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.






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.

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.

Since You Went Away: Part of a Banner Year for Cinematography

Since You Went Away Cinematography

Since You Went Away is an epic film that feels a little different from other epic films. It’s about wartime, but you won’t find any large-scale battle scenes in it. It is so strongly a product of its time, it’s very easy for modern audiences to look at it as a historical saga. But Since You Went Away was released in 1944, so there was nothing historical about it at the time it was produced. Unlike many other epic films, many of Since You Went Away‘s settings are downright mundane: bowling alleys, airplane hangars, hospitals, fields, train stations, and of course, the Hilton home. (Although, the Hilton home is very lovely.)

Since You Went Away Cinematography

However, Since You Went Away lacks none of the grandeur generally associated with epic films. Cinematographers Stanely Cortez, Lee Garmes, George Barnes, and Robert Bruce were responsible for creating some of the most breathtaking cinematography I have ever seen. Their cinematography took those common, run-of-the-mill settings and gave them that distinct touch of Hollywood grandeur.

Since You Went Away Train Station

The first time I saw Since You Went Away, the cinematography was one of the first things that grabbed my attention.  There were so many shots that completely blew me away and instantly became some of my all-time favorite movie shots. Imagine my surprise when I found out Since You Went Away did not win the Academy Award for Best Cinematography (Black and White). As much as I adore the cinematography in Since You Went Away, it’s really hard to say “It was robbed!” when it was part of an incredible year for black and white cinematography. The competition was extremely tough that year and it certainly lost to a worthy opponent — Otto Preminger’s Laura.  Other films nominated for Best Cinematography (Black and White) at the 1944 Oscars included The UninvitedLifeboatGaslight, and Double Indemnity. If you’re going to lose an award for cinematography, I suppose there’s some consolation in being in the same company as Double Indemnity.

Ten Little Things I Love About “Since You Went Away”

1. This shot at the train station.

Since You Went Away Train Station

We’ll talk more about the cinematography in Since You Went Away in another post, but this is one of my favorite movie shots of all time.

2. Soda, the dog!

Since You Went Away Soda the Dog

3. When Col. Smollett finds the quiet neighbor girl hiding in the garden.

Since You Went Away Quiet Neighbor

4. Tony’s portrait of Fidelia.

Since You Went Away Tony's Portrait of Fidelia

5. This horoscope from Anne and Tim’s wedding day.

Since You Went Away Wedding HoroscopeWell, it was half right anyway.

6.  The snarky pin-setter lady at the bowling alley.

Since You Went Away Snarky Pin Setter Lady

7. The reactions from Tony’s many admirers when they find out he’s back in town.

Since You Went Away Tony's Admirer

8.  This shot when Anne and Fidelia have a difference of opinion with Emily at Jane’s graduation ceremony.

Since You Went Away Graduation Disagreement

9. The way Tony carries mattresses.

Since You Went Away Tony Carrying a Mattress

10.  The way Jane and Brig wear flowers in their hair.

Since You Went Away Hair Flowers

Wearing flower clips in my hair is one of my favorite ways of adding a little vintage flair to my everyday style and the way Jane and Brig wear them in Since You Went Away is a big reason why I’m so fond of them. They make them look so chic and stylish.

“Since You Went Away” and the Importance of an Effective Opening Scene

One of the most important things a movie can have is a strong opening scene.  A good opening scene can tell the viewer a lot about characters or explain long backstories in a matter of minutes. Just think of the first scene from Gone With the Wind. In two minutes, we get a sense of what Scarlett was like before the war and find out she has romantic feelings for Ashley Wilkes. Opening scenes can also set the tone for the rest of the movie; The GraduateBonnie and Clyde, and Gold Diggers of 1933 are prime examples of that. But 1944’s Since You Went Away is a movie that uses its opening scene to its full potential. It does everything an effective opening scene should do.

Since You Went Away Opening Scene

Since You Went Away opens with a shot of the Hiltons’ home before progressing to a tighter shot of a window with a service flag displayed in it. Clearly, the family that lives here has a loved one serving in the military. From there, we look inside the Hilton home with the camera moving from an empty, well-worn chair with the family dog laying forlornly in front of it to a calendar, a telegram, and the box for a rush delivery of military raincoats.  The telegram, which orders Captain Timothy Hilton to report for duty on January 12th, is dated January 6th. This family’s world was turned completely upside down just a few days earlier.

