On Maugham & Murder: Bette Davis VS Jeanne Eagels in THE LETTER

Preface: Upon conducting research for this article, I stumbled upon this wonderful piece written by my friend, Angela, that does an fantastic job examining both films. Please give her post a read here!

Helmed by two masters of their craft (with the added bonus of one’s ever growing and enduring legacy) THE LETTER (1940) remains firmly imprinted like a sanguine wax seal in collective cinematic memory, despite its noirish execution. It was fated to be one of the greats — after all, Davis herself credited Wyler with helping her to win her second Oscar for JEZEBEL, which marked the third of their collaborations. Davis was midway through her golden reign at Warner’s, which granted her considerable creative control and access to the best resources they had to offer. The 1941 Academy Awards ceremony would mark her third consecutive nomination (that figure would increase to five, a record shared only by Greer Garson) for Best Actress, as well as the only time she would preside as the presidential figurehead for the Academy’s charter. 

A film of THE LETTER’S caliber intuitively demands an exhaustive study, but even all the comprehensive accounts seem to exclude perhaps the most important facet of all — that Wyler’s production was not the first time Maugham’s play had been adapted for the screen. Its eponymous predecessor, released eleven years prior, remains largely forgotten to this day. A great deal of this is attributed to an unfortunate amalgam of factors, each of which worked together in tandem to doom it to obscurity. 

Originally published in 1926 as THE CASUARINA TREE, Maugham adapted his story into a play, THE LETTER, for the stage a year later. The debut Broadway run saw Katherine Cornell in the role of Leslie Crosbie, and was met with favorable reception. Released by Paramount Studios in 1929, the original film iteration was a considerably risky undertaking, stunted by limited production means and amateur recording technology. Its narrative-dependent structure necessitated vocal acting in order to draw maximum effect from the audience, but Paramount’s wavering confidence in their abilities resulted in the making of a silent version as well in a prudent bid to maximize efficacy. 

To this day, the film boasts a number of notable firsts: It was the first full-length sound feature to be completed at the Astoria Studios branch in New York City, and more important still, the first and only on-screen performance of the troubled, tempestuous talent of Jeanne Eagels. She would pass later that same year, succumbing to the ravages of addiction at the age of thirty-nine. Had the production never been green-lit, there would be no tangible existence of performance. Eagels was an actress of the stage, someone who’d earned a hands-on education through her participation in the Ziegfeld Follies. She was one of the last of her kind, of actresses who were able to achieve a stardom comparable to film stars through just stagework alone. Her acting has often been described as electrifying, even earning the admiration of the notoriously distempered Davis. Had she gone on to live, she would have undoubtedly enjoyed a robust screen career — THE LETTER is proof of that. 

In what is otherwise a rudimentary, lackluster production, Eagels sets the screen alight everytime the camera rests its gaze on her. Throughout the trim sixty minute runtime, she never concedes to hysterics, instead choosing to convey Leslie’s anxieties through manicured movements that achieve impressive resonance by way of carefully practiced minimalism. It’s a stark contrast to Davis’ interpretation, to the point where the different portrayals seem to constitute two entirely separate women. The bulk of this incongruity originates from their very disparate acting styles, but considerable influence also stems from the implementation of the Hays Code in 1934, about halfway between the releases of both versions. Scrupulous morals demanded explicit repercussions, resulting in resounding discrepancies borne of ripples from miniscule adjustments. 

Davis was unarguably robust and distinct in her style (especially as she grew older, when the thresholds between her persona and person began to blur), but she wasn’t afraid to derive influence and inspiration from other actresses. In fact, it played a considerable role (arguably more important than many of the ones she’d come to regretfully inhabit later in life) in the dismantling of her relationship with William Wyler. When they were in talks to adapt the successful Bankhead vehicle THE LITTLE FOXES for the screen, Davis made a point of attending a performance in order to observe her methods. She returned to Wyler already having made up her mind that Bankhead’s portrayal was the only effective way of playing the cruel and calculating Regina. He vehemently disagreed, which led to constant quarreling, and upon completion the two went their separate ways, with Wyler citing that he’d “never willingly work with Davis again.” 

In an interesting 180, Davis seemed to have done just the opposite when it came to her second collaboration with Wyler. Her performance is bereft of any verisimilitude when juxtaposed against Eagels’, but registers just as effective. Both versions are commendable showcases for the distinctively different yet equally commanding presence of both women, and historical connotations of both lend themselves splendidly to each. Despite just eleven years difference standing between the two, they convey completely different atmospheres and consequently feel worlds apart. Comparing and contrasting the two versions reveals an intricate, individualistic method of conjuring and manifesting fear, dread, guilt, and envy. Similar tactics are employed, but play to different strengths, into which I’ll dissect further in the coming analysis. 

Eagels has a propensity for physical performance given her origins on the stage, and is able to fluidly shuffle through a gamut of demonstrative movements with her body with unparalleled expertise. So little of her energy is concentrated in her visage — instead, her entire being acts as one cohesive blank canvas that shapes itself according to intuition. The resulting surface tension creates a constant air of fragility that threatens to cave at any and every given moment. Eagels manages to incrementally ramp up the intensity of her motions as the plot progresses, expertly capturing the essence of a tortured woman burdened by an increasingly compromised secret she once believed to be airtight. Her embodiment alone is proof that a convincing performance is not necessarily contingent on closeups or facial expression in order to achieve empathetic reception from the audience. 

