Between the idea/And the reality ... [f]alls the Shadow.
-T. S. Eliot, "The Hollow Men"1
It can be said without undue exaggeration that the British writer W. Somerset Maugham (1874- 1965) represents the modern- day cinematic equivalent of Jane Austen. While, after almost two hundred years, Austen's novels still provide extensive bases for film adaptations, the cinematic versions of Maugham's extensive oeuvre constitute an ongoing body of work that originated in the late 1920s. In fact, the En glish writer is presently more dramatized on the screen than Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. His novel Up at the Villa received a film adaptation starring Sean Penn and Kristin Scott Thomas (Philip Haas, US, 2000), while another novel, The Painted Veil, became the basis of a release featuring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts ( John Curran, US, 2006). But the most fecund source of Maugham's writing remains The Letter. First published as a short story in 1924, then expanded into a successful play in 1927, the narrative of a mysterious missive has been made into at least four films, even a 2007 opera. Moreover, a wide range of distinguished actresses- from Jeanne Eagels to Lee Remick- have undertaken the lead part of Leslie Crosbie.2
Yet despite these factors, no one has extensively examined why The Letter remains a major cinematic source or how that story has been interpreted in its two most important cinematic conceptions: The Letter ( Jean de Limur, US, 1929) starring Eagels and The Letter (William Wyler, US, 1940) featuring Bette Davis. I try to fill that gap by arguing that The Letter represents Maugham's supreme example of rending the veils of illusion in human lives. As with his contemporary T. S. Eliot, Maugham concentrated on how shadows can develop between our self- perceptions and the world's actual workings. I conclude by discussing how the two films remain the definitive cinematic versions.3
There are several reasons why Maugham's work remains a continuing source of inspiration for filmmakers nearly fifty years after his death. An enticing element of Maugham's work lies in the exotic settings of some of his novels and short stories. The writer continually traveled the world, particularly in Asia, after World I. Using the Asian perimeter as a literary milieu, of course, did not initiate a new genre in English- speaking literature, as attested to by Herman Melville's early career. But Maugham's interweaving of exotic locales and psychological complexities closely parallels the later work of Paul Bowles, who used the arid emptiness of the North African desert as a hovering, malign backdrop. An important difference, however, lay in Maugham's Victorian- instilled fastidiousness; while he engaged in the "conventionalities" of murder and adultery, he never ventured into incest or castration. But both Maugham and Bowles juxtapose the irony of a supposedly superior culture often being overtaken by an indigenous one, and how these cultures remain strange to each other (thus drawing on two central definitions of the word "foreign"). Another factor in the continuing cinematic adaptations of Maugham's work lies in his sinuous yet plain style, which readily fits filmmakers' reliance on actions rather than their thoughts. But although Maugham's style does not approach the stream- of- consciousness narratives of James Joyce or the inner musings of Marcel Proust, his style is deceptively plain, thus confirming Hemingway's observation that "if you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened."4
The primary reason for Maugham's continuing cultural relevance, however, can be found in the psychological complexity of his work, particularly in his pitiless revelation of human hypocrisies. Maugham often faced accusations that he seemed too "cynical," a factor the author jokingly discussed in his introduction to Quartet (Ken Annakin et al., GB, 1948).5 Yet what has been said of filmmaker Billy Wilder could also be said of Maugham, that what seemed cynical in his work actually represents "a clear- eyed view of life in all its humor and pain."6 In addition, one sees Maugham's sense of human complexity in a wide range of subsequent writers' works, ranging from Graham Greene's film scripts for The Fallen Idol (Carol Reed, GB, 1948) and The Third Man (Carol Reed, GB, 1949) to John Le Carre's grimly realistic spy novels. Most important, Maugham's gritty realism and subtle shadings provide essential grist for filmmakers still involved in a continuing convention of Hollywood filmmaking- the melodrama, where the protagonist either overcomes or is defeated by his or her difficulties. Maugham's work proved particularly important after the late 1920s, as Hollywood studios went beyond the nineteenth- century pa ram e ters of coincidence and climax established by pioneer filmmakers such as D. W. Griffith into areas of psychological and social realism. Thus one could argue that translating Maugham's work into film helped prepare the way for film noir.7
