Last week I revisited an old classic, The Letter (William Wyler, 1940) starring Bette Davis, and out of curiosity followed it up the next day with a screening of the lesser-known 1929 version of the same story, directed by Jean de Limur and starring the embattled Jeanne Eagels. While the earlier film is clearly the inferior work, contrasting it with the more-famous version exposes peculiarities of the time in which it was made, and is instructive about both the transition to talking-pictures as well as the production code that was written 1930 and not enforced until 1934.
Based on a stage play by M. Somerset Maugham, both versions of The Letter were released in years following landmark dates in film history. 1928 saw the transition from silent film to talking picture production in all of the major Hollywood studios (The Jazz Singer had been released in October, 1927), and 1939 has been lauded as the height of the Hollywood studio system and the apogee of its artistry. Stylistically and structurally, each film is representative of the production methods of its era.
The dramatic structure of the 1929 version of The Letter is linear, and, to be honest, not very interesting. The film begins with Leslie (Eagels) being left alone for the evening by her husband, and sending a letter summoning her lover, Geoffrey (Herbert Marshall). By the time she murders Geoffrey we know the nature of her relationships with both her husband and her lover, and fully understand her motives. As she tries to wiggle her way through her legal proceedings her deceptions are easily identified by the audience, and there is a sense of neither suspense nor of surprise as her lies are gradually uncovered by her lawyer and her husband.
In this way, the 1929 film is structured much like a silent film, which, in telling its story in a visual manner, would usually follow a linear progression so that the audience would clearly understand the situations and motivations of the characters. Silent films did not have the luxury of explaining plot development to the audience with a few lines of spoken dialogue. This is not to say that silent films were incapable of developing psychologically complex narratives, because they certainly were, but it remains a fact that silent films were much better at melodrama than mystery. This film is played as pure melodrama.
While the dramatic structure betrays the fact that the screenplay was crafted by writers, principally Monta Bell and Garrett Fort, who had learned their craft in the silent era, stylistically the film bears no resemblance to silent film production. Like many early talkies the drama unfolds in long static shots of dialogue. There is very little cutting within scenes, and the lighting remains rather flat throughout the film. The acting, too, is highly histrionic, and reflective of early 20th century stage technique (dare I say 19th century melodrama?). There is very little subtlety to the performances, and the production is, overall, not cinematic.
A fine example is the scene early in the film in which Leslie confronts Geoffrey about their relationship. The majority of the scene is a single shot, with Leslie facing the camera, and Geoffrey in profile. They play the entire scene without moving about the room, with Eagels emoting and overacting as if she were on stage in a large theater and afraid those seated in the second balcony might miss something (certainly, the stilted dialogue doesn’t help). The scene ends with her shooting Geoffrey, and her actions are so exaggerated as to be comical. It is as though she needs to be sure that the audience sees her firing the gun several times, not trusting that they would hear the reports of the pistol. Very theatrical, but not very cinematic or convincing.
The 1929 version of The Letter exposes all that was lost when Hollywood ceased silent film production in favor of talking pictures. The 1940 version, made at a time of streamlined commercially-viable yet artistically-valid studio filmmaking, reclaims the silent film technique that had been lost (or abandoned) in 1929, while using dialogue to create a more riveting and engrossing drama. To be sure, this film is also played to melodramatic effect, but uses dialogue to create a more complex drama, and is structured more like a mystery.
The opening sequence of the 1940 film rivals anything produced by Hollywood in the late silent era. A series of tracking shots establishes a humid and sleepy night on a rubber plantation. The uneasy quiet is disturbed by the sound of gunshots, and the camera cuts to Leslie (Bette Davis), shooting Geoffrey, and following him down the front steps of her bungalow firing shot after shot. While the use of sound, without dialogue, is very important to this scene, it is a visually-intense and purely cinematic experience. In the manner of late-silent-era Hollywood studio production, it economically establishes the setting and launches us into the drama without the ponderous exposition of the first film version. Although the remainder of the narrative, up to but not including the final scene, is driven largely by dialogue, the 1940 film remains true to its roots in silent-era production through its use of dramatic lighting and visual motifs.
The 1940 film is also structurally different from the 1929 version. The film begins with the murder of Geoffrey, and through dialogue we learn Leslie’s version of events. Like the other characters in the film the audience does not know the depth of her deceit, and learns it only gradually. Unlike the 1929 version, in which we see Leslie writing the letter that summons her lover, it is fully one-third of the way through the 1940 film that we learn of the letter’s existence, and that Leslie’s relationship with Geoffrey was not as she had admitted. In addition to its structure as a mystery, the narrative uses dialogue to further explore Leslie’s deceptive nature by developing her relationship not only with her husband (Herbert Marshall, who had played Geoffrey in the 1929 version) but with her defense attorney and friend Howard Joyce (James Stephenson). Bette Davis’s Leslie engages Joyce in behavior that would lead to his disbarment should it be discovered. In short, while the 1940 version of The Letter was able to use dialogue to develop story and character in a way silent films could not, and in a way that early talkies had not figured out, it also used cinematic techniques developed during the silent era to develop atmosphere and enhance the drama.
Another notable difference between the 1929 and 1940 versions of The Letter is the ending. Made a year before the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (or the Hays code) was written, the earlier version of the film did not have to pass moral judgement on Leslie. Screenwriters and directors were comparatively free to tell their stories without worrying about the values they were promoting. As such, the 1929 version ends with Leslie’s stinging admission that “with all my heart, and all my soul, I still love the man I killed.”
In 1940, however, Hollywood was adhering to an established code of morality, and would not permit the narrative to end with Leslie’s acquittal and later admission to her husband that she still loved the man she killed. Having committed adultery, murder, and perjury, and engaged in other morally abhorrent behavior, she had to pay for her sins. And so the 1940 version of The Letter ends as it begins, with a visually-striking final sequence which borrows its technique from the silent era. Bette Davis, willfully walks out into a moonlit night where she is murdered by her lover’s wife.
Both films are available on DVD.