Davis, by contrast, gained her formative education through the studios, and thus possesses a more flamboyant and reactionary style, one that depends heavily on facial emoting (which is unusually receptive to her wide-eyed countenance). Aside from some frantic pacing and restless knitting (two emblematic behaviors typical of her characters), Davis pours the majority of her energy into a series of bewildered expressions, all of which ascribe to one extreme or the other with no room for middle ground. Either she’s aloof and dismissive, or she’s lost to the throes of a hysterical conniption, eyes bugging wildly and lips furled back as she delivers lashing after lashing of invective, snarling each one like a crazed animal. Bette Davis is not an actress who understood the subtleties of greyscale, instead operating in either plain black or white.

Structurally, both adaptations boast nearly identical storylines, only deviating in different directions upon commencement of the third act. There’s even a shared commonality in Herbert Marshall, who plays unsuspecting husband Robert Crosbie in Wyler’s remake but originated the role of the slain lover. Wyler is generous in execution, paying considerable homage to the comparatively unknown de Limur with the staging and framing of many shots — the most striking one being a near exact recreation of the moment Leslie’s attorney is presented with the incriminating letter. The vast extent of scenes where Davis knits are nearly identical to the original ones filmed with Eagels. There are palpable shades of difference even in sonically paralleled sequences; for example, in the original, when the letter is dropped at Leslie’s feet she is cruelly derided by her lover’s mistress as a crowd of cheering, voyeuristic spectators cheer on emphatically. “White woman, Chinese woman’s feet!” she hisses, and Eagels languidly capitulates to the demand. The same occurrence transpires in Wyler’s remake, but the taunting dialogue is curiously absent. 

The () schism that ultimately differentiates the two versions is a fascinating study ripe with historical and personal subtext surrounding both the players and the state of the industry. Each individual ending is so uniquely and expertly crafted that it changes the entire course — and tone — of the story. Both are different shades of tragedy; de Limur’s tends to linger hauntingly in the psyche, whereas Wyler’s feels more contrived.

Part of the answer, as hinted beforehand, rests with the introduction and implementation of the Hays Code. Though formally proposed in 1930, the legislature was not ordered into effect for another four years, after mounting pressure borne of fear-mongering propaganda that claimed that films were corrupting the morals and innocence of youth. The brief window in which film thrived without this didactic censorship, appropriately titled “Pre-Code,” happened to also overlap with the making of the original film, allowing for minimal script-doctoring in terms of providing moral patchwork. The objective was solely accurate recreation, and because of the relative leeway few things proved to be too objectionable. 

Davis and Wyler on the set of THE LETTER (1940). They were having a torrid affair during the film’s production.

The leniency granted was integral in allowing de Limur to faithfully adapt Maugham’s story. After Robert discovers Leslie’s infidelity, he condemns her to a life of misery. Eagels does a brilliant job in displaying the rapid shift in Leslie’s temperament, abandoning tense posture in favor of laughter borne of relief. Her ever-scheming mind — once afraid of the potential consequences of Robert learning the truth — comes to the ingenious realization that her very transgression may indeed be the one thing that sets her free. Instead, Robert subverts her expectations and throws a wrench in her plans, telling her he has no intention to divorce her. Thus, Leslie is fated to spend the rest of her years not only living with the guilt of killing her lover, but chained to the very place of his murder beside a man who holds her in open contempt. It’s a raw, visceral ending that robs the viewer of their breath. His cruelty finally matches that of his wife’s, but because of extenuating circumstances it feels just. Still, the genius of the work lies within the human condition, and an emotionally intelligent consumer cannot help but to pity Leslie despite all the heinous things she has done.

In Wyler’s remake, the film concludes in retribution, adhering to the conventions of the code. Even though de Limur’s ending is arguably a punishment in and of itself (and the worse of the two, in my opinion), Leslie is allowed to “live” and thus conflicts with the moralistic endeavors pioneered by code enforcers. Guilt is not enough of a sentence, which means she must die in order to truly atone for her crime. Davis delivers as always, however, despite her own anecdotal recounting of the differences she and Wyler had in terms of creative visions, as detailed in this excerpt from her 1962 autobiography THE LONELY LIFE:

“The husband, played by Herbert Marshall, offers her complete amnesty and she cannot accept it. She rejects this pitiable gift of love and charity with the famous line: “ I still love the man I killed.” It was such a cruel thing to say to the husband, I felt I could not say it to his face. I couldn’t conceive of any woman looking into her husband’ s eyes and admitting such a thing. I felt it would come out of her unbeknownst to herself, and therefore she would not be looking at him. Willie disagreed with me — most definitely. I walked off the set! Something I had never done in my whole career. I might have been Hollywood’ s Maria Callas ; but Willie Wyler was the male Bette Davis. I could not see it his way, nor he mine. I came back eventually — end result, I did it his way. It played validly, heaven knows, but to this day I think my way was the right way. I lost, but I lost to an artist.”

It’s incredibly difficult to envision both women in swapped positions. Davis likely would not have been able to effectively command the same subtle control as Eagels, which was the key element to its plausibility. Similarly, it seems foreign and ill-advised to imagine Eagels bellowing “With all my heart, I still love the man I killed!” with the same staccato driven force and impassioned intonation that is so characteristic of Davis. To an extent, the different embodiments of Leslie’s character are espoused to their respective originators, which also serves to bolster the sentiments of both films; still, the mind can’t help but to wander. Davis and Eagels are apples and oranges, both palatable in theory but appetizing selectively to different individuals — and both performances, no matter what one’s feelings are on either actress, are worthy of a full and thorough viewing. 

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