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.

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6 comments

    1. Luckily, it is available on DVD from Warner Archive! It was pretty hard to find for a long time, I don’t think it ever even got a VHS release, but it did eventually come to DVD.

      1. A friend just sent me the you tube version 1929, overwhelming, splendid, entirely different film, thank you so much for making me aware of this version.

  1. Nice article! I have the Warner Archive DVD of the 1929 version but have never seen the 1940 version. I’ll have to check it out. Thanks.

  2. I’ve seen both versions and I like the role of the husband better in the 1940 version. Maybe Marshall was a better actor than Reginald Owen in that part. Owen plays hurt husband fine, but I think Marshall showed that his character was deeply in love with his wife and therefore the betrayal hurts much more. The 1940 version also has Davis’s character flirting at times with her defense attorney-at least I thought his character was possibly attracted to her, and I didn’t sense that in the 1929 version. Both are good films, I just like the later version a bit better.

    1. This month Turner Classic Movies is showing both versions. I have seen the Davis version many times ; your suggestion that the lawyer is attracted to her appears to be correct.
      My new obsession is to find out as much about Eagles as possible ; this is a more daunting task than I realized. Cannot wait to see Eagles in her version.

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