Since You Went Away Opening Scene

From the telegram, the camera continues moving around the room, revealing that Tim and Anne (played by Claudette Colbert) were married in 1925 and have two teenage daughters (played by Shirley Temple and Jennifer Jones.) Then we’re back to the window we started at, through which we see a car pull up and Anne walking to the door.

Since You Went Away Opening Scene

When Anne gets inside the house, she enters with the weight of the world on her shoulders. This is her home, but it’s different now. This is my favorite acting moment from Claudette Colbert; as she walks through the house, alone, trying to come to terms with her husband’s absence and grappling with uncertainty about whether or not she could face life without him.  Anne’s inner monologue tells us, “This is the moment I’ve dreaded: coming back to our home, alone.” There’s no over-the-top melodrama to be found here. Claudette Colbert impeccably conveys this feeling with her body language and a glint of a tear in her eye. The subtlety of her performance makes this scene so much more emotional than something more dramatic would have been.

Since You Went Away Opening Scene

Anne isn’t alone in the house for long, though.  Just as Anne is about to lose her composure, her daughters Jane and Brig come home and Anne finds her strength again. Jane and Brig are handling their father’s departure in different ways and there’s a lot of uncertainty in their lives right now, but one thing’s for sure — this is a family that will be drawing a lot of strength and support from each other in the near future.

Since You Went Away Opening Scene

Margie (1946)

Margie PosterWhile Margie (Jeanne Crain) and her teenage daughter Joyce are looking for something in the attic, Joyce gets a kick out of finding some of Margie’s things from when she was a teenager and asks Margie what she was like when she was young.  Margie thinks back to 1928 at a time when all the girls at her school, including Margie, were fawning over Ralph Fontayne (Glenn Langan), the handsome new French teacher.

At the time, Margie was living with her grandmother (Esther Dale) right next door to her friend Marybelle (Barbara Lawrence).  One day, just as Margie is about to get a ride home with Marybelle and her boyfriend, the elastic on her bloomers breaks and, not wanting Marybelle’s boyfriend to find out, Margie ducks into the school library to fix it.  While hiding in the stacks, she meets none other than Mr. Fontayne.

But despite their awkward first encounter, Mr. Fontayne is quite fond of Margie and goes out of his way  to compliment her when she does well on assignments, which makes her the envy of the other girls in school.  One night, Margie goes ice skating with some of her classmates and unfortunately, that elastic in her bloomers breaks again.  She falls and sprains her ankle trying to fix it and everyone, including Mr. Fontayne, rushes to see if she’s okay.  Mr. Fontayne sees her fallen bloomers and discreetly takes them so nobody else will see.  Later that night, he visits Margie at home and to return her bloomers.

Just before the prom, Margie’s boyfriend Roy (Alan Young) gets sick and can’t bring her.  Margie’s grandmother helps by arranging for Margie’s father to take her to the dance and she tells Margie she will have a surprise escort.  So when Mr. Fontayne stops by her house just before the dance, Margie is thrilled.  However, he’s only there to drop off a grade.  He’s taking the school librarian to the dance instead, but he says he’d like to take Margie to the next dance.  Although Margie is disappointed, she’s happy to see her father.

Margie has a wonderful time at the prom and lots of guys, including Mr. Fontayne, are eager to dance with her.  But once again, Margie has problems with her bloomers.  This time, she tries to hide it by pretending to faint and, of course, Mr. Fontayne comes to help again.  Cutting back to modern day, Margie and Joyce are in the attic having a good laugh at the story and it turns out Margie went on to marry Mr. Fontayne.

Chris HansenOh, dear.  Talk about your movies that did not age well.  I’m sure audiences found Margie very charming when it was released in 1946.  From my 2013 perspective, though, it’s a movie about an inappropriate relationship disguised as a cute movie.  It’s just hard for me to see it as anything other than a movie about a teenage girl with a harmless crush on an adult teacher with major boundary issues.

If they tried to remake Margie today, no doubt it would feature a special cameo appearance by Chris Hansen from To Catch a Predator, emerging from behind a corner to ask Mr. Fontayne to have a seat.  I really wish I could have been able to see Margie for the sweet, harmless, wholesome movie it was intended to be, but I can’t.

