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A knockout performance by Jeanne Eagels
jsultanof14 April 2000
Only currently available through the American Film Institute, which restored the film, this features a remarkable performance by one of the great stage actresses in the early part of the 20th Century.One sees immediately why Ms. Eagels was a star; this is a powerful, emotional tour-de-force which lasts a little over an hour. Little more than a filmed stage play for the most part, this film is a very important re-discovery that deserves to get into better circulation.
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Eagels fascinates in her only surviving sound film
tbumbera8 April 2005
I was fortunate to see a rare screening of this (early) 1929 film. The lure for me was Jeanne Eagels, and her performance did not disappoint. Her screen presence is amazing - there is scarcely a performance from this early talkie period to compare it with. If Eagels was alive at the time (she died in October 1929), if Paramount had more clout with the MGM-dominated AMPAS at the time, she surely would have won the Academy Award for Best Actress (it went to Mary Pickford in one of the WORST performances of the period, in the nearly-unwatchable "Coquette"). Her final confrontation with her husband, one of the most dynamic pieces of film acting from ANY period, is alone worth the price of admission.

This film exists only as a work print, without final dubbed-in music and sound effects, which may be disconcerting to some viewers, but thank God Eagels' performance survives intact. The storyline is similar to the 1940 remake but without several plot variations imposed by the Hays Office, and in many ways this earlier film seems more modern, complete with a few profanities and obvious depictions of a brothel (that scene, with Eagels' character humiliated in front of a bevy of Asian prostitutes, is amazing). The casual racism of colonialists on display throughout the film may be off-putting when viewed today, but is historically and dramatically appropriate.

Rights to this film apparently belong to Universal, so the chance of its being distributed on DVD - along with the many wonderful Paramount pre-1934-code films, the brilliantly restored Technicolor "Follow Thru" and "Paramount On Parade", etc. - is slender-to-none. No studio cares less about its pre-1948 catalog, especially the Paramount titles, and we can only pray that whoever heads their video division will be replaced by someone who knows and loves this eminently under-exploited catalog. In the meantime, Run, don't walk if this is screened in your area, and experience this beautiful and vibrant star who influenced a generation of actresses (not the least of which, Bette Davis, who took much from Eagels).
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Fascinating early talking picture with an equally fascinating star.
jgepperson26 March 2005
This film has recently been restored to a 35mm print. I was fortunate enough to see it. A great deal is already said here about Jeanne Eagels' performance. The only thing I can add is that Bette Davis seems to not have so much modeled her performance in the remake, as to have modeled her own physical persona in general on Eagels, who has a subtle body twitch that Davis took to (delightful) extremes later on. Certainly Davis would have seen this original movie version, and may have even seen Eagels on stage in other properties.

The sound is very primitive in this early version. At first it seemed like the sound wasn't even working. But the problem is that there is no sound until the film gets to a scene that has dialogue. It would have been interesting to hear more ambient sound added so you would be less likely to notice the old-fashioned audio, but then purists might complain.

Nevertheless, the film is fascinating and so is Eagels. I saw the film with an Asian friend who liked the fact that the film doesn't shirk from racism. The sequence where the heroine delivers the letter to the dragon lady was fun to compare to the later version. The early version is a lot racier! Also, I must point out that Herbert Marshall, who appears in the later version as the heroine's husband, is very young and handsome as her murdered lover in this 1929 production.
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Cries out for a restoration!
roberts-120 April 2002
"The Letter" is an absolutely fascinating early talkie. The only surviving talkie made by the legendary stage actress, Jeanne Eagels (whose skill as a Broadway stage actress was obvious in the delivery of her lines - particularly the final scene, which I found mesmerizing) cries out for a restoration! The print of the film I viewed had a very poor visual quality (although I could always discern the action), but became all the more tantalizing - this film probably looked great in 1929, and would still look wonderful in a refurbished print. For a very early "talkie", I was very surprised at how natural and "unstodgy" the dialogue is (and the soundtrack was remarkably clear and strong, with even a little bit of profanity, which I'm sure it raised a few eyebrows in 1929!) It is very unfortunate that Eagels' other talkie "Jealousy" is now lost, and all the more reason that "The Letter" (being the only sound document of this legendary actress) should have a wider distribution. I hope someone some day will spearhead such an undertaking.

