Thursday, June 28, 2012

William Wyler's "The Letter" (1940) - Starting with a Bang

 
This piece is my contribution for The Movie Projector's blogathon in honor of William Wyler. Click here for more information and links to participating blogs.

Of director William Wyler, Bette Davis once declared, “It was he who helped me realize my full potential as an actress.” Of the actress, Wyler would recall, “She was a director’s dream.” Together they made three very popular and critically acclaimed Hollywood films. The pair first collaborated on the 1938 Warner Bros. production of Jezebel. For her performance Bette Davis won the second of her two Best Actress Academy Awards. Davis was sorely disappointed that Wyler had not received a Best Director nod for his work on the film and would later credit her Oscar-winning portrayal to him, “It was all Wyler,” she wrote.

Bette Davis and William Wyler
In January 1940, Warner Bros. announced that Bette Davis would star in a remake of a film adapted from a play Somerset Maugham had dramatized from his own short story, The Letter. In April, William Wyler was hired to direct, on loan from Samuel Goldwyn who would, in turn, be able to use Bette Davis for his upcoming The Little Foxes, which would be the last film Wyler and Davis would make together. In an interview years later, Wyler recalled that he had read Howard Koch’s script for The Letter and liked it and that he wanted to work with Davis again. His only regret was that cinematographer Gregg Toland was unavailable. For her part, Davis was eager to work with Wyler on another very promising project; Maugham’s sensational tale of British colonial “white mischief” was set in the exotic Far East and replete with adultery, deceit and murder.

The Malay Peninsula
By the time he traveled to British Malaya in 1921, Somerset Maugham was a well established writer of best-selling fiction and popular stage plays. While in the colonies he met an attorney, Courtenay Dickinson, who told him of a scandalous case he’d handled ten years earlier. In 1911, Dickinson represented the wife of the headmaster at a boys’ school in Kuala Lumpur who shot and killed a male friend one night while her husband was out. The headmaster was William J. Proudlock, a British citizen, and his school was the prestigious Victorian Institute, founded in the capital city in 1894. Proudlock’s wife, Ethel, had been visited by William Crozier Stewart, an engineering consultant, while her husband was at dinner with an associate one night in April 1911. Though Mrs. Proudlock claimed that Stewart had attempted rape and that she shot him (several times) in self-defense, she was found guilty at trial and sentenced to death. The outcry of the local British community prevailed, however, and Ethel Proudlock was freed after serving a scant five months in prison. Maugham developed a fictionalized account of the case, with details changed and flourishes added; Maugham said of himself, “I have never pretended to be anything but a story teller.” The Letter first appeared in a collection of his short stories in 1924.

Somerset Maugham’s stage adaptation of The Letter debuted in London in 1927, starring Gladys Cooper as rubber plantation wife Leslie Crosbie and Nigel Bruce as plantation manager Robert Crosbie. The play premiered on Broadway later that year starring Katharine Cornell. In 1929, illustrious American actress Jeanne Eagels played the lead in a Paramount film directed by Jean de Limur; her co-stars included Reginald Owen as Crosbie and Herbert Marshall as shooting victim Geoffrey Hammond. Eagels received a posthumous Best Actress Oscar nomination for her performance.

Jeanne Eagels and Reginald Owen, The Letter (1929)

Somerset Maugham’s short story opens in Singapore within the offices of Howard Joyce, the attorney representing Leslie Crosbie, who is charged with murder. Joyce’s clerk, Ong, ushers in Robert Crosbie, husband of the accused. The lawyer expresses concern that Crosbie is not bearing up well under the strain of his wife’s arrest and incarceration. Maugham re-engineered the opening to powerful dramatic effect when he adapted it for the stage. As the curtain rises, the sound of a pistol shot is heard. A man (Hammond) staggers across a sitting-room toward its veranda and cries “Oh, my God!” A woman (Crosbie) follows, firing her gun into him even after he has fallen.

