On Gale Sondergaard in “The Letter”

Gale Sondergaard The Letter If I were to make a list of movie characters I would be most afraid to run into in a dark alley, Mrs. Hammond as played by Gale Sondergaard in The Letter would absolutely be on that list. To say Mrs. Hammond carried an imposing aura about her would be an extreme understatement. But what blows me away is how she manages to be so incredibly menacing while not seemingly doing very much. She doesn’t yell, she doesn’t slap or punch anyone. Instead, she spends most of her time on screen standing still and glaring. But she stands still and glares more terrifyingly than anyone.

Mrs. Hammond hardly has any lines at all and the few she does have aren’t in English. All of her movements are extremely controlled; even when she’s stabbing Leslie to death.  All of her power comes from her facial expressions and her incredibly tense posture. If anyone ever looked at me the same way Mrs. Hammond looked at Leslie Crosbie, I would be running for my life. I aspire to glare at people half as well as Mrs. Hammond. Stealing scenes from Bette Davis was no easy feat, but Gale Sondergaard did so in a spectacular way.  It’s a brilliant example of how sometimes, things are more unnerving because of the things a person doesn’t do.

The Letter (1940) vs. The Letter (1929)

The Letter Jeanne Eagels Bette Davis

If I ever want to talk about the differences between the pre-code era and the Hays Code era of filmmaking, I can’t think of a better example to use than The Letter.  The Letter was originally a stage play by Somerset Maugham and was adapted as a film for the first time in 1929 with Jeanne Eagels starring as Leslie Crosbie. The Letter returned to the silver screen in 1940 with the incomparable Bette Davis having her turn as Leslie. So we have two movies based on the exact same source material, but because of the production codes that were in place for the 1940 version, the movies are incredibly different.

One of the key differences is that in the 1940 version, it takes the viewer time to find out whether or not Leslie is telling the truth.  The movie opens with Leslie shooting Mr. Hammond, but we don’t see what led up to it and the truth doesn’t come out until later.  But in the 1929 version, we see everything that led to Hammond’s death. We see Leslie writing the letter inviting Hammond to come over and we see what happens when he tries to end his relationship with Leslie. (We also see that Mr. Hammond is living with a woman who isn’t his wife, which would have been strictly verboten by the Hays Code. Hammond was married in the 1940 version.) So while audiences might have been able to sympathize with Bette Davis’ Leslie Crosbie for at least part of the movie, there’s nothing sympathetic about Jeanne Eagles’ Leslie Crosbie. In the 1929 version, we watch Leslie kill a man in cold blood, lie through her teeth about it, and get away with it.

In fact, the Leslie Crosbie played by Jeanne Eagels is a perfect representation of so many things the Hays Code abhorred — a completely unrepentant sinner who literally gets away with murder. When Jeanne delivers the famous line, “With all my heart, I still love the man I killed,” it is as an act of defiance in response to her response to her husband trying to punish her. But when it was Bette’s turn to deliver the same line, she couldn’t get away with saying it the same way. Not only is there nothing defiant about it, Mrs. Hammond makes sure Leslie pays for what she’s done.

It’s also worth noting that in the 1929 version of The Letter, it’s much more apparent that Leslie’s hatred of Li-Ti, Hammond’s mistress, is very racially motivated. As if it weren’t enough that Hammond had moved on, Leslie can’t stand that he moved on with a Chinese woman. Li-Ti realizes this and has a little fun with it by doing everything she can to make Leslie very uncomfortable when she comes to buy the letter. While Li-Ti takes the opportunity to humiliate Leslie in front of as many people as she can during that scene, the 1940 version of this scene plays out with a lot  more tension and drama and with fewer witnesses.

But despite the differences between the two versions of The Letter, there is one very notable similarity — Herbert Marshall.  In the 1929 version of The Letter, Herbert Marshall played the ill-fated Hammond. In the 1940 version, he played Robert, Leslie’s husband.

10 Little Things I Love About “The Letter”

1. The opening scene

Bette Davis The Letter Opening SceneMy favorite Bette Davis entrance!

2. The atmosphere

The Letter The AtmosphereI always associate this movie with summer because it does such a good job of conveying how hot it was at the time of this incident. I could watch it in the dead of winter and it would still make me feel like I should be turning on a fan.

3.  Gale Sondergaard’s piercing looks of disdain

Gale Sondergaard The Letter

That is the fiercest glare I have ever witnessed.

4.  This shot:

Bette Davis The Letter lines

5.  Bette Davis’ acting in the scene where Leslie’s lawyer reads the incriminating letter aloud.

Bette Davis The Letter

6.  The wind chimes.

The Letter Windchimes
I don’t usually care much about wind chimes, but they are used to brilliant dramatic effect here.

7.  Mrs. Hammond’s entrance when Leslie has come to see her.

The Letter Beaded CurtainI’ve never seen a beaded curtain look so incredibly dramatic.

8.  All the shots of the moon.

The Letter The Moon

9.  The knives.

The Letter The KnivesAside from being deadly, they’re so ornate.

10. The fact that this movie gave us one of my favorite behind-the-scenes pictures.

Bette Davis With Stand In

Bette Davis with her stand-in.

 

 

 

 

 

Coming in August…

Blogging Under the Stars 2014

This August, Blogging Under the Stars will be returning for a 4th year! If you’re new to Blogging Under the Stars, here’s how it works: Every day, I watch a movie from Turner Classic Movies’ Summer Under the Stars line-up, preferably something I have never seen before, and write a post on it.  Sometimes the movies I pick end up being good and other times, not so good. But every year I’ve done this, I’ve ended up discovering some really great movies so I’m excited to get started this year.