A 2011 update: I recently acquired the DVD release of "The Letter" from Warner Archives. It is a revelation - an amazingly good print, particularly considering it is mastered from what is apparently the sole surviving 35mm print. Some segments lack musical background, but the dialogue is intact, and the visuals are far better than I expected (or hoped for!). Congratulations and many thanks to Warner Archives for finally making this treasure available!
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Jeanne the Great
mukava99130 September 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Even though others have praised Jeanne Eagles generously for her acting in this early talkie, I must add my two cents and say that her performance is what great cinema acting is all about! It is essential to see and hear what was possible as early as 1929. This is the kind of realistic emoting that we associate with Bette Davis, starting with OF HUMAN BONDAGE (1934), but Davis wasn't the first. There can be no doubt that if Eagels had lived she would have stood a strong chance of becoming the greatest film actress of her era. She totally inhabits the role of the British plantation owner's wife who shoots her lover; watching her, acting as we know it, or surely as 1929 audiences would have known it, disappears. I consider her British accent to be flawless throughout, so I must disagree with those who claim it's fake. By the standards of the era, it was top notch -- subtle and reserved, fully appropriate to the character of a proper, snobbish well-bred English lady. When I think of bad British accents, I think of Barbara Stanwyck in THE LADY EVE or Winona Ryder in BRAM STOKER'S Dracula. And if some linguistic expert chimes in with some sort of technical "proof" that the accent is less than perfect, I will say that at least it never sounds forced. Additionally, Eagels has a delicate beauty, somewhat like Helen Chandler or Carroll Baker and a voice rather like a high-pitched Tallulah Bankhead which startles at first but eventually becomes one of her most distinctive and endearing qualities. All great actors have that outstanding mark, something that sets them apart. When she is called upon to deliver the emotional fireworks, she does so with her whole being, not just from the neck up. It is hard to tell sometimes if she is brilliantly improvising or reciting word-for-word dialogue, so real is the effect. She is so persuasive that the audience with which I saw the screening burst into supportive laughter whenever she told intricately clever and whopping lies to cover her crime.

Aside from Eagles, the film stands up as an intelligently filmed version of a play, with its own logic, careful structure, and pace, a good sense of 1920's Malaya, an honest script that refuses to gloss over the racism that indeed permeated the British colonials of that time. Actual Asian actors are used to powerful effect, specifically Lady Tsen-Mei who looks like a man in Oriental drag and Tamaki Yoshiwara as an amusingly eager young lawyer's assistant. Herbert Marshall and Reginald Owen fulfill the requirements of their respective roles as the lover and husband.

SPOILER: The ending is just as powerful as the 1940 version, but without the moonlight knifing. After Leslie confesses that she still loves the man she killed, the film abruptly ends, and it makes sense that it would end thusly because Leslie must now live out her whole life knowing she killed the man she loved, tethered to a dullard whose presence she can barely tolerate. In this case, it's a living death as opposed to an execution. END OF SPOILER

But it is when the camera closes in tightly on Eagels, especially during her courtroom testimony and in the final showdown with her husband, that THE LETTER achieves cinematic glory. I give this a "10" because it's the only documentation with sound and image of this immortal artist and therefore is a must.
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drednm8 December 2007
Jeanne Eagels is brilliant in this short version of THE LETTER. My copy is lousy but I stuck with it because Eagels gives an amazing, Oscar nominated performance that keeps you riveted to the screen. I can only image the power this woman had on stage.

The story is the same as the Bette Davis version, but the narrative structure is all different. Eagels has two fabulous scenes: the trial and the finale. Her English accent slips a couple times but for a 1929 movie (and her talkie debut) it's a terrific performance as the amoral Leslie Crosbie.

Herbert Marshall, O.P. Heggie, and Reginald Owen co-star. But the film belongs to Miss Eagels. If only her follow-up and final film JEALOUSY could be found!
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august24 July 2003
This Jeanne Eagels performance should have won the Best Actress Academy Award. I love Mary Pickford but her performance was probably the weakest of the six nominees;however, the personality contest prevailed. Eagels' performance was focused and intense. Somerset Maugham's story of murder and intrigue will hold your attention. Film is difficult to find; it is worth the search.
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The last scene is magnificent. Warning: Spoilers
Jeanne Eagels is one of those film figures who are notorious rather than famous. She was a beautiful stage actress who scandalised Broadway with her erotic performance as Sadie Thompson, the hooker in Somerset Maugham's "Rain". Her film career started promisingly, but her drugs addiction became increasingly difficult to conceal. By the time she made her last film, her arms and legs were nearly as thin as broomsticks, and she resembled a blonde skeleton. She died in her thirties. Like a few other movie figures (Houdini, George M. Cohan, Fanny Brice) her own movies are less well-known than the movie ABOUT her, in Eagels's case the bio-pic starring Kim Novak (who was much more beautiful than Eagels ever was).

