Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Bette Davis, "The Letter" & Race

In Old Hollywood, only Bette Davis could play an upper class married Englishwoman who pumps six bullets into her lover point blank and then claims, "It was an accident."  That's exactly what she did while delivering a most well-deserved Best Actress Oscar-nominated performance in William Wyler's 1940 classic, The Letter.
Leslie Crosbie and her husband live in Anglo colonial comfort on a Malayan rubber plantation.  Butted right up against the British couple's tasteful home is abject poverty.  In the opening scene, director William Wyler shows us that only thing separating the colonial comfort of the Crosbies from the Asian poverty is a little rickety stick fence.  On the other side of the fence are dozens of Asian men, practically slave labor.  They're sleeping outside in hammocks when the tropical night quiet is broken by gunfire.  A man staggers out onto the front porch of the Crosbie home, in full view of the workers, wounded.  A tastefully dressed woman charges out of the house, expressionless, firing bullets into him as he falls to the ground.  The full moon, almost like a nocturnal eye of God, shines light on the dead body and on her holding the smoking gun.
We find out that dead man was Leslie Crosbie's lover.  He'd visit when her husband was away. She orders one of the plantation workers to go get her husband and, while waiting for him to arrive, she changes her clothes, fabricates a story, and enters the living room to tell the story to her unsuspecting husband like an actress in a play.  That's appropriate because she is giving a performance.
"He tried to make love to me and I shot him," Mrs. Crosbie tells Mr. Crosbie.  She sure did shoot him.  Six times.  It would've been more but the gun was out of bullets.  If that seemingly polite British housewife went into that much of a rage when her boyfriend wanted to call it quits, Lover Man must have really rocked her libido when times were good.   The drama thickens when it's discovered that Mrs. Crosbie had written an incriminating letter to the man she killed.  Not only that, but her late lover was married.  To an Asian woman.  And his angry widow has...the letter.  In William Wyler's masterful hands, The Letter is also a look at racial entitlement that still holds up today.  Wyler gives the audience credit for seeing what he wants to convey.  He lets you realize the information in the frame.  He doesn't make the racial exclusion overly obvious like in a modern movie such as The Help.  The little rickety stick face separating colonial privilege from minorities living in poverty -- that visual was a Wyler touch.  In a way, this drama is sort of a slave revolt.  Mrs. Crosbie's social class, appearance, graciousness and -- of course -- color have fellow Anglos such as their lawyer on her side.  Also, Leslie never assumes that any of the plantation workers who witnessed her crime will rat her out.  Why?  Because she's a plantation owner and they have basically been invisible to her.  She's entitled to their secrecy.  The Asians know where revenge will sting the hardest and deepest -- in the Crosbie bank account.  Leslie will have to pay for the letter and come face to face with her lover's widow.
Leslie refers to her in derogatory terms.  She calls her a "creature" who has a "face like a mask."  She criticizes her clothing and cultural fashion sense.  But Leslie, the picture of British gentility to her friends, also wears a mask.  She's a liar and a cold-blooded killer.  She murdered her lover, changed her clothes, fabricated a story to tell her husband and lawyer, then changed her clothes yet again for the ride to her lawyer's office in preparation for a court trial.  Privileged Leslie Crosbie is not as genteel as she seems living behind the walls of her own House Beautiful.
The amount the Asian widow wants for the letter is the amount Mr. Crosbie has in the bank.  The slaves are taking the financial power away from the master of the plantation.  When this version of the story based on a work by W. Somerset Maugham was made, certain Hollywood production codes were in effect.  You could not do something like cheat on a spouse, shoot your lover and get away with it.  You had to pay.  Maugham's original ending had to be altered to please the powerful Hollywood censors.  Even with the ending that director Wyler and star Bette Davis gave the studio against their artistic will, Wyler stills makes a gripping cinematic statement.  The morally corrupt Mrs. Crosbie maintains her proper Anglo British housewife image in and out of court to most of her friends and supporters.  But she does pay for what she did.  When she pays, she pays outside her comfort zone.  Wyler places her on the other side of the plantation wall.
This is an excellent, sleek Hollywood studio melodrama tailored for its top movie actress and she's in peak performance.  The role had the kind of boldness and audacity audiences expected from a Bette Davis character.  The movie is shot like film noir -- in black and white with lines in shadows, in patterns on clothing, in the furniture and in the set design of window treatments.  These lines are in sharp contrast to the precious patterns in ladylike lace that Leslie so furiously knits.
Maugham's story was previously filmed with its original ending in 1929.  The renowned Broadway actress, Jeanne Eagels, starred as Leslie Crosbie.  Herbert Marshall co-starred as her playboy lover.  This version was made in Hollywood's pre-code era.
Herbert Marshall co-starred opposite Bette Davis in William Wyler's 1940 version as Robert Crosbie, Leslie's unsuspecting and devoted husband.
Director William Wyler would reteam Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall as a Southern husband and wife at odds in the 1941 film version of Broadway's,  The Little Foxes.  
The Little Foxes and The Letter were Academy Award nominees for Best Picture.  Both earned Best Director Oscar nominations for William Wyler and both earned Best Actress Oscar nominations for Bette Davis.  The 1929 version of The Letter came out on DVD last year thanks to the Warner Archive Collection.  I'd like to see it.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, Bobby.

    The Letter is one of my all time favorites, and is quite possibly my favorite Bette performance. William Wyler knew how to get the best out of her. I just bought the Jeanne Eagels version at WAC a couple weeks ago. Saving it for a rainy day. ;)

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