Movie of the Month

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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

Simon, Garfunkel, and The Graduate

The Graduate Soundtrack Album CoverNo discussion of The Graduate would be complete without talking about its soundtrack. If I were to rank my favorite movie soundtracks, The Graduate would come in at number two on that list, second to 1994’s Dazed and Confused. It’s not that I’m a big Simon and Garfunkel fan (I don’t dislike Simon and Garfunkel, either, though), but it’s a perfect example of the right songs being used in exactly the right way.  Simon and Garfunkel’s style was so wistful, gentle, and perfectly fit the sense of longing that plays so heavily in The Graduate.

Although it’s now hard to imagine The Graduate without songs like “The Sound of Silence” and “Mrs. Robinson,” it’s interesting to note that neither of those songs were originally intended to be used in the movie. Mike Nichols, director of The Graduate, was a big fan of Simon and Garfunkel and the producer, Larry Turman, had arranged for Paul Simon to write three new songs for the film. “The Sound of Silence” was not one of those songs, although it sets the tone for the movie so perfectly it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t written with the movie in mind. In fact, “The Sound of Silence” had been released two years prior to the release of The Graduate.  “The Sound of Silence” was just meant to be a temporary placeholder during the editing process, but Mike Nichols later decided the song was a perfect fit for the film and decided to leave it in.

When Mike Nichols met with Paul Simon to hear the songs he had written for The Graduate, he was disappointed to find out Paul Simon had only written one song, not three. At the time, Simon and Garfunkel were touring extensively and Simon simply hadn’t had the time to do more. The only other thing Paul Simon had to play for Mike Nichols was a little bit of a song he had been working on that wasn’t for the film. So Paul Simon played a little bit of a song that talked about Mrs. Roosevelt. Nichols told Simon, “It’s now about Mrs. Robinson, not Mrs. Roosevelt,” and a hit song was born. Only an early version of the chorus is heard in the movie and on the soundtrack album; the most popular version of the song was featured on Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bookends” album, released in 1968.

Fashion in Film: The Graduate

Benjamin Braddock

Benjamin Braddock Diagonal Tie The Graduate

The whole premise of The Graduate revolves around Benjamin lacking direction.  Nothing says, “I’m feeling completely out of sorts” quite as clearly as wearing diagonal stripes.

Ties in The Graduate

Benjamin’s diagonal striped tie and unbuttoned jacket certainly don’t fit in with the other men at his graduation party. All the other men we see have their jackets buttoned up and are either wearing ties in solid colors or with a floral/geometric print.

Benjamin Braddock The Graduate White Shirt

Before Benjamin starts seeing Elaine, Benjamin is mostly seen wearing white dress shirts. But after Elaine finds out about Benjamin having an affair with her mother, he falls into a deep depression. From then on, his basic day-to-day uniform becomes a black shirt with khaki pants and a tan or khaki jacket.  This whole ordeal has had a huge impact on him and his sudden change in clothing reflects that.

Benjamin Braddock The Graduate

 

Mrs. Robinson

Mrs. Robinson Animal Print Clothes

Mrs. Robinson sure loves her animal prints.  Tiger print, leopard print, giraffe print, she doesn’t shy away from any of them. Animal prints are definitely something that command attention and Mrs. Robinson is a woman who desperately wants to be noticed.

Mr. Robinson Benjamin Braddock The Graduate

When we meet Mr. Robinson, his outfit makes it loud and clear that he and Mrs. Robinson are no longer on the same level.  While Mrs. Robinson has her hair done and is dressed to the nines in her fabulous cocktail dress, Mr. Robinson appears to have just come home from a round of golf at the country club and looks like he’s ready for a low-key night at home.

Mrs. Robinson The Graduate

Mrs. Robinson also tends to wear a lot of black. Black can be a very powerful color and in Mrs. Robinson’s case, the color seems to signify two different things.  Like an animal print, black is a very bold thing to wear. But black is also a color that is often associated with death and mourning. The person Mrs. Robinson wishes she could have been is dead and she knows she’s never going to be able to have the life she wanted for herself when she was younger.

Mrs. Robinson The Graduate

When Elaine finds out what has happening between Benjamin and her mother, Mrs. Robinson is wearing a black robe, but there’s nothing strong about it. She looks like a mess, her life is a mess, and she’s literally backed into a corner. It’s a moment of total defeat.

Elaine Robinson

Elaine Robinson Benjamin Braddock First Date The Graduate

Elaine Robinson starts out dressing like the polar opposite of her mother. For her first date with Benjamin, she wears a cream colored coat with a pink dress.  Not even a hint of her mother’s fondness for animal print or black to be seen here. She looks very young and fresh.

Elaine Robinson Bus The Graduate

Unfortunately, we don’t get to see much of this vibrant, more innocent version of Elaine Robinson. After she finds out about Benjamin having an affair with her mother, she heads into a much darker place and her wardrobe reflects that. Just like Benjamin, she starts favoring darker clothes — black boots, brown coats, black and dark blue shirts and sweaters.

Elaine Robinson Benjamin Braddock The Graduate

When characters have a connection in some way, particularly in a romantic way, it’s common for costume designers to dress them in ways that reflect that connection. Benjamin and Elaine’s costumes in the last half hour of The Graduate are a prime example of that. For the first time in the movie, Benjamin looks like he’s finally found a person he really connects with.  Elaine hates to admit it at first, but she connects with Benjamin in a way she doesn’t with anyone else in the movie. At least Elaine looks like she has more of a connection with Benjamin than she does with Carl Smith:

Carl Smith The Graduate