie as she scurries away.

Joyce leaves the celebration after giving Robert the letter.

The next day, with the incriminating letter suppressed, Leslie is found not guilty and sent home. There, her husband, along with Joyce and his wife (Irene Brown), celebrate. While the two women are out of the room making drinks, Joyce presents his bill. While as an old-friend Joyce provided his services for free, he still presents a bill for $10,000, the amount he paid for the letter. When Robert demands to know what’s in a letter that is worth that kind of money, Joyce relents and lets him read it.

Trapped in a loveless marriage, Leslie tells Robert that she only loves the man she killed.

Robert waits until the other couple leaves before confronts his wife and forces her to admit everything. She offers to leave, but he refuses. As punishment, he decides to keep her on the plantation, as he no longer has any money to leave. In return, she boasts that she still loves the man she killed.

The film was released in the US by Paramount on April 13, 1929 in both sound and silent versions. They would also produce French, Spanish, German and Italian-language versions of the film at the company's studios in Joinville, France in 1931. Warner Bros. would buy the rights to the film and make their own version as a vehicle for Bette Davis in 1940. Included in the deal were not only the remake rights, but the actual film itself. Herbert Marshall would also appear in the remake, but rather than the lover, he plays the role of the cheated upon husband.

There are several things that set this film apart not just from its better known 1940 remake, but from modern films. Perhaps because it was a hybrid of sorts, there is very little sound except for the scenes with dialogue. All the establishing shots are silent, including the mongoose cobra fight. There isn’t even any use of a score to emphasize a scene. The lack of even ambient sounds sort of takes you out of the film since modern expectations are to have sound throughout. You are constantly reminded that this is essentially a silent film with dialogue, sort of like The Jazz Singer (1927), and that Hollywood was still not sure how and when to finalize the transition to sound.

Paramount’s desire to recreate the theater-going experience is pretty much achieved. However, as a result, the film feels too much like a stage play. There are very few set ups, so to speak, and the scenes are quite long. The director, Jean de Limur, lets the dialogue and acting carry the day.

Seeing as this is pre-code Hollywood, the film is more explicit about Li-Ti’s business dealings. That doesn’t mean there is nudity, but rather we know that she runs a house of prostitution. Rather than Chinese, in the remake she is Eurasian and I don’t believe she is defined as well as Li-Ti is here. In 1929, she’s Geoffrey’s mistress, in 1940, due to the Hays Code, his wife. In our version, Leslie is left unpunished for the murder, at least by the courts. In 1940, she has to die to pay for her acts, so a scene had to be added to deliver this justice.

For the most part, the acting still seems to have its feet firmly planted in the silent era. Of all the actors, only Herbert Marshall seems to be at ease with sound. He basically plays the same urbane gentleman that you see him play in many of his film roles.

Even though she would be nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress in 1930, and her acting style dubbed "naturalism”, Jeanne Eagels seems to be overacting the most. Her twitching and wide-eyed expressions seem more in line with the silent version and not the sound. It has to be remembered that when the film was made, sound was still considered a gimmick and no one really knew what they were doing.

Jeanne Eagels was nominated for her performance in The Letter.

Eagels' nomination would come posthumously. She would make another film for Paramount, Jealousy (1929), now considered lost, but would not fulfill her three-picture deal. She was dismissed from her next film, The Laughing Lady, because Paramount would not wait for an eye infection to clear. She would have eye surgery in September 1929. After a ten-day stay, she was sent home. At her apartment she was apparently acting strangely and suffering from hallucinations. On October 3, 1929, she was taken by her secretary to an appointment with her doctor. While there, Eagels would go into convulsions and died shortly thereafter. Toxicology reports would show that she had alcohol, heroin and a sedative, chloral hydrate, in her blood. Her death was ruled as an overdose of chloral hydrate.

Reginald Owen would go onto have a long career at MGM. Perhaps his best-known role was as Ebenezer Scrooge in that studio’s version of the Charles Dickens inspired classic, A Christmas Carol (1938). He would also appear in British films playing both Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in different films. In The Letter, he has a relatively small part.

I’ve read criticism about the depiction of the Chinese in The Letter. The British treat them as second-class citizens in their own country. The sentiment is expressed strongest in Leslie’s attitudes towards Li-Ti. It is not too much of a stretch to believe she kills Geoffrey not so much because he has chosen another woman, but because the woman in question is Chinese, a race she feels inferior to her own. His choice adds an insult to the injury that she cannot abide. Li-Ti seems to know this as well, enjoying humiliating Leslie in their one face-to-face encounter.

While the 1940 version is better known, the original film is not without saving graces. Free from the Code, the film can explore subject matters more in line with the play it is based on. If you’re interested in seeing how Hollywood made the transition from silent to sound, then The Letter is a good example. The success of these sort of films helped make sure that sound was not a short-lived gimmick. It’s too bad that the finished product hasn’t aged well.

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