'The Letter' is Eagels's first of two talkies. Like her most famous role, this film is based on material by Somerset Maugham, and takes place in that same Oriental tropics milieu: in this case, Singapore. This early talkie is a very crude effort. There was apparently a music soundtrack which is now lost, so (except for one sequence) there's no music at all, and several sequences which *ought* to have music are now silent. Elsewhere, we see various exterior shots in which silent action (of a car moving soundlessly down the road, for example) contrasts jarringly with the dialogue sequences. One reel change occurs *during* a shot, when Mrs Crosbie (Eagels) takes the witness stand, so the last frames of one reel are repeated at the start of the next reel. On the positive side, this movie (filmed at the Astoria Studios in Long Island) creates a credible facsimile of the Singapore jungles.

This is the same story that was remade with Bette Davis, but there's one major difference. The remake begins with Mrs Crosbie (Davis) killing her lover: we don't know what led to this, and as the action unfolds we must decide whether she is lying. In Eagels's version, we see the argument between Mrs Crosbie and her lover, so we know the truth. The remake's gambit is much better.

Herbert Marshall appears in both versions: here, as the murdered lover; in the remake, as the cuckolded husband. Marshall had lost a leg in the trenches of the Great War, and wore a prosthetic limb through his entire film career. In his later films, he had a clumsy lurching walk. Here, he rises from a couch quite gracefully. I usually like Reginald Owen, but here -- as the cuckolded husband -- he's stiff and mannered, lumbered with Victorian dialogue.

There are some regrettably racist comments about Orientals in this story, including the famous line 'Damn peculiar, these Chinese'. Eagels's character berates a Chinese woman as 'a vile yellow thing', and this really doesn't stand out from the mood in the rest of the film. The Issei actor Tamaki Yoshiwara, playing a Chinese man educated by whites, speaks his dialogue in one of the strangest accents I've ever heard: is this genuine, or did the director impose it on him? O.P. Heggie gives a fine performance in a contrived role, as the barrister who (implausibly) compromises his professional ethics by shelling out $10,000 of his own money to buy evidence illegally, without bothering to find out if his client will reimburse him. Did Singapore have $1,000 banknotes at this time? When Mrs Crosbie hands $10,000 cash to her enemy, the whole dosh is a mere handful of paper.

Several American actors here play British roles with Yank accents. In her early scenes, Jeanne Eagels attempts an upper-class English accent: this is unfortunate, as we have so few recordings of her voice. By this point, her drugs addiction was running its course. In several scenes, Eagels stands awkwardly or fidgets: she's playing a woman who's on trial for murder, yet she acts as if she has more urgent business elsewhere. (Maybe a hypo and her next fix, waiting in her dressing room?)

But, in the magnificent last scene of this film, Eagels abandons the faux accent and shows the fiery talent that made her (so briefly) a great actress. Abandoning all her dishonesties, she tells the husband who has spent his life's savings to gain her freedom: 'With all my heart and all my soul, I still love the man I killed.' At this moment, Eagels is superb. What a shame that this great actress destroyed herself. For all its crudities, 'The Letter' is of vital historic importance, and I'll rate it 8 out of 10 ... mostly for that final scene.
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definitely interesting, would like to see a restored version
a66633326 May 2009
Jeanne Engles is almost a physical ghost here. Everyone seems to be in love her as an actress. Based on this, I'm not that hooked but she definitely does get your attention.

In this movie, the racism out in the open and cuts both ways which is closer to the real world. The movie does well to bring that forward. Unfortunately, here, as usual, Hollywood fell into bizarre caricatures and images when portraying the Chinese.

With Anna May Wong in Europe at the time, Tsen Mei is cast as Li-Ti and only manages to extract a very average presence. It is difficult to imagine her as a love interest. (Tsen Mei went on to run theatres in New Jersey) With Anna May Wong in that role (and advising the directors), the movie would have been elevated considerably and the confrontation-over-the-letter scene likely would have become an all time classic.

