The Letter (Warner Archive)
The movies learned to talk in 1927, as they say, but it took a few years to find its voice. After all, it took more than thirty years of filmmaking to arrive at the storytelling grace and sophistication of Sunrise and Street Angel and The Crowd, a mode of filmmaking that came to an abrupt end with the arrival of sound. But it wasn’t simply a matter of adjusting to new technological limitations. The movies still needed to find its own, unique vernacular and way of speaking.
The 1929 version of The Letter, the first screen version of the W. Somerset Maugham play, is also the sole surviving sound-era performance by Broadway legend Jeanne Eagels. It’s not a particularly good film—the 1940 Better Davis version, directed by William Wyler, is far more compelling—but it is a revelation of a performance and an illustration of the challenges filmmakers faced in the early sound era.
Apart from a fluid (and wordless) opening that culminates in a camera creeping through the jungle bush to reveal a rubber plantation manor, it is a static production that stops to observe stiffly-staged scenes of actors frozen in stand-offs. Part of that is surely the demands of early sound recording, which was recorded directly on film with noisy cameras that were boxed up to blimp the sound. But it also suggests that director Jean de Limur (like so many directors at the time) looked to the stage for guidance in directing actors through the new dimension of sound.