As is often remarked of many creative people, Maugham operated as the quintessential outsider in his literary endeavors. Scarred by his parents' early deaths, a youthful stammer, and a seeming personal unattractiveness, Maugham's isolation also deepened because of his bisexuality. He therefore turned to writing as a means of not only satisfying his artistic inclinations but also of asserting his presence in a class- conscious, repressed society.8 Maugham revealed the true characters of his fictional protagonists not through satiric exaggerations, as did Evelyn Waugh, but through a slow, steady accretion of detail, baring their essential, and sometimes offensive, qualities at the end. This technique is fully expressed in the 122 short stories he penned from approximately 1920 through 1940. While Maugham began his considerable literary career as a playwright, little trace of such productions can be found, perhaps because they remain fully situated in the Edwardian drawing room. For example, in Lady Frederick, his first successful production, the major character's revelation centers on her using heavy makeup to disguise middle age. His twenty- six novels also encompass a mixed picture. The book usually acclaimed as his masterpiece, Of Human Bondage, mostly focuses on its semiautobiographical character, Philip Carey, who despite some personal and professional obstacles becomes a happily married doctor. In other major works such as Cakes and Ale and The Razor's Edge, Maugham's pitiless portraits of self- satisfied characters remain minor strokes in his artistic endeavors.9
In Maugham's short stories, however, we see the fullest rending of human veils of illusion. In "The Human Element," an old suitor of an En glish divorcee learns of his former lover's discreet consorting with her chauffeur. In "The Alien Corn," a young man's intellectual, physical, and financial advantages do not prevent his suicide after failing to become a concert pianist. In the penultimate example, "Miss Thompson," later adapted as the successful play Rain, Maugham depicts how a seemingly immoral woman, Sadie Thompson, survives the edifications of minister Alfred Davidson, while Davidson's simmering obsession with Thompson leads to his downfall. But The Letter remains the best example. (I use the three- act play as the major authorial source, particularly because it became the basis for the two subsequently discussed films.)10 The Letter encompasses the rending of four veils of human illusion: the existence of a happy marriage between Robert and Leslie Crosbie, the reserve and impregnable self- control of Leslie, the professional probity of lawyer Howard Joyce, and most significant, the apparent moral and social superiority of the British colonists in Malaysia over the "natives."11
At the play's start, Leslie, a pretty, intelligent, seemingly satisfied woman in her mid- thirties, receives a visitor, Geoffrey Hammond, in her bungalow. In a matter of minutes, Hammond staggers onto the verandah as Crosbie fires six shots into his back. The only sound we hear, besides the gunshots, is Hammond groaning, "Oh my God!" Maugham's stage directions concisely establish Leslie Crosbie's complex character: "She looks at the revolver and lets it drop. ... Her eyes fall on the body, they grow enormous ... and a look of horror comes on her face." Leslie directs her house boy to go to the local police, and then locks herself in the master bedroom.
When Robert returns home a few hours later with Joyce, he immediately tries to console his wife, but Leslie warns him offwith a gesture. She then declares to the police officer, Joyce, and her husband that Hammond attempted to rape her before she shot him. Only then does Leslie rush over to Robert, perhaps revealing a manipulative personality. Another interesting development lies in Joyce's increasing, if implied, skepticism about Leslie's version of events, particularly after he finds Hammond's body "riddled with bullets." After Leslie's breathless discussion of Hammond's sudden, uninvited appearance, his increasing drunkenness, and his subsequent physical attack, she remembers with Robert the happiness of their ten years of marriage. Leslie, however, never reciprocates Robert's declarations of love. Maugham continues to establish a note of skepticism in the rest of the first act. The police officer remembers Hammond as an im mensely likable man, pop u lar with the ladies, and most important, not a heavy drinker. When Joyce remarks that Hammond apparently received some shots while defenseless, Leslie claims that she cannot remember anything that occurred after she first pulled the trigger.12
The play's second act begins in the visiting room of the Singapore prison where Leslie is now being held. As a worried, disheveled Robert waits for his wife, Joyce comes in with his Asian legal assistant, Ong Chi Seng. Here, Maugham introduces his fourth veil of illusion. After remarking on how Seng graduated with a degree from the University of Hong Kong, Joyce swiftly, almost contemptuously, dismisses him, declaring, "I'll call you if I want you." The lawyer then assures Robert that the entire En glish white colonial establishment supports his wife. "I don't suppose a single member of the jury," he adds, "will go into the box without already having made up his mind to bring in a verdict of Not Guilty." Underneath this declaration lie the facts that not only will white En glishmen be the individuals judging Leslie's guilt but also that the recent revelation of Hammond's living with a Chinese woman has "turned public opinion against him more than anything."13
But as Joyce waits for his client, Seng discloses the existence of a letter apparently written by Leslie, begging Hammond to visit her the night of the murder. He produces a copy for the incredulous Joyce. When the attorney subsequently confronts Leslie, her cool, collected mien collapses as the evidently skeptical Joyce continues to question her, calling the letter a "hysterical invitation." Leslie faints, then pleads with her lawyer to recover the letter. She uses two reasons for this request: to avoid execution for Hammond's murder and to spare her husband from any embarrassment. What now seems clear is that Leslie does not love her husband and that she only uses the second reason to arouse Joyce's sympathy for his close friend. Joyce's legal repre sen ta tion is already compromised because of his personal feelings, and as the play further reveals, his personal dilemma will rend the third illusion presented.14 In a subsequent conversation with Seng, Joyce learns, to his discomfort, that Hammond's ex- lover will only yield the letter if paid ten thousand dollars. Going against his better judgment, Joyce decides to use his own money. Armed with the "swag," as he sardonically puts it, Joyce sneaks into the Chinese section of Singapore where he recovers the letter from the own er of an opium den, with a brief, wordless appearance by Hammond's Asian mistress.15