Technically, this movie is crude, especially the sound but a restored version might be a different story.
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One of the greatest performances ever on film
dcole-24 September 2004
This has just been restored and will be included on the DVD of the Bette Davis version of THE LETTER. You've got to see it to check out Jeanne Eagles in one of the rawest, most powerful performances I've ever seen. She was a stage actress who disdained film -- and who died soon after making this and the lost JEALOUSY. Too bad because she truly is amazing. The film is frequently stagey and flat (and perhaps a bit racist). But you can't fault her: she is towering and emotional and unpredictable every moment. Supposedly Davis saw this and modeled her performance on Eagles'. The final scene will probably leave you breathless because it's so powerful -- and unrepentant. I'm so happy people will be able to see this soon.
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Shows what the 1940 version could never have shown
AlsExGal22 November 2009
Warning: Spoilers
It just makes you wonder what could have been had Jeanne Eagels lived. The plot follows very much the same trajectory as the 1940 version. In fact, some of the very same dialogue is used. There is one major difference - we are shown the wild and hard side of Leslie Crosbie (Jeanne Eagels) right from the start, not left until the end of the film to guess exactly what really lurks behind the face of the crocheting angel we are presented in the 1940 version.

At the beginning we watch her bid her bland husband (Reginald Owen) goodbye as he heads to work. She makes sure he is gone and then writes the famed "letter" to her lover, Geoffrey Hammond, demanding he appear. In a clever bit of casting, here Hammond is played by Herbert Marshall, and very convincingly so. In 1940, the same actor plays Leslie's loving and trusting husband, also convincingly. What a great tribute to Marshall's range as an actor. You get to see Hammond with his Eurasian mistress (in 1940 the production code demanded they be married) complaining about Leslie, but saying that he must go see her one last time and put an end to her illusion that the affair is still on. You see the entire exchange between Leslie and Hammond - a conversation between a woman in love and a man who has moved on. You then see her deliberately pump a multitude of bullets into Hammond, which is where the 1940 film begins. The look on Leslie's face as she fires is the same in 1929 as 1940, but here we get to see the reason for that blank expression - it's not shock from an attempted sexual assault, it's payback for rejection.

The rest of the film plays out pretty much like the 1940 version, up until the end when Robert discovers he is too impoverished to buy his own plantation and must continue on working for the company, all because Leslie was guilty all along and had to pay blackmail to insure suppression of her last letter to Hammond. Robert tells Leslie that her punishment will be to stay in the home where the murder took place, haunted by her memories of both love and death. She, however, has one more bullet - a verbal one - this time aimed at her husband Robert. She tells him "with all my heart I still love the man I killed". Here, Leslie says this to lash out at Robert, to make sure that if she is stuck with him he realizes he is equally stuck with her. In 1940, Bette Davis says it as a woman whimpering out one last confession to her husband to profess that she is not worthy of the love of a man for which she feels nothing.

Both movies are very effective, but this one just has a realistic edge to it that was not possible in the 1940 one. It's just too bad that the existing copies I've seen are in such poor shape, but it's still very much worth watching.
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Jeanne Eagels Is Fired Up
wes-connors22 August 2014
Left alone on her husband's rubber plantation, four miles from Singapore, neglected Jeanne Eagels (as Leslie Crosbie) sends a letter to handsome Herbert Marshall (as Geoffrey Hammond), hoping for a romantic evening. Desperate for attention, Ms. Eagels is instead told, "All good things must come to an end," as Mr. Marshall tells her their affair is over. Eagels is told she disgusts Marshall, who has replaced his blonde English mistress with a Chinese woman. Eagels thinks the native woman is "common" and "vulgar." Declaring she still loves Marshall, Eagels decides to take matters into her own hands. This gets her in trouble with the law. Covering herself, Eagels convincingly hides her secret – but her Asian rival "Lady" Tsen Mei holds "The Letter"...

For her first "talking" motion picture, Eagels wisely agreed to star in W. Somerset Maugham's "The Letter" for producer Monta Bell and debuting director Jean de Limur. Eagels' greatest Broadway success had been in Maugham's steaming "Rain" (1922-26), which was filmed with Gloria Swanson as the hit silent "Sadie Thompson" (1928). Considering her success with this film, Eagels would have likely been considered for the sound version of "Rain" (the part went to Joan Crawford) and further acclaim. However, she had addictions and overdosed after one more film (the presently unavailable "Jealousy"). Notably, Marshall appeared in both the 1929 and 1940 versions, but as different characters...

As many have noted, Eagels shows the effects of drug use in her final films, but it works for the character she plays in "The Letter" – she is desperate and wasting away in a remote location. While employing some stage overplaying at times, Eagels still delivers an electrifying performance. She certainly earned her "Academy Award" consideration, and had the skills to continue into the sound era. This film was famously re-made in 1940 with William Wyler directing and Bette Davis starring. That version is much more polished, and Ms. Davis is likewise stunning. This 1929 version is incomplete and rough in spots, but still enjoyable. The racism is much less confusing, herein; there are scenes and situations which seem to be white-washed for the 1940 version.

