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Some films transcend their role as entertainment or even as milestones of cinematic form or style. Released in 1929, this early adaptation of Somerset Maugham's The Letter was one of the first talkies to garner widespread critical acclaim, which helped critics understand that sync sound movies had a unique artistic potential that differed from silent film. Predating the Motion Picture Production Code, it not only depicts the seedy side of Maugham's story but offers a pointed view of race relations that is one of the play's important themes. Finally, The Letter is the only surviving sound film of stage actress Jeanne Eagels, and therefore the only record of the acting style that made her a Broadway legend during the 1920s.
Eagels' approach to acting has been dubbed "naturalism," but contemporary viewers might find her twitching, nervous gestures, and wide-eyed expressions in The Letter too obvious in comparison to today's acting styles, which lean toward underplaying. However, dramatic stage acting in Eagels' era focused more on elocution than emotion; that is, enunciating lines in a way that gave primacy to a play's literary devices. In contrast, Eagels played the emotion of a scene, reacting and responding to the other characters, or interpreting her character's state of mind. Eagels had been acting for several years when she took on the role of Sadie Thompson in the Broadway production of another Maugham story, Rain, in 1922. The role made her a star, and she toured in the road company for five years. Her emotional approach to her performance influenced other actors, many of whom ended up in Hollywood, including Bette Davis, who went on to star in the 1940 remake of The Letter. Davis idolized the troubled actress, and it is no coincidence that Eagels' name is mentioned in All About Eve (1950) when Bette's character, Margo Channing, is compared with her.
The character of Leslie Crosbie gave Eagels a lot to work with. The Letter closely followed the events and tone of Maugham's play, which was taken from a story included in a 1926 compilation titled The Casuarina Tree. The narrative is set in the British colony of Malaya (near Singapore) and centers on the bored wife of plantation owner Robert Crosbie, who is more interested in his rubber crop than his neglected wife. Leslie has been carrying on a torrid affair with cad Geoff Hammond, but he has transferred his attentions and affection to a half-Chinese woman named Li-Ti. In a heated argument, Leslie shoots and kills Hammond after he admits he prefers the exotic charms of Li-Ti to her. On trial for murder, Leslie makes a believable claim of self-defense, alleging that Hammond was trying to rape her. The trial seems to be going her way until Li-Ti contacts Leslie's lawyer about an incriminating letter that proves Leslie is lying.
The murder scene reveals Eagels' talent for finding the key emotion of a scene and building on it. Hammond's cruel admissions fuel Leslie's agitation and anger until it erupts into violence. Eagels builds on a nervous energy as her distraught character becomes more and more feverish. When Leslie finally empties her pistol into Hammond, she shoots with a series of exaggerated stabbing gestures that accentuate the violence of the act. In contrast, the next scene finds Leslie coolly spinning her lies to the jury and the courtroom audience as she acts the role of innocence violated. Heavy on dialogue, the scene is shot in an extended take with no breaks, which is sometimes difficult for movie actors, but stage actress Eagels effectively acts the role of a character who is herself "acting." Overall, Leslie Crosbie is an unsympathetic, unrepentant character, but Eagels makes her a compelling woman driven by desires and a rage she cannot control. For her performance, she was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress.
Eagels was at a low point in her life and career when she signed a three-picture deal with Paramount to appear in talking pictures for their New York studio. Monta Bell worked as the East Coast production head, 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. Bell snatched up Eagels after she was suspended by Actors Equity in 1928 for 18 months. Eagels had been playing opposite Leslie Howard in Her Cardboard Lover when her problems with alcohol and drugs began to take their toll. In addition to erratic behavior, which infuriated Howard, she missed several performances. The latter resulted in her suspension from all stage productions, but it did not prevent her from appearing in The Letter. After The Letter, she starred in Jealousy, but she was dismissed from her third feature, The Laughing Lady, because Paramount would not wait for her eye infection to clear. Six months after the release of The Letter, Jeanne Eagels died from a combination of alcohol, chloral hydrate, and heroin.
Eagels is charismatic, even mesmerizing, compared to others in the cast. In one of his first film roles, Reginald Owen costars as Robert Crosbie, but he has not yet mastered acting for the camera, and he is too stiff to elicit much sympathy. Though a young Herbert Marshall is appropriately smarmy as Geoff Hammond, he has only two scenes and exits the story early on. In one of those bits of trivia that delights movie buffs, Marshall played the cuckolded husband in the 1940 version of The Letter. A mysterious actress billed as Lady Tsen Mei plays the conniving Li-Ti. A singer and actress, Lady Tsen Mei performed in vaudeville, sang opera programs in New York theaters, and acted in silent films, including the 1921 drama Lotus Blossom by Asian director James B. Leong. Though billed as "the First Chinese Screen Star," Lady Tsen Mei was not born in China as her show-biz biography claimed. Instead, she was born in Philadelphia, the daughter of a Chinese father and a mulatto mother, and then adopted by Chinese doctor-turned-drug trafficker Jin Fuey Moy, who named her Josephine Augusta. Though not as charismatic as Jeanne Eagels, Lady Tsen Mei tackled her role with such intensity that sparks flew between Li-Ti and Leslie during the scene in which the latter tries to buy back her incriminating letter.
Some scholars have charged that the character Li-Ti as an example of negative stereotyping, because she epitomizes the Asian woman who lures men to their doom with her exotic sexuality. Li-Ti owns or manages a den of inequity in Singapore where patrons of all races drink, gamble, and ogle scantily clad dancers. Upstairs, she keeps young girls in cages for the pleasure of older Chinese men; downstairs, men and women bet on a fatal encounter between a mongoose and a cobra--a metaphor for the showdown between Li-Ti and Leslie. The footage between reptile and mammal was borrowed from a German short of unknown origin. While Li-Ti is not a sympathetic character or positive role model, neither are any of the white characters. Though the depiction of Asians is not an enlightened one, there is more to them than found in films after the adoption of the Production Code. Part of the story involves the tension between Asians and the condescending colonial British, who underestimate the Chinese. In turn, the Chinese have little respect for the British, who are not only racist but corrupt. The natives pretend to be subservient while taking advantage of the messes that the British make for themselves.
The success of films like The Letter helped to normalize sound. In the late 1920s, no one could predict that sync sound would soon dominate the industry. Some reviewers maintained that sound was just a gimmick. Paramount Pictures marketed their slate of talkies as serious filmmaking, focusing on the theatrical experience of the stars and the dramatic content of the stories. Their ads touted Paramount as "taking an easy lead in talking pictures." The Letter received stellar reviews along the lines of the notice in Photoplay, which declared that Eagels gave "the first high pressure emotional performance of the all-talkies." Sadly, Jeanne Eagels did not live to parlay her success into a career in talking films.
By Susan Doll
Producer: Monta Bell for Paramount Pictures
Director: Jean de Limur
Screenplay: Garrett Fort, with dialogue by Monta Bell and Jean de Limur, based on a story by W. Somerset Maugham
Cinematography: George J. Folsey
Editors: Monta Bell and Jean de Limur
Cast: Leslie Crosbie (Jeanne Eagels), Robert Crosbie (Reginald Owen), Geoffrey Hammond (Herbert Marshall), Joyce (O. P. Heggie), Li-Ti (Lady Tsen Mei), On Chi Seng (Tamaki Yoshiwara), Mrs. Joyce (Irene Browne), Kenneth Thompson, Peter Chong
1929 Black and White 60 mins.