The play's conclusion centers on the night of Leslie's acquittal. Her seeming moment of triumph ends when Joyce reveals his reimbursement request. A shocked Robert confesses that the amount requested not only represents the couple's total savings but also forecloses his dream of acquiring a rubber plantation in Sumatra. He demands to see the letter, then asks Leslie to tell him the truth. She coolly reveals that Hammond had become her lover for several years and that she wrote the letter after discovering his affair with the Chinese woman. In a flashback sequence, Hammond not only confirms his new love but also terminates his relationship with Leslie. Infuriated, she shoots him. Returning to the present, a distraught Robert departs, still professing his love for Leslie. She tries to declare her continuing fidelity to Joyce, who witnessed the entire scene, but then blurts out, "With all my heart I still loved the man I killed."16
Thus, by the play's end, we see the rending of four veils of illusion: the Crosbies' seemingly happy marriage becomes little more than a facade; Leslie's seeming reserve and self- control hides deep passions; Howard Joyce's professional pride dissolves through his willingness to undertake not only bribery but also the concealment of incriminating evidence; and, most important, the supposed social and moral superiority of the En glish colonists becomes a condescending racism. Leslie Crosbie cannot believe that her En glish lover could accept a Chinese woman as his live- in mistress, while Howard Joyce realizes how his seemingly obsequious assistant can quickly and effectively manipulate his white employer.
Adapting any literary source to the screen naturally demands considerable revision and compression. Besides the obvious differences in milieus- the novel or short story belonging to a written medium that allows for some indirection and contemplation, while the visual aspects of a film demand more literalism- there is clearly the problem of deciding what to include in a cinematic treatment. It can be quite surprising to read the original novel The Godfather by Mario Puzo and discover that a major part of the book deals with Sonny Corleone's ex- girlfriend. Other considerations, of course, enter into film adaptations of literary source materials- the contradictory demands of producers wanting low production costs and high financial rewards, the concerns of actors and actresses about their lines and eventual denouements of their characters, and the fickleness of a general audience.17
The two films considered here remain the definitive cinematic versions of The Letter, although in different ways. The 1929 version suffers from two limitations: the nascent use of sound and its abbreviated length. Shot in the late autumn of 1928 in the basement of Paramount Pictures' Astoria, Queens, studio, the film used bulky microphones, thus requiring the stationary staging of actors. Just before the release of The Letter, Ralph Townsend, Paramount's director of recording, declared: "We have eliminated the unnatural and uninteresting appearance of two characters standing stiffly in front of the camera and speaking their lines." One must disagree with this assessment. There is an overemphasis on shots with two actors, or "two shots," particularly in the confrontation scene between Leslie Crosbie and Geoffrey Hammond. The viewer thus becomes conscious not only of the actors' immobility, but of the camera's hovering presence. As with a production made a few months later, the Marx Brothers' The Cocoanuts (Robert Florey, US, 1929), we also see the actors sometimes stray a bit too far from the microphones, causing muffled lines. The attempt to overcome these limitations by interspersing silent shots with ones requiring sound sometimes works. It is extremely effective in the opening sequence, where shots of drunken sailors cavorting in Singapore dissolve into a long pan through the jungle into the living room of the Crosbies' bungalow. But, in general, the transition from silent to sound scenes becomes a bit jarring, as we suddenly hear ambient noises or dialogue.18
The film's length of sixty- five minutes also sacrifices some needed characterization. Robert Crosbie (played by Reginald Owen) does not come across as the sympathetic, morally torn husband of the play, but as a one- dimensional, pompous character who is hard to empathize with. Owen does not help by assuming a mien of grumpiness in most of his scenes and by overemphasizing his lines in the final confrontation with Eagels's character. The depiction of Joyce (played by O. P. Heggie) also gets short shrift. We get little of the psychological and mental complexities inherent in his decision to forego his professional standards for the sake of friendship. Heggie does possess a formidable physical presence, and he conveys a memorable glance with Leslie in the last part of the film when she realizes that Robert now knows the whole story. But Heggie can do little with only a few scenes.