Howard Koch’s script for William Wyler’s film opened with an exterior shot of the Crosbie bungalow, the sound of a sudden gunshot followed by a woman stalking a man as he flees, her revolver blazing. Reading this scenario for the first time, Wyler thought it was literally “starting with a bang” and decided the scene should be set up “…with an opposite mood. A mood of silence, quiet, people sleeping…” Wyler also wanted to evoke “…a feeling of the dank, humid jungle atmosphere of rubber plantation country” and opened the film with an uncut and wordless 2-minute sequence:

Under a vivid full moon and cloud cluttered night sky, the camera sweeps through a rubber plantation where a tree oozes latex into a collection pot as Malay workers lounge or sleep in hammocks and a white Cockatoo perches on a fence. A gunshot shatters the quiet and the startled bird takes flight. A man emerges onto the veranda of a lamp-lit bungalow and lurches down its steps. Close on his heels strides a woman with a gun, her face a study in fierce resolve. She fires shot after shot into his body until he is a crumpled a heap at the foot of the steps. The moon goes dark behind a drift of clouds as Max Steiner’s ominous and hypnotic theme surges.


Wyler reflected,“…it was a more effective opening this way, by having this silence,” and Howard Koch, who fondly remembered working on The Letter, remarked on Wyler’s fine-tuned “instinct for staging.” The opening sequence of The Letter, which took a full day to shoot, establishes not only the film’s noirish mood and hot-house atmosphere, but also the controlled ferocity intrinsic to Leslie Crosbie’s character. From this spectacular beginning The Letter unfolds slowly and deliberately, revealing and suggesting its secrets with painstaking care. The film evolves with unrelenting tension and suspense and is remarkable for its astonishingly expressive camera work and atmospheric effects…

The image of the full moon, breaking through heavy clouds or peering down between the fan-like leaves of palm trees, recurs and has been much discussed over the years. According to Wyler, the image of the moon was his attempt “to bring in something mysterious and supernatural” to the story. He knew that this repeated image would lend itself to many interpretations, but his own desire was to add “…a bit of supernaturalism, which I thought belonged.” Another of Wyler’s noteworthy atmospheric accents is the occasional sound of tinkling wind chimes. According to Wyler this was not a planned effect, but something he came up with during filming. There happened to be decorative Chinese wind chimes on the set and when the soundman began to complain that the tinkling annoyed him, the director considered the possibilities and decided they could be used to interesting effect. He thought the chimes made “…an eerie kind of noise, which would heighten the suspense.”

James Stephenson reads "the letter"
At the time The Letter was released, William Wyler had recently commented that he believed the sole responsibility for the quality of any film rests entirely with its director. He felt that the director, whose every decision culminates in what ultimately appears onscreen, is accountable for everything including the performances of the players. The Letter is marked by high caliber acting all around and two impeccable portrayals in particular. Bette Davis is radiant yet coolly controlled as the emotionally repressed Leslie Crosbie, a woman capable of coy charm, relentless guile and calculating deceit - as well as violent rage. James Stephenson, in a breakthrough performance as Howard Joyce, Leslie’s attorney, depicts an intelligent, inherently civilized man manipulated into a wretched compromise. His Howard Joyce, suspicious of the case from the start, endures a visibly wrenching struggle with his own conscience as he becomes ever more entangled in the moral intricacies of Leslie’s defense. The scenes between Bette Davis and James Stephenson are some of the richest moments in the film.

On one important point Wyler and Davis disagreed and that was how the actress should deliver her crucial line at the film’s climax. In the scene, Leslie and Robert Crosbie (Herbert Marshall) are alone together in a darkened room, their marriage in tatters. When Robert asks Leslie if she loves him, she at first says yes, then cracks and cries out, “….with all my heart, I still love the man I killed!” Wyler wanted Davis to look Herbert Marshall directly in the eye as she said these words, but Davis disagreed, she felt no woman could do that, it was too brutal, she would avert her eyes. The two fought and could not agree. Finally, and for the first time in her career, Bette Davis walked off the set. She soon returned and later recalled, “I came back eventually – end result, I did it his way. It played validly, heaven knows, but to this day I think my way was the right way.” She also remarked, “I lost, but I lost to an artist.” 37 years later, Davis was honored as the fifth recipient, and the first woman, to be gvien the Life Achievement Award by the American Film Institute (William Wyler had received the award the previous year). In her 1987 memoir This ’n That, she remembered that the high point of the evening, for her, was when Wyler spoke. He said, “If tonight I brought up the subject of [that] scene in The Letter, Bette would insist on going back to Warner Brothers and reshooting it the way she wanted it.” According to Bette,  “Willie’s speech was short and funny and had the added advantage of being true.”