Heaven Can Wait (1943)

Heaven Can Wait PosterWhen Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) dies, he has no delusions about going to Heaven.  But before he can go anywhere, he has to explain to the devil why he belongs in Hell.  So he starts telling his life story, beginning with his privileged childhood spent living with his parents and doting grandfather (Charles Coburn).  As a teenager, his family hires a maid and tutor who helps put him on the path to becoming a real playboy.  Just as Henry is about to turn 26, Henry meets Martha (Gene Tierney), the woman of his dreams.  The only problem is that she is already engaged to his cousin.  However, Martha is more interested in Henry so they elope.

Ten years later, on the morning of Henry’s 36th birthday, Martha tires of him stepping out on her so she leaves.  With encouragement from his grandfather, Henry patches things up with her and they elope all over again.  Another twenty-five years pass and Henry has settled down, but their son Jack (Tod Andrews) is behaving much like Henry had when he was younger.  On the night of their twenty-fifth anniversary, Henry notices Martha hasn’t been feeling well and she dies a short time later.

Without Martha in his life, 60-year-old Henry is back to staying out late and cavorting with women.  Jack, on the other hand, has settled down and become a responsible business man.  Henry lives to be 70 years old and dies in his bed, under the care of a beautiful nurse.  After hearing Henry’s life story, the devil decides that Henry does not belong in Hell, for he has made many people in his life happy.

Considering its cast and director, I went into Heaven Can Wait with very high expectations.  For me, this was an example of the adage, “Shoot for the moon.  Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”  Heaven Can Wait isn’t one of my favorite Ernst Lubitsch films, but I’m so fond of Lubitsch that even if one of his movies isn’t a favorite of mine, I still enjoy it very much.  Gene Tierney and Don Ameche made a wonderful couple and Charles Coburn was perfectly cast as Henry’s grandfather.  The story is very sweet and has a great deal of warmth to it.  However, I just didn’t feel like it was quite in the same league as some Lubitsch’s other films like Ninotchka, Trouble in Paradise, or The Shop Around the Corner.  But those are some very lofty standards to live up to and even if Heaven can Wait doesn’t quite reach them, it’s still a pleasure to watch.

Miss Grant Takes Richmond (1949)

Miss Grant Takes Richmond Poster

Graduates from the Woodruff Secretarial School are virtually guaranteed to have their choice of good jobs.  Well, that may be true for most students, but not Ellen Grant (Lucille Ball).  Despite desperately wanting to have a career, Ellen just can’t get the hang of secretarial work.  On the last day of class, Dick Richmond (William Holden) stops by the school looking to hire a secretary for his new real estate company.  Much to everyone’s surprise, Ellen is the one who gets the job.

Ellen is thrilled to have a real job, but Dick has a motive for  choosing the most inept student.  Dick’s real estate company is merely a front for his gambling racket and he thinks by hiring the worst student, he’ll be getting a secretary who won’t get wise to what’s really going on.  Meanwhile, Ellen becomes aware of her town’s housing crisis.  Ellen feels compelled to help so she pressures Dick to build an affordable housing project.  Dick pretends like he’s going along with the project and every time he makes up an excuse to back out, Ellen finds a way to solve the problem.

Eventually, Dick decides Ellen has to go but he can’t fire her without it looking suspicious.  So he tries to make her quit by giving her ridiculous amounts of work and aggressively flirting with her, but she doesn’t back down.  Dick and Ellen are even starting to fall for each other.  Meanwhile, Dick’s former girlfriend Peggy Donato (Janis Carter) wants him back so he can run her gambling racket.  He turns Peggy down, but when Ellen unwittingly takes a large bet on a horse race from Peggy, he’s suddenly indebted to her.

Peggy is willing to forgive the debt if he will be with her, but Dick won’t stand for it.  He decides to go ahead with the housing project so he can get the money from potential residents, use the money to pay his debt, and leave Ellen holding the bag when the project runs out of money.  When he sees how upset Ellen is when the project fails, he tries to make it right by giving the money back, even if it means having to be with Peggy.  But when Ellen finally figures out what Dick’s real business is and comes up with a plan to get Dick back from Peggy.

Miss Grant Takes Richmond is good for a few laughs, but it wasn’t one of my favorites.  Lucille Ball and William Holden were both pretty good in it and I liked the basic idea of the plot, but it just wasn’t executed to its full potential. While I was watching the movie, I kept thinking there was something about Ball and Holden that made me feel like I was watching two people on the verge of doing something big.  It turns out, I was right — William Holden’s career really took off the following year after starring in Sunset Boulevard and Lucille Ball became a television legend two years later with I Love Lucy.  And, of course, Ball and Holden were reunited a few years later when he appeared on an episode of I Love Lucy.