The Significance of White Lace in “The Letter” (1940)

Bette Davis The Letter White Lace Shawl

Throughout The Letter, Leslie Crosbie is seen making some white lace.  Leslie’s fondness for making lace is a symbolically perfect hobby for her to have. White is traditionally used to symbolize innocence, but it can also be the color of choice for movie characters who only want to look innocent (Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice is another good example of a white-wearing femme fatale.) In Leslie’s case, it’s as though she’s trying to create a shroud of innocence for herself. We know she’s guilty, but she keeps on wearing white clothes and working on her white lace. Making lace takes a lot of focus and attention to detail. As carefully as she works on her lace, Leslie has to be equally as careful in crafting her defense.

Most noteworthy, Leslie dresses head-to-toe in white, complete with a white lace shawl, when she goes to purchase the incriminating letter from Mrs. Hammond. She wears white pretty often in The Letter, but ironically, this is the scene where she wears it the most. Leslie is so dedicated to keeping up this facade of innocence that she even wears white when she’s going to see the woman who knows the truth.  The sheer amount of audacity it takes to do that is astonishing and I love how Mrs. Hammond has no patience for it. She orders Leslie to take that ridiculous shawl off. As much care Leslie is into building her defense, lace is flimsy and very easy to see through. Other people might be fooled, but Mrs. Hammond sees right through Leslie’s story.

What’s on TCM: July 2014

Maureen O'HaraHappy July, everyone!  With summer now in full swing, TCM has plenty of great movies to watch on hot summer nights.  Maureen O’Hara is July’s Star of the Month and will be featured every Tuesday night this month.  TCM will also be commemorating the hundredth anniversary of World War I every Friday by showing some of the best WWI movies, including The Big ParadeSergeant YorkGrand Illusion, and All Quiet on the Western Front, just to name a few.

The night I am most looking forward to this month is July 10th.  TCM will be featuring six classic documentaries such as Salesman, Harlan County USA, and Sans Soleil. I really like documentaries and that night’s movies is a nice mix of things I’m looking forward to re-watching and ones I’ve been wanting to see.

Now, on to the rest of the schedule…

(more…)

The Outstanding Ensemble Cast of “Since You Went Away”

 

Since You Went Away Cast

There’s no way to talk about Since You Went Away without talking about how incredible the cast is as a whole. It’s one of those movies where virtually every actor who appears in it is extremely memorable. Lead roles, supporting roles, everybody makes an impact.

Since You Went Away Claudette Colbert

I’ve already talked a bit about how much I love Claudette Colbert’s performance in Since You Went Away, but her outstanding work doesn’t stop after the first scene. Claudette Colbert was initially hesitant to take the part of Anne Hilton because she wasn’t sure if she wanted to be seen as old enough to be the mother of teenage daughters. But fortunately, a nice salary and the assurance that she would be boosting audience morale were enough to convince her to take the part. Anne may have been old enough to have teenage daughters, but it gave Claudette Colbert to prove just how much range she had. She handled everything from being warm and maternal to uncertain and afraid without missing a beat.

Jennifer Jones Robert Walker Since You Went AwayCasting actors who are married to each other to play a young couple in love hardly seems like a stretch. But if Jennifer Jones and Robert Walker’s relationship was ever like Jane and Bill’s relationship, those days were long behind them. By the time they made Since You Went Away together, Jones and Walker’s marriage was essentially over. They had separated in late 1943 and would be divorced a year after the movie was released. But their ability to put personal issues aside for the sake of the movie is extremely impressive and a testament to their talent. Their rapport is so strong and they made such a believable couple, I was very surprised to find out Jones and Walker were actually on the verge of divorce at the time.

Since You Went Away Shirley Temple

When she appeared in Since You Went Away, Shirley Temple, then 16 years old, hadn’t made a movie in two years. Although Shirley Temple is most widely celebrated for her work as a child actress, she proved to be more than just a cute kid in Since You Went Away. Temple gave Brig such a wonderful natural charm without being over-the-top precocious. All of the cast had great chemistry together, but I particularly love Shirley Temple’s scenes with Monty Woolley. The friendship between Brig and Col. Smollett never fails to warm my heart.

Since You Went Away Shirley Temple Monty Woolley

While Shirley Temple is associated with sweetness and light, Monty Woolley had the opposite screen image; best remembered for playing the acerbic Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner. Monty Woolley certainly had plenty of chances to do what he did best in Since You Went Away, but Col. Smollett is a character that let him show some softness as well. It’s a very well-rounded role that let him show how much talent he really did have.

Since You Went Away Agnes Moorehead

Agnes Moorehead plays Emily Hawkins, Anne’s snobbish friend, and boy does she ever excel at playing someone you love to hate. I tend to think of Emily as being like Sylvia Fowler: The War Years. Her haughty attitude, back-handed comments, and wardrobe would certainly make Sylvia Fowler proud. But while Sylvia Fowler is a total caricature, Emily Hawkins feels like someone you could actually meet, which makes the scene when she gets taken down a peg one of the best of the movie.

Since You Went Away Hattie McDaniel Joseph CottenJoseph Cotten was a perfect fit for the role of Tony, the handsome, charismatic friend of the Hilton family. It’s certainly not hard to see how someone like him would be so alluring to young ladies like Jane and Brig. I absolutely love his scenes with Claudette Colbert. Even though there is clearly an attraction and a little bit of history between Tony and Anne, Joesph Cotton never plays Tony as someone who is out to steal his friend’s wife. But there’s just enough of a spark to leave the audience wondering if they’re going to wind up together at the end of the movie.

Last, but certainly not least, there’s Hattie McDaniel.  Simply put, Fidelia is a classic Hattie McDaniel role. She got to do everything that made her so likable.