One battle Wyler did not win was with the Production Code. He had made a change to Maugham's ending. The author's and de Limur’s versions end with Leslie's realization that her punishment for her crime will be to live out her years in a country she despises with a man for whom she feels no passion. The closing line is her confession that even now she loves the man she shot. Wyler and Koch devised a more dramatic demise for Mrs. Crosbie, she would die by the dagger of Hammond’s widow. Wyler’s plan was that, “The thing should end with [Gale Sondergaard] killing Bette Davis.” But at the time “nobody could get away with killing somebody, so for censorship reasons we had to tack on the scene of her being arrested.” Wyler could never accept this “silly anticlimactic” ending and complained to the end of his days that the scene of Sondergaard's arrest still ought to be cut from his picture.

~

The Letter was nominated for seven Academy Awards: Best Picture (Warner Bros.), Best Director (Wyler), Best Actress (Davis), Best Supporting Actor (James Stephenson, who died suddenly in 1941), Best Music, Original Score (Max Steiner), Best Cinematography, Black and White (Tony Gaudio) and Best Film Editing (Warren Low).

 ~

The Letter airs on Turner Classic Movies Friday, June 29, 6:00am Eastern/3:00am Pacific.


Sources:
A Talent for Trouble, Jan Herman, Putnam (1995)
William Wyler - The Authorized Biography, Axel Madsen, Thomas Y. Crowell Co. (1973)
Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis, Ed Sikov, Henry Holt (2007)
"Imagery and Sound in William Wyler's The Letter," interview by Charles Higham, Columbia University Oral Research Office (1972)
The Letter: A Play in Three Acts, W. Somerset Maugham, George H. Duran Co. (1925)
The Complete Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham, Doubleday (1934)

52 comments:

  1. A superlative look at this film Eve. I resisted watching this for a long time, well maybe resisting is too strong a word. I recorded it off TCM a few years ago and there it laid on a disc for a very long time. I always found something else I'd rather watch. Finally, about a year or so ago, I watched it and was, to use an antiquated 1960's phrase, 'blown away.' Noirish in quality, as you mention, dark and mysterious at times plus Max Steiner's music and the amazing performance of Ms. Davis, well I was sorry, to say the least, I waited so long to watch this film. As usual, a great treat to read here.

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    1. John, I came to "The Letter" fairly late myself - maybe 5 years ago, via TCM. Since then my estimation of it has only grown. It is currently my favorite Bette Davis film, my favorite Wyler/Davis collaboration and, dare I say, my favorite of William Wyler's. I understand Wyler's insistence that the tagged on end doesn't belong, but - unlike the ending of Hitchcock's "Suspicion" - it is a very brief moment and easy (for me) to ignore. Otherwise, this is an absolutely perfectly made film.

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  2. Wow! A superb post on this film, I love it! You make a penetrating analysis of Wyler's effects (moonlight, chimes) and the performances. Stephenson conveys so much quiet anguish in his acting, and Victor Sen Yung is brilliantly subtle as the law clerk (quite a difference from playing #2 Son!). I really appreciate your giving all the background info, including the original story and play and the actual historical case Maugham used, which I hadn't known. I'm a big fan of Maugham's writing, and I'm always fascinated to learn of his sources. I think this film is Wyler's and Bette's best collaboration, and it hasn't dated at all. Its story of repressed passion still rings true, and it really does have that eerie impact that Wyler sought for.