******* The Letter (3/17/29) Jean de Limur ~ Jeanne Eagels, O.P. Heggie, Reginald Owen, Herbert Marshall
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A Showcase for the Mesmerizing Jeanne Eagels
kidboots22 December 2009
Warning: Spoilers
"The Letter" was Paramount's first all talking feature to be filmed at it's New York Astoria Studios. It was necessary because most of the principals were on Broadway at the time. The play, by W. Somerset Maugham, had little action but was centred on secrets and lies. There was an attempt to create an atmosphere of steamy tropical langour and Oriental streets.

Bette Davis played Leslie Crosbie with far less vigour and believability than Jeanne Eagels. Jeanne Eagels plays the bored and restless Leslie Crosbie who turns to another man, Geoffrey Hammond (Herbert Marshall) for attention when neglected by her husband Robert (Reginald Owen). Robert decides to go out for the evening to pick up a new rifle. Leslie's calm vanishes as she awaits an answer to a letter she has written Hammond. He has found a new love - a beautiful unscrupulous native woman Li Ti (Lady Tsei Mei) and has discarded Leslie. The scenes in the opium den are quite startling. After a blazing row Leslie shoots him - it was an amazingly realistic scene and was probably strong stuff for it's day.

The next scene shows Leslie in the witness box in all her stiff upper lip English glory. This film is told differently than the 1940 one. You know from the start that Leslie is lying but the thrill is in anticipating "the letter" and all it's consequences. In the 1940 film Gale Sondergaarde seemed more of a symbol and didn't have very much dialogue. Li Ti was a more rounded character in this film. When Leslie goes to buy the letter, she is taunted and humiliated by Li Ti and the prostitutes. The ending was quite sensational as Robert, now penniless because of "the Letter" forces Leslie to spend the rest of their married life living with her hated memories. She then tells him the truth "With all my heart and soul, I still love the man I killed"!!! Jeanne Eagels makes it so powerful that even though the copy I have is of appalling quality, I couldn't take my eyes off her for an instant - she is absolutely mesmerizing.

Highly, Highly Recommended.
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Better Than BD'S
GManfred8 May 2012
Warning: Spoilers
This earlier version of "The Letter" is a truncated but in some ways superior version when compared to the later one. The major difference in the two is the performance of the two actresses in the lead role of Leslie Crosbie. Jeanne Eagels gives an Academy Award performance which was better than the one given by Bette Davis almost ten years later. It can't be compared to any other performance by Ms. Eagels since this is the only surviving talking picture she made. She infuses it with an energy and ferocity unmatched by the theatrical, mannered Bette Davis.

There are also some differences in the screenplay and this earlier version ends abruptly and at mid-point, with Leslie shouting at her husband that 'she still loves the man she killed'; In the later version she is killed by the oriental woman. And here, Hammond is played with gusto by Herbert Marshall, who played her husband, Robert Crosbie, in the later version. And lastly, I enjoy and appreciate Bette Davis in nearly every picture she appeared, but in the remake of "The Letter", she was simply out-manned and out-gunned, to borrow a fitting phrase from another genre, by Jeanne Eagels.
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A rare opportunity
blanche-225 October 2017
Warning: Spoilers
The Letter from 1929 is a rare opportunity to see the great Jeanne Eagels in action. Eagel's signature role on Broadway was Rain. This film was made in the last year of her life - she was 39 but looks much younger. The Letter also stars Herbert Marshall, Reginald Owen, Tamaki Yoshiwara, and Lady Tsen Mei. There was a tremendous amount of prejudice against the Chinese back then, as the film indicates, so the good roles played by Yoshiwara and Tsen Mei were unusual. Just think of The Good Earth and Dragon Seed as far as what was cast as Asians.

The story is based on a play that starred Katherine Cornell on Broadway, and was remade in the '40s with Bette Davis.

Eagels plays Leslie, the neglected wife of a rubber plantation owner in Singapore. Confronting her lover Hammond (Marshall) about his live- in Chinese mistress, he tells her that their affair is over. Angry and insulted, she shoots him. She claims it was self-defense and is arrested for murder. Because Hammond was living with a Chinese woman, there is automatic prejudice against him; added to that, it looks like her story is believed, and an acquittal is on the horizon.

However, it turns out that a letter she wrote to Hammond is in the possession of his mistress, for sale at a high price. And the mistress wants Leslie to come and get it herself.

The Letter was filmed at two Paramount Studios, one on Long Island and one in Queens, New York, which I have been in. Quite a feeling of history there. The sets in the movie look great and really set the dark, mysterious atmosphere.

