The only surviving sound film of the innovative and influential Broadway star Jeanne Eagels, the 1929 version of “The Letter” has surfaced courtesy of the Warner Archive Collection; my New York Times review can be found here. Eagels’s raw-nerved, convulsive performance style was decades ahead of its time, and her electric energy comes through vividly in this early sound production, the first all-talking feature to be made at Paramount’s Astoria studios. Eagels died from still-mysterious causes seven months after the film was released (her death has been variously attributed to drug addiction, alcoholism and general exhaustion), but her influence lived on most immediately in the person of a young admirer, Bette Davis, who channeled Eagels’s intensity for her breakthrough performance in “Of Human Bondage” and insisted that Warners buy “The Letter” from Paramount for the William Wyler remake of 1940.
Directed by Jean de Limur and produced by Monta Bell (who had worked together on Chaplin’s “A Woman of Paris”), the 1929 version suffers from some technical limitations but is overall a far more efficient and gripping film than the remake. Wyler, of course, had to deal with the absurd dictates of the Production Code, right up to the ridiculous ending that buries the play’s magnificent curtain line (“With all my heart and all my soul, I still love the man I killed!”) in a sequence that requires Davis to offer herself as a human sacrifice to a cliched Dragon Lady (played in yellowface by Gale Sondergaard).
In the original film, the character is fully developed and played with dignity and sly disdain by the Asian actress, Lady Tsen Mei, who had starred in a silent feature produced and directed by a Chinese American, James B. Leong’s 1921 “Lotus Blossom” (one reel of it survives, and can be seen in the 2004 National Film Preservation Foundation box set, “More Treasures from American Film Archives”).
De Limur, after directing Eagels in the lost “Jealousy,” returned to France, where he continued to work until the mid-40s, apparently without attracting the slightest attention. Yet there is skill and audacity in his work here, both in the building of atmosphere (colonial Singapore evoked with one miniature and three cramped sets) and his continuous, three-camera staging of Eagels’ great monologue.