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    1. GOM, I sometimes think I tend to insinuate rather than analyze, but thank you. I love your description of Stephenson's "quiet anguish." He simply nails Howard Joyce, does not miss a single note. And he provides the moral compass of the film. While, as Wyler once pointed out, Stephenson is not co-star to Davis in "The Letter" - the spotlight is all hers - he has several moments in which he is nothing less than her equal.

      I agree wholeheartedly with your comment on (unsung) Victor Sen Yung. He is perfection as a native of the Far East who has learned enough of Western ways to navigate the two worlds with skill.

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  3. I find "The Letter" an entirely engrossing film and wish I could tell Mr. Wyler that the Sondergaard arrest he so deplored didn't happen. It doesn't happen for me. Every time I watch the film I block out any thought that the widow will eventually pay. After all, the police officer passes them - maybe he never will put 2 and 2 together.

    As for the debate between Davis and Wyler, I side with the director on this one. Leslie had no trouble killing her lover with a gun and she would have no trouble killing her husband with her words. She would not be sensitive enough to turn away.

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    1. Caftan Woman, I'm not sure I can take a side on the Davis/Wyler debate. I can see why Davis might imagine Leslie Crosbie could hesitate to put a knife in the heart of Robert Crosbie as played by Herbert Marshall (very different from Reginald Owen in the 1929 version). But I also think Davis would've fought harder for her interpretation if she really thought Wyler was wrong. And he wasn't.

      The DVD I have of "The Letter" includes an alternate ending in which that scene is left out entirely. Unfortunately, the Gale Sondergaard arrest remained...

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  4. Love the background info you've provided in this interesting look at a marvelous film. Wyler and Davis were certainly well matched in each collaboration. Well done.

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    1. Jacqueline, Wyler and Davis were very well matched and seem to have had the same aim: perfection. If only they had worked together more often.

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  5. Great post as always, Eve. Wyler was such a Hollywood artist - and I mean that as the highest praise. The product he delivered was of the finest quality in all aspects. He and Davis were a dynamic duo, and even though it's Bette's show, thanks for letting us know who really steered the ship. Can't wait to see it again!

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    1. FlickChick, Bette Davis was not particularly free with her compliments, so her veneration of William Wyler must have been not only real but profound. I have read that she remarked to her companion (Roddy McDowall) at Wyler's funeral that "the whole town should be at half-mast."

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  6. "The Letter" ranks up there with "The Heiress" as one of the most frequently watched of William Wyler's films I own. Your post illuminate so many interesting points (I too, allow myself to stay in denial about Sondergaard being arrested at the end) and of course, I love all the anecdotes and factoids about the making of the film. Thanks for a terrific post!

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    1. Ken, I think my two most-watched Wylers are "The Letter" and "Dodsworth." I discovered both a little later than some of his other great works. "The Letter," though, has me completely under its spell - a true tour de force.

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  7. We all have classic movies that have somewhat eluded us. God forgive me, but I've never seen "The Letter." I like all the people in it, like Wyler, like Warner Bros. movies, I have the Steiner score on CD, and I don't know why, but this one has escaped by viewing. I can expect my eviction notice from the CMBA any time now. I do look forward to seeing and going back to read your article.

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    1. Kevin, Because lately I seem to have seen so few of the films you've been reviewing I'm almost glad that you haven't yet seen "The Letter." But you must. This is Wyler and Davis at their best.

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  8. Eve, a superbly written post that deftly balances background, description, and interpretation. I was particularly impressed by your analysis of the opening sequence and how it was devised. I watched "The Letter" again not long ago and was struck again by how gripping that opening is--staging, atmosphere, light and shadow, the use of music and sound (but not dialogue), overall dramatic impact. It's a classic that draws you in and helps you accept the greater emphasis on dialogue, situation, and character that follows, punctuated by more brief atmosphere episodes of mystery, nighttime, and the mystical presence of the full moon.