The scene where Leslie is humiliated in front of some Chinese prostitutes is amazing and not in the Davis film.

Eagels throughout is fantastic - pretty, with flashing eyes, she is petulant, angry, demure, a wide-eyed innocent - whatever Leslie's situation calls for, and she turns in a powerful performance. What a shame she succumbed so young to drugs and alcohol.

The rest of the acting is good, but frankly I don't know what Leslie saw in her lover or husband.

The production understandably comes off as stagy and, not used the rhythm of the dialogue, a little stilted. There is no music at the very beginning, and then there are a few bars of music that repeat over and over and over, about 1000 times, with the only break being when the scene changes to the Chinese club! I finally managed to ignore it but I was ready to scream.

If you can see this, too - it holds up remarkably well for being an early talkie.
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Terrible Film
waelkatkhuda11 January 2017
Warning: Spoilers
I can't describe my shock when i watched this film version. the film is really bad, very bad the actors are acting like robots there is no emotion no expression and you feel most of the time as you are watching a play instead of a film based on a play which is a terrible thing to do to a great work that was written by (Garrett Fort). Jeanne Eagels was a great actress on theater but here she was really bad she is acting as she was on stage, look at Mary Pickford performance at coquette (which was released at the same year) and see the difference: she used to act in theater too, but she is playing according to the camera rules she knew exactly the difference. I still wonder how Miss Eagels got an Oscar nomination for this performance she was unbearable, and the gun scene was terrible i couldn't stop laughing when i watched her shooting her lover down! A five years old kid can shoot better than her. Bette Davis knock her down when she portrayed the same role in 1940 and even the story line was much away better than the original play. If you are a fan of the play don't bother yourself by watching this one just go to 1940 version starring Bette Davis.
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"Rubber, Rubber, Rubber"
bkoganbing1 April 2013
Although this version of The Letter that I saw was incomplete lacking the final six minutes, if you have seen the better known Bette Davis version from 1941 then you know what fate awaits Jeanne Eagels in this film. Sad to say this and another sound film are all we have of her acting and stage presence. Eagels was most famous on stage for doing another W. Somerset Maugham work, Rain. After seeing this what a shame it was she died of too much living before doing a film version of that. Joan Crawford was unjustly criticized for essentially not being Jeanne Eagels, so vivid was the memory of what she did on stage with Sadie Thompson.

She doesn't do too bad with Leslie Crosbie either in this film. Eagels is the bored wife of rubber plantation owner Reginald Owen and she casually drifts into an affair with Herbert Marshall. But Marshall has been two timing Eagels with a lovely Asian mistress. After deceiving her husband she's not about to be thrown over for an Oriental so she empties a revolver into Marshall. In the Bette Davis version Marshall plays the wronged husband and the character of the lover is only shown at the beginning being ventilated with six bullets.

Eagels gets the best barrister in Singapore O.P. Heggie, but there is the nasty business of an indiscreet letter she wrote to Marshall that the Chinese woman now has. Therein lies the tale.

Somerset Maugham if anything was more observant of the racism in the British colonial community in this version than the later one. What's driving Eagels is the thought of being tossed aside for an Oriental woman, the type she employs as servants and looks down on. Not to mention the scandal of her affair and what would happen to her position in that strict British white colonial society.

Eagels gives a dynamic performance in her confrontations with the various male characters and in a soliloquy in court where she recounts a version for the jury as to why she killed Marshall. Of course it's all lies and the white jurors want to believe her. But that letter should it get out, she's toast.

Shot in Paramount's Astoria studios, The Letter shows its age, but even as she overacted as most of her Broadway contemporaries did when they faced sound cameras, her dynamism is undeniable. Watch this and you'll why Jeanne Eagels was such a big star.
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Jeanne Eagels Eyes
richardchatten15 December 2017
Warning: Spoilers
An extremely interesting complement to the classic Warner Bros. superproduction of 1940, this version of Maugham's 1927 play made in New York begins by showing us in full what was only gradually teased out both in the play and the remake. Not only do we see for ourselves the original row which ends with Leslie Crosbie pumping six bullets into the body of her lover (and thus know all along that she's telling a pack of lies about what happened), but we even see her sitting down to write the notorious letter itself (which Hammond stupidly tosses on the floor in front of his mistress so that after he's left she can pick it up and read it for herself).

Being pre-Code, scriptwriter Garrett Fort can have Hammond bluntly declare that yes, "the Chinawoman IS my mistress; and I don't care who knows it!" and this version is spared the bizarre extended climax of the remake in which Leslie pays for her sins with her life. Instead it ends remarkably abruptly with her facing the far worse fate of staring into the abyss of the remainder of her life stuck in the heat of the tropics in a loveless marriage with her youth gone.

