The famous Bette Davis version of The Letter (1940) opens with a bang (actually six bangs) as she pumps a full round of bullets into a man, and then proceeds to tell a tale of how she was defending her honor. That’s how the 1982 TV remake with Lee Remick does it, too. However, this first film version of W. Somerset Maugham’s stage play is closer to the source.
This is the only surviving talkie of legendary actress Jeanne Eagels, who died soon after of a possible overdose of heroin or tranquilizers. She was posthumously considered for an Academy Award for this performance, and although she’s adopting a posh British accent, it provides some evidence of the naturalism she was known for in that the melodrama is often curiously muted. (Her naturalism comes through more clearly in her silent performance in the 1916 The World and the Woman.) Her voice is a little flat, with something between a purr and a twang. Where the film might have been a very histrionic melodrama, it comes off more as a quiet fable, almost a devastating anecdote.
For the two women who drive the plot, the motives of pride, prejudice and humiliation are more racial than sexual. Leslie Crosbie (Eagels) lives on a Singapore rubber plantation with her stuffy English husband (Reginald Owen), known to all the British colony as a fine and honorable chap. She summons her lover, the dissipated Geoffrey—played by an exquisitely weary and caddish Herbert Marshall, who played Davis’ dull husband in the remake. Geoffrey’s dumped her for the elaborately made-up Li-Ti (billed as Lady Tsen Mei), referred to by Leslie with revulsion as “a half-caste Chinese woman”, and worse, “common”.
I must confess that during this sequence, I was distracted by staring at Eagels’ low, straight-cut decolletage with a necklace swinging in front. Don’t get the wrong idea—I was staring because it looked like she had zero cleavage. That was more than flapper style; drug addiction had worn her down to near death.
When her lover states that he prefers the Chinese woman to Leslie, she goes into a rage and shoots him, so in this version there’s never any question about what happened and the fact that Leslie is lying to all and sundry on the witness stand. That trial sequence is a quiet tour-de-force where she re-imagines the scene as she wishes it to have happened, where her gasps at imminent mythical rape betray her strongest desires. Andrew Sarris said of the scene: “She leaves us suspended helplessly in that ironic limbo between the inferno of her private passions and the paradise of her public protestations. And irony of ironies, it is when she is reciting the litany of the nice girl fending off the male predator that she becomes most lascivious to all the patriarchal types on the bench and the jury box.”
The big confrontation is between Leslie and Li-Ti, who drips with scorn and rage of her own at the “white lady” as she blackmails her over the incriminating letter. To make matters worse (and more ironic), Li-Ti apparently runs a brothel, which underlines what society would consider Leslie if the truth were known. The film frankly discusses racial attitudes among the white jury and the fact that his Chinese lover reduces the victim in their eyes to someone practically begging for what he got. The racial attitudes depicted—the condescension by the British, the resentment by the Asians, and the barely veiled contempt of both—are crucial to the drama’s conception and placed there deliberately and analytically by the artists, not accidentally and unthinkingly.
Watching all this and serving as a bridge between the worlds is the attorney’s Chinese assistant (played by Japanese actor Tamaki Yoshiwara), who explains that he’s learned much by being educated in white man’s schools and reading the white man’s books. When asked about Chinese books, he says “Only one, Confucius.” The attorney (O.P. Heggie) sourly remarks “Damned clever, these Chinese.” This is Yoshiwara’s only film credit on IMDB; it states that he died in New York in 1979. Lady Tsen-Mai is listed as having starred in two silent films and died in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1985; according to one online source, she starred in a series of Philadelphia-produced films circa 1920, which predates Anna May Wong. I want to know more.
The Davis version is more objectively entertaining and spins more of a mystery, and it was certainly shot with greater style, but it was made when the Production Code forbade anyone from getting away with murder. This original version, made only two years after Maugham’s play was a stage hit, is under no such restraint and ends in a way some may find anti-climactic or surprisingly ambiguous. As Leslie’s polite and calculating mask comes off, we understand the depth of her rationalizations and feelings. For a moment she pops with a rage rarely seen by women in the classic studio era, and which I can best compare with Ingrid Bergman’s outburst at the finale of Gaslight.
Early talkies were shot with some scenes of recorded sound while other silent shots (usually establishing shots and inserts) would have music or effects dubbed later. Apparently an unfinished workprint, this version retains the silence of the latter shots, so that only the dialogue scenes have sound along with one nightclub sequence of music. It’s only an hour long and, despite technical limitations, is rarely awkward and never dull; the themes are too intriguingly modern for that. The no-frills disc of excellent visual quality is another entry in Warner Archives’ made-on-demand output.