    You rightly devoted a lot of space to the fabulous Bette Davis and both her history and her working relationship with her equally talented director. I can never read too much about her! It was all not only fascinating, but also pertinent to your appreciation of the film. This is one of my top three performances by her. The way she can show one thing in Leslie's controlled external demeanor and suggest that something entirely different and altogether more wild and passionate is going inside her is a marvel. And it also explains how this completely duplicitous woman is able to fool everyone and literally get away with murder!

    An outstanding, wonderfully fluid post right up there with the best you've ever produced, informed equally by passion for the subject and mastery of your medium.

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    1. R.D., I'm slowly working my way through every post contributed to your William Wyler blogathon - I'm very happy you organized this event. Wonderful tributes to one of the greatest filmmakers ever.

      You have described perfectly how the beginning of "The Letter" draws in and prepares the viewer for what will follow. I've watched the film twice lately as I've worked on this post and am at this point mesmerized by it.

      Because "The Letter" is such a showcase for Bette Davis, I couldn't imagine giving her anything but a generous amount of space in this piece. But also, at a certain point, I noticed that her decades-long insistence that she should've delivered Leslie Crosbie's climactic line her way was not very different from Wyler's decades-long insistence that the ending of "The Letter" should still be changed. I agree with Wyler more on his point than I do with Davis on hers, but the two had much in common as artists. And I wanted to indicate that.

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  9. The Letter is one of my most-loved Wyler films and one of my favorite, if not the favorite, Bette Davis films. It's one of those rare stories that seems to give you all the information you need and yet still leave you wondering. How does Howard feel about Leslie? What is Mrs. Hammond thinking this whole time? And Wyler's direction is just fantastic in this one. I love that opening shot but I think I love Leslie's death scene even more, the way the moon seems to be almost hypnotizing her and drawing her out. Great post!

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    1. Rachel, One of my favorite scenes in "The Letter" occurs early on. Leslie is telling her version of the events that led to the shooting of Geoffrey Hammond and as she speaks the camera accompanies her description of Hammond's movements by moving, as he would have moved, from the sitting-room to the veranda to the foot of the steps where he died. Another is the journey of Leslie and Howard Joyce to the shop where they will meet Hammond's widow and get the letter. Leslie is fascinated by a dagger in the shop. I agree completely that "Wyler's direction is just fantastic."

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  10. Eve, as I believe I've mentioned elsewhere, it took me a long time to give THE LETTER a chance, because it sounded to me like one of the so-called "Woman's Pictures" that bore me stiff -- and once I gave it my undivided attention, I realized how wrong I'd been all these years! From then on, the Wyler/Davis LETTER became one of my favorite films, and a full-tilt film noir in my eyes! Your superb review is beautifully nuanced and thought-provoking, with so many wonderful details like the use of wind chimes and lights and shadows. And you sure can't beat that cast!

    I'm also glad you included the scene from the 1929 film version of THE LETTER with Jeanne Eagels. It's fascinating to compare and contrast the very different but equally compelling performances. I must admit that Eagels' performance kind of reminded me of someone strung out on some terrible drug -- or maybe her obsession itself was the drug in question!

    By the way, when you mentioned Gladys Cooper's 1927 stage performance, I was intrigued and delighted, since I only knew her work from films like REBECCA, NOW VOYAGER, and the delightful TV series THE ROGUES, as seen on Me-TV. I checked out Ms. Cooper's photos from her many years of performing on stage and screen, and my, wasn't she a lovely thing! I have you to thank for getting to know the work of Gladys Cooper as more than THE ROGUES' beloved Aunt Meg! :-) BRAVA on another fabulous post, Eve!

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    1. Dorian, I think he reason it took me some to time get to "The Letter" was that, like you, I suspected it was a melodramatic "woman's picture."

      What struck me about Jeanne Eagels performance in "The Letter" (by the way, this is the only bit of Jeanne Eagels on film that I've seen) is that though she and Bette Davis approached the role of Leslie Crosbie very differently, Eagels' acting style did remind me of Bette in other performances - very spirited and emotional. Fearless.