Bette Davis' later performance as Leslie actually bears striking similarities to that of Ms Eagels; who died later the same year her version was made from a drug overdose at the age of 39. Davies' interpretation is more calculating and manipulative, while Eagels own emotional fragility comes across loud and clear and adds lustre to her performance (like Vivien Leigh's in many of her later films), her gurgling voice fraught and her dark button eyes darting this way and that; giving the famous Bette Davis eyes a run for their money
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What A Ridiculous Film
donjeffries3 March 2014
What are the reviewers here smoking? Jeanne Eagels turned in perhaps the worst acting performance I've ever seen in this movie. And she was nominated for an Academy Award? Her indistinct, overtly affected accent was grating on the ears. Her facial expressions were hardly better- grade school drama productions feature more credible acting. And when she shot her lover; there are no words to describe how laughable she appeared, as she waved the gun in spectacularly unconvincing fashion.

The screenplay was awful as well, like it had been written by the nephew of a local dinner theater owner. All the actors delivered their lines in wooden, disinterested fashion, but Eagels was in a class of her own here. As for the Chinese mistress, who can believe that anyone in 1929 would have chosen this decidedly plain-looking actress over the still very attractive Eagels?
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An Interesting Version
disinterested_spectator22 November 2014
Warning: Spoilers
Although the version with Betty Davis as Leslie Crosbie is superior, this one with Jeanne Eagles is worth watching, primitive though it may be in filmmaking technique. In the later film, with Davis as Leslie, she is killed at the end of the movie as punishment for adultery and murder by the Chinese woman from whom she bought the letter she had written. We might blame the Production Code for this melodramatic punishment, but it was repeated, at least in implication, in 1982 in the version with Lee Remick. This was not in the original play, in which Leslie intends to try to make her husband happy and hopes he will forgive her, even though she does not love him. The 1929 version with Eagles, however, gets the award for having the most unpunished and unrepentant Leslie. The husband says Leslie will have to stay with him and continue to be bored and lonely, and she responds by saying she still loves the man she killed with all her heart. Also, in the Eagles version, when Leslie goes to get the letter, there is a disturbing scene where prostitutes are kept imprisoned behind bamboo bars. Finally, this version is the most racist of them all in its depiction of Asians.
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Almost entirely different than the famous Bette Davis version.
MartinHafer6 March 2014
Warning: Spoilers
I would love to know which version of "The Letter" is closest to the H. Sommerset Maugham story. I assume it's this 1929 version with Jeanne Eagels since later Post-Code films demanded that evil be punished. Regardless, the later and more famous Bette Davis version is almost like an entirely different story—it's that different. And, it's a bit better.

While the Davis version begins with that wonderful shooting scene and you THINK the wife shot the man in self-defense initially, this is not the case with the 1929 film. The wife is an adulteress and a cold one at that. Additionally, the ending of the film is completely different because the 1929 version leaves the woman with little punishment for her evil deeds and in the Post-Code Warner Brothers version she clearly gets what's coming to her. One version is a bit dissatisfying, the other perhaps a bit too neatly wrapped up! So which film is better? Well, clearly I think it's the Davis version. Part of it is Davis' wonderful acting (it's one of her best) and part of it is because the Warner version just looked a lot better and had better production values. This isn't surprising, as in 1929, incidental music was practically nonexistent and the films were just shifting over to sound in Hollywood. Also, while the earlier version is certainly a lot grittier, most folks (including me) might feel a bit let down by its inconclusive ending. Still, Jeanne Eagels did have an excellent performance as well and the film has a certain steamy charm. It's still worth seeing but dramatically different from the remake.
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Love/Hate Relationship with Early Talkies
evanston_dad7 October 2019
I've been watching a lot of really early talkies lately, and I can't decide if I hate them or kind of love them. On the one hand, they're mostly terrible because they're so clunky and rudimentary -- it's like the art of cinema took two giant steps back in those transition years of the late 1920s, so that movies that came out a decade before seem more sophisticated and better made. But on the other hand, they're so fascinating in a way that movies from no other time period are. Watching them now, you can see history being made in real time, a bunch of artists just trying stuff to see what will work and what won't, and you can almost smell the crash and burn of careers that weren't able to make the leap into sound.

