Thursday, November 13, 2014

RUBBAH!! Jeanne Eagels in THE LETTER

This is my entry in the British Empire Blogathon, hosted by Phantom Empires and The Stalking Moon.  Click HERE for more fabulous entries!

What happens when you plunk a cool, icy Brit down in the middle of the steamy tropics? Do you really have to ask? Why, illicit sex, mayhem and usually murder, of course. All done with a bit of a stiff (if slightly trembling) upper lip. The British Empire was not kind to the women who followed their men to the colonies.

Take that!
Bette Davis and William Wyler knocked it out of the park with their version 1940 of Somerset Maughm’s “The Letter.” Who can forget Bette’s skill with that pistol? But, before Bette got all hot and bothered down on the plantation, there was 1929 version of this tale of passion starring the legendary Jeanne Eagels.

Poor little Leslie Crosbie, wife of a plantation lord who loves his rubber (or as Leslie pronounces it – rubbah) better than her. Spirited from the comforts of Mother England to the depths of the colonies, she is lonely and bored. What oh what is a neglected wife to do? Especially when it is so darn HOT? Why, dally with a fellow Brit, Geoffrey Hammond, of course (note: always watch out for someone who spells his name “Geoffrey’ – shifty in my book). But, the damn dog likes his Chinese mistress (Li-Ti) even better than Leslie, who becomes yesterday’s news. Imagine! Not only is it an affront to white women everywhere, but an insult to the Mother Country, as well. Leslie can’t bear to be rejected for an Oriental, of all things, and, in a fit of passionate rage, she shots the scoundrel. Dead.

Geoffrey is unmoved
Ah, but those Brits take care of their own. They have their own form of justice and see what they want to see. Presenting herself as the picture of British Womanhood on the stand, Leslie blatantly lies, claiming that she had nothing to do with old Geoffrey and that she shot him because he tried to – GASP! – rape her.  She is found to be innocent of murder, but all is not well on the rubber plantation. Li-Ti has a letter written by Leslie to Hammond which contains proof of their relationship. 

Li-Ti: Geoff preferred her charms and she had the letter

Li-Ti offers, through Leslie’s attorney, to sell it to the lying wife for $10,000. Leslie’s attorney advises her to pay for the incriminating missive and she retrieves it, but not until Li-Ti gets to verbally humiliate the woman who got away with murdering the man she loved.

"on my honor..."
Of course, hubby wants to know where the $10,000 in his bank account went and Leslie, guilty as sin yet filled with contempt for her rubber lord, spills the beans. All of them. Beans all over the place. Her punishment? No more money and a life sentence on the plantation. No more Harrods for you!

This 1929 version is pretty creaky, but it is worth seeking out for a rare view of Jeanne Eagels. I swear, I thought that if I touched the TV screen while she was on I was going to get an electric shock. She is a raw nerve, over the top for sure, but impossible to ignore. And when she declares to that pill of a husband that “with all my heart and soul I still love the man I killed,” it is impossible not to be in the moment with her – the very definition of great screen acting.

The 1940 version is smoother in every way, but this version has other pleasures besides Miss Eagels' feverish performance. Because it is pre-code, the original ending where Leslie gets away with murder is retained. Poor Bette must pay for her crime and is stabbed by Hammond's woman (who is now his wife rather than lover). 

Another treat is Herbert Marshall as the callous Hammond. He plays the bore of a husband in the 1940 version (as Hammond never appears in that version at all).

In the end, it is all about the chance to see Jeanne Eagels in action. Dead by the time the movie came out, she was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance, but did not win. She paints a compelling portrait of a woman gone mad with tropic fever and passion. I swear, Bette Davis looks positively sedate next to this woman and that is no mean feat.


Silver Screenings said...

Jeanne Eagels is FANTASTIC in that clip you posted. I didn't think anyone could play that role better than Ms. Davis, but maybe I was wrong. Now I have to see this film to make a proper comparison. :)

The Lady Eve said...

Wonderful post. More entertaining than the movie itself, I think. To tell you the truth, I was a bit disappointed when I first saw this version. Probably wasn't expecting Jeanne Eagels' performance to be quite so wildly theatrical. I do enjoy her climactic "With all my heart..." scene, though, and like to consider what it implies about how her Leslie Crosbie might've lived out her remaining years among the rubber trees.

FlickChick said...

Hi Ruth. Personally, I loved her. She was very theatrical, but riveting.

FlickChick said...

Hi Patty. Oh my - what did happen to her Leslie? I think she became Jean Harlow in "Red Dust."

Jeff Flugel said...

Whew...Good thing I spell my name "Jeffrey" and not the other way!

I must shamefully admit to neither seeing this THE LETTER nor the Bette Davis version. I must rectify this situation forthwith. Jeanne Eagels seems a really interesting performer, yet another with a sad life ended too soon.

Terrific piece, Flickchick - thanks so much for contributing to the blogathon!

Caftan Woman said...

"Smug respectability" can really wear a person down, can't it?

Fascinating to compare the two versions. Leslie is certainly a role an actress can throw herself into.

FlickChick said...

Thanks Geoff, I mean Jeff!

FlickChick said...

Thanks, CW - Leslie did a bad thing but, really, she should have shot her husband!

Unknown said...


I do need to see this; it's now on my list. Thanks so much for participating in our blogathon!

Clayton @ Phantom Empires

Anonymous said...

Until recently I'd never been able to get hold of this version so it was a bit of a shock to see how different it feels compared with the more familiar Davis version, but you're right - Eagels is just sensational! Really enjoyed the review, thanks.

FlickChick said...

Thanks, Clay, and thanks for co-hosting a tip-top blogathon.

FlickChick said...

Bloody - by the way, love your blog, - it is hard to compare with Bette in the 1940 version, but Jeanne really is in a class by herself. Her early death is such a shame.

karen said...

Sorry but Bette is hands above Ms. Eagels.

FlickChick said...

Karen - Alas, we will never know how far Jeanne Eagles would have progressed in her film acting by 1940. In 1929, performances were extremely theatrical. I think it's fair to say that Bette is queen, but Jeanne Eagles brought a lot to the role.

Anonymous said...

Sex? Murder? Mayhem? Where do I sign up?! I must admit I've only seen the Bette Davies version but this does look like a treat. Sometimes I like the overblown theatricality, if I'm suspending my belief I might as well go all out ;)


Yet I'm familiar with Jeanne Eagels premature death, I haven't seen her in The Letter yet. It's curious how so many films set in the tropics show English people engaging in affairs... well, they always said "there is no sin under the Equator"!

Unknown said...

I was going to rewatch the 1940 version (a favorite of mine) but instead watched THIS version, which I had never before seen. Definitely interesting, although I much prefer the Davis film. I am also a devotee of the 1932 Crawford version of Maugham's RAIN, in which Jeanne Eagles had starred on stage. I have yet to see the silent Sadie Thompson starring Swanson. I will seek it out in order to compare and contrast. I enjoyed reading your synopsis and review of this film.