      I love Gladys Cooper and have been fascinated by her long career for a while. She evolved into a peerless character actress in her late years, but had been a great leading lady earlier in her career as well as a great beauty - a one-time chorus girl AND the British soldiers' most popular pin-up during WWI.

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  11. Wonderful post Lady Eve, a great analysis and historical background on the opening scene, and the place of artistic disagreement among the very pinnacle of movie-makers. Personally I think the opening scene in The Letter is the best in film (possibly tied with the very differant Touch of Evil). Great work and an outstanding addition to the Wyler blogathon.

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    1. Christian, In my humble opinion, the opening scene of "The Letter" is sheer genius. And irresistible. What viewer would not be instantly intrigued - seduced - and want to know more? Perhaps even more amazing, the rest of the film delivers (powerfully) on the promise implied in that first sequence.

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  12. A fantastic, detailed post, Eve! I saw this film not long ago and really liked it - agree that the opening in particular is stunning, and there is such a feeling of heat running right through it. It's fascinating to learn more of its background and, in particular, how the ending was changed - a shame the production code wouldn't allow the ending Wyler wanted, which would have been so much stronger than the anti-climax of the arrest. Davis dominates all the way, as you say, but I also think the supporting cast are excellent, and was interested to learn from your post that Herbert Marshall played Hammond in the earlier film before giving his moving performance as the spurned husband, Crosbie, in this version. I'd be interested to see the 1929 film and compare the two - must check if it is possible to get hold of that version.

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    1. Judy, Poor Herbert Marshall, he seemed to so often play the pushover or cuckold - when he wasn't playing Somerset Maugham. The Jeanne Eagels performance is interesting, isn't it? Leslie Crosbie was also portrayed two great stage actresses, Gladys Cooper and Katharine Cornell, and though there are no films of their performances I have found some still photos. A 1982 TV version of "The Letter" starred Lee Remick as Leslie Crosbie, but I haven't been able to find any footage of her performance so far.

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  13. I love this film and have always loved it, and you did it justice. Bette's performance is one of her best, and I love the visuals Wyler brings to this -- the moon and clouds, the lace Leslie is making, the moody feel of the tropical location, the moonlight highlighting Bette's eyes. It's all fantastic!

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    1. Brian, "The Letter" is, excuse the cliche, a visual feast. Amazingly it was Tony Gaudio behind the camera rather than Gregg Toland. I'm also a fan of Max Steiner's score, one of his most identifiable.

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  14. Wonderful post, as always. The Letter is a wonderful all-around film. Davis and Stephenson do standout work here. I, like many, hate the ending. Leslie should have gotten away with it--she worked so hard to do so! Nice touch adding Wyler and Davis' comments about one another.

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    1. Kim, Ther's a backstory on James Stephenson's casting...Jack Warner recommended him to Wyler (Stephenson was under contract to WB) for the Howard Joyce role, saying he was a fine actor but no one would cast him. Wyler tested him and was thrilled with the result. When he told Jack he wanted to cast Stephenson, Warner began arguing that the actor wasn't well-known enough, etc., and tried to argue him out of it. Wyler insisted. Of course, James Stephenson broke out with "The Letter" and got an Oscar nomination. Within a year he suffered a fatal heart attack.

      I like the ending Wyler intended: Sondergaard kills Davis and gets away with it. Leslie Crosbie as played by BD was prime for such a fate. But that last little Production Code moment, where Sondergaard is arrested for killing Davis - no, that is, to paraphrase Wyler, a silly anticlimactic bit of business.

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  15. Oh, this is AWESOME. I adore this movie and agree with all the other fans here. GREAT post, Lady Eve, on a great movie. I did an introduction to this at the Dryden once and learned that Bette had had a TORRID affair with Bruce Lester, who plays the assistant to the defense attorney. She called him “the essence of winsome sweetness”….which really doesn’t sound like a good match for our gal Bette. It wasn’t, ultimately. She found him attractive, but as one friend of hers later remarked: “She found him a bit tame for her speed.” Thanks, Lady Eve!!!