"The Letter" is creaky as hell to be sure, but what it boasts is an absolutely phenomenal talkie performance by Jeanne Eagles, one that's so raw and immediate that one almost feels uncomfortable watching it because it feels like the actress is imploding on screen. Much has been written and said about Eagles' personal life and the fact that she kind of was actually imploding due to drug addiction, and this is surely a large part of what makes her performance so memorable. But whatever the case, the knows how to act in front of a camera in a way that many other at the time didn't, and she gives an unapologetically fierce performance. People have lauded her acting in the film's final scene, which is great, but she's also just as good in a courtroom scene in which her character sweetly and demurely concocts a false story to sway the jury to her side.

"The Letter" was of course famously remade in 1940 with Bette Davis, but despite all the studio resources thrown at that version (or maybe because of them), I prefer this version more. It's grittier, rougher, and far more shocking.

And I love how this movie just ends. It's like the film crew was renting the space for the day and ran out of time, having to high tail it out of there before the next crew came in to use the same space.

Eagles received the first posthumous acting nomination from the Academy for her performance in a year that saw Mary Pickford's dreadful acting in "Coquette" win the Best Actress award. The fact that either Eagles for this film or Ruth Chatterton for "Madame X" should have beat Pickford is so obvious it's almost just objective fact rather than opinion.

Grade: A-
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this lurid melodrama nominated for an Oscar?
deschreiber20 February 2014
While other reviewers here gush over this movie, I found much of it painful to watch. Jeanne Eagels as the wife, I agree with them, holds your attention with her wonderfully expressive face, particularly in the concluding scene. But she seldom gets beyond striking a stagey, melodramatic note, seldom convincing me that she was a real character speaking and not just an actress playing a big part. Her nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role speaks volumes about the state of acting in 1929. And she's not the only actor whom you see pausing between sentences unnaturally, as if trying to remember the next one or perhaps waiting for the audience to absorb the effect.

But the acting is far from the worst thing about this movie. Worst of all is the story, which is the sort of thing you would expect in some dime-store romantic comic for women. The 1940 version with Bette Davis manages to moderate the cheapness of the story somewhat with more natural performances, but this one goes full-out melodrama. It's not so very far from Snidely Whiplash tying Poor Nell on the railway tracks. Then the racism makes you cringe even more, with all the Brits viewing themselves as lords of the earth and talking of dirty natives and their vile surroundings. I wanted to strangle them. The two main Chinese characters are (1) devious and (2) vengeful.

Even the production details can make your heart sink. A barroom scene has dancers on a stage performing some Hollywood choreographer's horrid travesty of an Indonesian dance, a dance which in real life is beautiful, dignified and stately turned into something cheap and supposedly seductive. The music is also a pitiful, dumbed-down Hollywood imitation of real Indonesian music. The barroom scene, for no particular reason other than to add to the luridness, includes a snake-charmer wearing a turban. As the snake is about to appear, the scene suddenly shifts to the outdoors and we are treated to some stock footage of a mongoose killing a snake. Totally unnecessary and out of place.

It is truly embarrassing to think that this film was actually nominated for an Academy Award. You may want to watch this version for The Letter for the performance of Jeanne Eagels, which, as I said, holds your attention despite its often falseness and to compare it to the 1940 Bette Davis version. But don't get your hopes up too high. There is lots here to make you cringe.
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I Waited a Few Years to See This One
silentmoviefan24 October 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Ever since I saw a clip from this film in a documentary on television and had heard the host of the documentary clearly say that all the movies that had clips shown would be on that network, I had looked forward to seeing this one. I had a while to wait, because that documentary was a couple of years ago or so and this movie was shown today. It's my understanding that there was a good amount of music associated with this movie when it was released and you can kind of tell this because there are empty segments. Jeanne Eagles, the main reason I wanted to see this film, does a pretty good job overall. 1929 sound movies have a tendency to creek, but this one really doesn't. She is clearly the star of this vehicle. She shoots lover Herbert Marshall several times, killing him. She lies like a rug under oath at her trial, where she is found not guilty. She also informs husband Reginald Denny that she still loves her deceased lover, despite the fact that he informed her, shortly before being shot to death, that he did not love her even a little bit! Oh, and then there's the letter. She had written this to Marshall, but since he was dead, his Chinese housekeeper/mistress has it. Eventually, she has to pay the mistress $10,000 for the letter. Yes, there is racism in the film, but also racism in reverse. After the mistress receives the money, she drops it on the floor and when Jeanne stoops down to pick it up, the mistress says "White woman at Chinese woman's feet" to the delight of an assemblage of Chinese women behind bars. It's not a perfect film, and in some ways not worth that wait I mentioned earlier, but it's still quite watchable and has enough going for it for me to rate it a "7"
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