On the Wings of Eagels: More Versions of Maugham’s The Letter on Film (for Parterre Box)


Cameron Kelsall: Although the Bette DavisWilliam Wyler version may be the most famous adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Letter, it’s far from the only one. As we said in our last conversation, David, there are at least two others still in circulation—and, as some pointed out in the comments, an ‘80s television presentation with Lee Remick that I’d love to find! Beyond Davis, the rendering that likely captures the most attention is from 1929, featuring Jeanne Eagels, a tragic figure of early cinema. I first saw it at a pre-Code film festival in college, knowing very little then about the history of Hollywood, and was captivated by the movie’s particular style, as well as its thematic frankness. Watching it again many years later, I still am. Clocking in at just over an hour, director Jean de Limur packs a great deal of drama into the proceedings, and Eagels is a very different Leslie Crosbie than her screen successor.

David Fox: The Remick version does seem to be findable on YouTube, but only in a dim print dubbed in Spanish, with the dialogue of course performed by different actors. I did watch a few minutes of it, and Remick seems quite different from either Davis or Eagels… or Siobhan McKenna, whose 1956 television adaptation we are also considering here. Adding to the complexity, I found a PDF copy of Maugham’s play, which suggests a couple of significant aspects that are not part of any of the three versions we watched! But I’ll save that for later. For now, as you say—it’s the legendary Jeanne Eagels in the spotlight, which is exactly the right term. From our first glimpse of her fabulous face, she seems almost lit from within… though certainly not in a saintly sense. Her Leslie Crosbie strikes me as (deliberately) the coarsest and toughest of the actresses we’ve looked at. When she repeatedly dismisses other characters as “crude and vulgar,” I silently said to myself, “well, look who’s talking, dear.”…

Click here to read the full post at Parterre Box.

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