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    1. Kay, That Bette Davis could be a vixen, couldn't she? With this little tidbit of information I will look at "John Withers" a little differently the next time I watch "The Letter." Now that I think of it, Mr. Withers does seem rather smitten with Mrs. Crosbie in the film.

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  16. Okay Lady Eve! This was the film I had hoped to do a photo review on but since I was too late I was thrilled that it would be you tackling it with a stellar review. (That's just what ya do!) Ha Ha

    There were so many things in this film that worked beautifully but then there were areas where I was just thinking "This just feels wrong!" You touched upon that here with the ending. I literally booed when Bette wasn't gunned down and left to bleed to death behind that building. So glad you explained why it crashed and burned for me there. Another scene that felt off was the cocktail party towards the end which didn't seem to fit.

    I love the vindictive, 'claws out' Bette which I didn't really get here but that's okay since it was such a good film. Also, Marshall's character was just too forgiving, a real sad sack who should have grown a pair but that's just my opinion.

    A very interesting read LE and a fine contribution to the Blogathon. Thanks for allowing me to look at the film with fresh eyes.
    Page

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    1. Page, For me there is only one flaw in "The Letter," and it is a small one, the required additional scene of Mrs. Hammond's arrest. I actually like the final scene in which the camera sweeps back toward the party, with its music and dancing, where Leslie's acquittal is being celebrated - it seems a brilliant bit of irony to me.

      I think Bette loved "claws out Bette" more than anyone, by the way. She has her moments when Leslie Crosbie's claws emerge in "The Letter" - the opening shooting frenzy, when she lashes out at the end and other smaller moments. Throughout the film, though, Bette seems to portray Leslie as a woman of formidable claws who has learned to pull them in and exercise her aggression and frustration in different ways - lacemaking and illicit lovemaking, for example.

      Herbert Marshall often played the patsy or cuckold - I'm thinking of "The Little Foxes" and "Blonde Venus" for starters. His character is just the sort who would marry someone like Leslie and be led down the garden path by her. I love the scene just after Robert has learned the truth and Howard Joyce tells Leslie, "He's going to forgive you" and she replies, almost disdainfully, "Yes, he's going to forgive me." A lethal lady...

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  17. Eve, THE LETTER is my favorite of the Wyler-Davis collaborations. Love the title of your post, because the film's first scene rates with the best in cinema history (how can one possibly turn away from such a gripping opening?). As always, your background information makes for fascinating reading...well, your whole post does, of course!

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    1. Rick, Cole Porter wrote famous lyrics that remind me of our sometimes divergent opinions: "You like potato and I like potahto, You like tomato and I like tomahto..." (though with us it's more like, "you like Daves and I like Sirk"). However, you and I are on exactly the same page about "The Letter." I admire all three Wyler/Davis films - each is well-written, filmed and acted. But "The Letter," with its dark and mysterious atmosphere, intriguing themes and the exotic setting (plus the great supporting turn by James Stephenson), takes my breath away. Somerset Maugham may have revised the opening of his story when he made a play of it, but Wyler envisioned the cinematic potential of the scene and created pure magic of it.

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  18. What an excellent and informative post, Eve -- I simply loved it. I'm very fond of The Letter and have seen it numerous times, so I was fascinated by the peek inside the film that you so eloquently provided. Bravo!

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    1. Thanks, Karen, I'm very happy you enjoyed my modest paean to "The Letter" and that you're a fan of this exquisite film.

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  19. Thank you for the wonderful background info. on one of my favorite Bette Davis classic films. I saw it just for the first time a couple of years ago after adding her DVD box set to my collection. Wow.. Was I surprised to find this little treasure, the ending is unforgettable.

    You also, posted my favorite picture of Bette Davis, very mysterious..

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    1. Dawn, We must have the same boxed set. I watched the "alternate ending" extra for the first time recently and was surprised that it included the scene of Gale Sondergaard's arrest but not Bette delivering her final line, "...I still love the man I killed..." Thankfully, that scene was kept in the final version.

