Letter, The (1929): Melodrama, Starring Jeanne Eagles in Oscar-Nominated Performance

Jeanne Eagles received a posthumous Best Actress Oscar nomination for playing the lead in the early talkie, The Letter, the first film version of the Somerset Maugham play of the same name.

In 1939, Warner remade the film in a more polished production, starring Bette Davis in an Oscar nominated performance.

An established Broadway star, Eagels plays Leslie Crosbie, the adulterous wife of Robert Crosbie (Reginald Owen), her loyal husband and the owner of a Malayan rubber plantation, who provides nicely for her.

The film opens with a letter that Leslie writes to her lover, Geoffrey Hammond (Herbert Marshall, in top form), requesting that he comes to see her that night as her husband is gone.

When he shows up, an argument ensues, in which he terminates the affair, declaring that he in love with Chinese woman he lives with, described by the jealous Leslie as “half-caste, common and vulgar.”  Desperate, hysterical, and out of control, Leslie shoots him to death, later explaining that the Geoffrey had tried to assault her.

It is assumed that the subsequent trial will go well for Leslie, who has the advantage of wealth and social position. But Leslie’s lawyer (O.P. Heggie) learns of the existence of a letter sent to the dead man, in which she had declared her undying love, thereby proving that the killing was not justified as self-defense, but executed in cold blood.

At great personal expense, the lawyer buys back the letter for $10,000 from the dead man’s wife, a grim native woman, who had picked the latter.   The wife makes it a condition that Leslie herself delivers the cash, and when Leslie comes, she is subjected to public humiliation.

When Leslie is found not guilty by the jury, the lawyer reveals her indiscretion to her husband. She tries to convince Robert that she will be a faithful wife in the future, but suddenly pulls back and violently declares “With all my heart, I still love the man I killed!” As a punishment, Leslie is doomed to stay in the plantation rather than go back to London.

On Broadway, Leslie’s part was played by the great stage actress, Katharine Cornell. “The Letter” was remade in 1940, as a longer, more fully realized melodrama, starring Bette Davis, at the peak of her career, as the adulteress and Herbert Marshall (switching roles from the 1929 version) as her cuckolded husband. Like Eagles, Davis received a Best Actress nomination for the part.

The language of the first version is harsher and the treatment more honest, since it was made before the impositions of the 1934 Production Code.

There were great hopes for a viable Hollywood career for Jeanne Eagles, who had previously essayed the juicy part of Sadie Thompson in another Maugham’s play, made into a movie with Joan Crawford in the lead.  Sadly, Eagles died of a drug (heroin) overdose in 1929.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Best Actress: Jeanne Eagles

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Best Actress Oscar was Mary Pickford for “Cocquette.”


Running time: 61 Minutes.

Directed by Jean de Limur

 April 13, 1929.


Jeanne Eagels as Leslie Crosbie

O.P. Heggi as Joyce

Reginald Owe as Robert Crosbie

Herbert Marshall as Geoffrey Hammond

Irene Browne as Mrs. Joyce