Jeanne Eagels

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.

The Letter (1929)

The Letter 1929 Jeanne Eagels

Leslie Crosbie (Jeanne Eagels) is married to Robert (Reginald Owen), a rubber plantation in Malaya.  When Robert leaves for a night, Leslie sends a letter to her lover Geoffrey Hammond (Herbert Marshall), asking him to come see her.  When he gets the letter, Geoffrey is with his new mistress Li-Ti (Lady Tsen Mei).  At first they make fun of Leslie, but Geoffrey decides to go see her to break things off with her.  But Leslie isn’t too happy about him ending things with her so she grabs a gun and shoots him repeatedly.  She tells police that she killed him in self-defense and she sticks to that story until her lawyer finds out that Li-Ti has the letter she sent to Geoffrey the night he was killed.  Leslie agrees that they should buy the letter from her and the court clears her of all charges.  But then the lawyer goes to Robert to get reimbursed for buying the letter and Robert finds out the truth.

This version of The Letter is significantly different from the 1940 Bette Davis version.  First of all, the Bette Davis version is more ambiguous.  Her version opens with Leslie shooting Geoffrey, but we don’t actually see what happened before then.  We don’t know for sure if Leslie is telling the truth or not until the movie gets going.  But in the 1929 version, we actually get to see Leslie interact with Geoffrey and the events leading up to Geoffrey’s death.  And when Leslie goes to pay Li-Ti for the letter, Li-Ti truly revels in making Leslie grovel first.  Gale Sondergaard made Bette Davis work for that letter a little bit, but Li-Ti milked it for all she could.  She loved showing some children how she can have a wealthy white woman on her knees before her.  Perhaps the most pre-code element of this version is that Leslie really gets away with murder.  When the production codes were enforced, the sinners always had to pay for what they did.  In the Bette Davis version, she gets off in the eyes of the law, but in the end, Mrs. Hammond makes sure Leslie gets what’s coming to her.  But in the pre-code version, Leslie is not only cleared in court, she absolutely refuses to be punished in any way by anybody else.  Leslie and her husband had originally planned to leave the country as soon as the trial was over.  But then her husband found out about the letter and instead of leaving, he decides to make her stay there as a punishment.  That’s when she unrepentantly declares, “With all my heart, I still love the man I killed!”  He may be trying to punish her by making her stuck with him, but she punishes him right back because not only is he stuck with her, he’s stuck with someone who still loves another man.  I also love how Herbert Marshall went from playing Geoffrey in the 1929 version to playing Robert in the 1940 version.

The 1929 version of The Letter desperately needs to be more available.  I had to download it from a torrent because it’s not available on VHS or DVD and I don’t recall ever seeing it on TCM.  The copy I watched was in rather poor quality, but I could clearly see that it’s a very good little movie.  It packs a lot into an hour and Jeanne Eagels set a high standard for Bette Davis to live up to, especially in the final scene.  A lot of the early talkies haven’t held up very well over time, but time has actually been rather kind to The Letter.  The sound quality may be primitive, but the dialogue itself holds up better than a lot of other early talkies.  I’d really love to see a good quality version of it someday.  A real gem that deserves to be seen.