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  20. This remains one of my favorite Bette Davis movies even though I admit I haven't seen it in a long while. But your wonderful overview, Eve, has made me add it to my Netflix queue. Even with my faulty memory, who can forget the resolute and merciless Bette Davis shooting her victim until sure he was definitely dead. Wow. One of the great scenes in movie history. I can't think who else might have played the part as well as Bette Davis.

    I learned a lot about what went on behind the scenes from your post, too, Eve. Thanks for not only featuring this great film, Eve, but doing right by it.

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    1. Yvette, "The Letter" is currently my favorite BD movie and I've watched it so many times lately that I feel like I'm living in Singapore in 1940. I have the idea that Warner Bros. decided to remake "The Letter" primarily as a Bette Davis vehicle. She is perfect in her role and, with a nod to William Wyler's flawless direction, it's become one of her signature roles.

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  21. Eve, just watched the Jeanne Eagels performance clip you included. Wow. I'd never seen that before. She was something. The only thing I knew about Eagels was the vague memory of a long ago bio-film in which Kim Novak played Eagels. Jeff Chandler, I think, was in it. Didn't realize Eagels had been that good an actress. This is a very powerful clip.

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    1. Yvette, I was completely impressed with Jeanne Eagels based on this brief clip - no wonder she received an Oscar nomination. Bette Davis portrayed Leslie Crosbie entirely differently, but I do see similarities between the two actresses.

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  22. This is an excellent piece! You beautifully wove together the back story of "The Letter" with Wyler's production. If you ever write book, I want a signed copy -- you have a wonderful gift!

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    1. You've made my day, Gilby. "The Letter" has deservedly been the subject of many, many reviews, articles, etc., so I tried to approach it a bit indirectly, by interweaving different strands of its onscreen and off screen story. Thanks for your kind words.

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  23. Excellent review of an excellent movie. Great research too!

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    1. Thank you, silverscreenings. It's probably all too obvious that I'm fascinated by research - to the point of digging into the background of the background...

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  24. Eve, I sympathize with your preoccupation with previous commitments; it is blogathon season once again. I suspect, like me, you find yourself overwhelmed by next week’s Hitch not Hitch blogathon next week. May I begin with a simple observation regarding the new look of your blog: it is simply elegant and the collection of movie reels is fascinating (where did you find the image?). The opening sequence of “The Letter” is perhaps the most iconic in classic film, and certainly the one that comes to mind when considering Bette Davis’s career. I can only imagine how Gregg Toland’s vision would have influenced the film, but I must say that it is pretty spectacular nevertheless. I’m only slightly embarrassed to admit, and my apologies to William Crozier Stewart, but an excellent film is made even more intriguing after learning the story is based on actual events. I suppose this is stating the obvious, but during the five year period from 1937 to 1942 Bette Davis gave some of the richest and most varied film performances of any actress of the period. After she resolved her contract disputes, she followed with “Marked Woman” and continued to grow as an artist with memorable characters such as Charlotte Vale in “Now, Voyager”. An excellent review of a film that is new each time I watch it, and your background adds on more layer to this example of superb filmmaking.

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    1. 'Gypsy, I was completely spellbound by "The Letter" before I knew that Somerset Maugham based the story on an actual scandal, or that three celebrated actresses portrayed Leslie Crosbie before Bette Davis - and even before I was aware William Wyler directed the film. What a delight it was to delve into the story's origins and the details of the film production. For me, this information enhanced the mystique of "The Letter" - as you say, it adds another layer.

      By the way, I AM feeling the pressure of the upcoming not-Hitch event tho, thankfully, Dorian is allowing me to post on the final day.

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  25. I would love to see the 1929 Precode version, just to get the full effect. Not that Bette didn't bring it, but I do want to see the whole no-holds-barred approach to the story.

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    1. Hep, Agreed. I believe the Jeanne Eagels version was released by Warner Archive about a year ago, so it's available out there somewhere. I plan to look for it myself. Good to hear from you.

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