The film, however, still remains a powerful adaptation of Maugham's rending of human veils of illusion because of the relatively honest depiction of the original material and Eagels's mesmerizing per for mance. After the somewhat slow beginning, the film demonstrates a striking synergy, or as Richard Kosnarski notes, a "remarkably fluid" style. It swiftly establishes the illusion of happiness between the Crosbies. When Robert declaims that his wife survived seven years in the Malaysian jungle, Eagels's character smiles and continues knitting, even lighting her husband's pipe. But after his departure, Leslie loses her composure and starts writing her fateful message to Hammond. The confrontation between Hammond, played by a young, striking Herbert Marshall, and Crosbie also proceeds in a relatively dynamic manner. Marshall clearly conveys his character's discomfort and eagerness to end the affair, while Eagels shows with her eyes and body language a rising alarm and anger. The actress's face then reveals a striking felineness as she shoots her former lover (see figure 1). One could criticize the filmmakers for revealing Leslie's culpability so early in the film (something not done in the original play or in the 1940 version). But they make up for this error by memorably cutting from Eagels's hand still holding the smoking pistol to the same appendage resting on a Bible at her trial.
But the most striking illustration of Maugham's rending of veils comes with the subtle, yet definite, removal of En glish cultural and moral superiority. The film quickly establishes this hypocrisy in a brief yet telling conversation between the prosecutor and Joyce during the trial. The government lawyer reveals his lack of enthusiasm for prosecuting Leslie, condemning Hammond for his "scandal" of a relationship with a "common and vulgar" Chinese woman. Seng's initial appearance elicits some bemused contempt from both En glishmen, with Joyce remarking about his Asian assistant being "very amusing." But the roles are swiftly reversed in a subsequent scene. The Chinese assistant reveals the existence of the letter, ignoring Joyce's attempts to dominate the conversation ("damn your impudence") and wasting no time in revealing the blackmail demands. When Seng finally leaves the office, Joyce muses, "Damned clever, these Chinese," as if realizing his assistant's intelligence for the first time.
The most memorable scene centering on the reversal of cultural and moral superiority comes in the powerful confrontation scene between Leslie and Li- Ti, Hammond's former mistress. The Paramount filmmakers evidently decided to take some dramatic license, so, after the British authorities allow Leslie to stay in her attorney's house one night during the trial, she and Joyce go to the Chinese section of Singapore. After a remarkable shot showing Leslie descending the stairs as if going to some earthly Hades, we witness Li- Ti tormenting her visitor, ignoring the bribe and mocking Leslie for being "too good" to mingle with Asian women. She then opens a nearby curtain to reveal the presence of young prostitutes in a cage. A Chinese man comes in to look over the prostitutes and then humiliates Leslie by carefully considering her, to derisive laughter. But when the humiliated Leslie tries to leave without paying the money, Li- Ti swiftly reminds her that the resulting scandal will make "all of Singapore ... laugh" at Robert's humiliation. Trapped by both pity and desperation, Leslie remains, even picking up the letter after Li- Ti contemptuously drops it at her feet. Leslie may have derided Li- Ti as a "vile yellow thing" in their confrontation, but she does not emerge triumphant. One could object to the overt ste reo types in the scene, particularly in the Chinese actress's use of "pidgin" En glish and the presence of prostitutes, but the Asian mistress does demonstrate a considerable agency.
The major factor in establishing the film as a definitive version of Maugham's play, however, lies in Eagels's astonishing per for mance. In his memoirs, Elia Kazan, who directed one of the greatest female stage per formances in American history- Jessica Tandy as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire- stated that Eagels became one of the few stage performers who impressed him as a young actor. The actress, he recounted, "had feelings that shook the theatre when they were released." That intensity can be found throughout the film. Eagels reveals her character's complexity in the opening scenes of the movie. We first see Leslie as an enraged woman wielding the gun, as one critic recently noted, like a knife, and then as a calm, attractive person falsely testifying before an apparently admiring jury.19
But it is in the film's conclusion that we see Eagels's full acting range. A furious Robert confronts her, accusing her of being a "common harlot." Leslie at first denies this accusation, admitting that she has been "vile." But she then clearly conveys the anguish of playing the good plantation wife despite increasing loneliness and fears of aging and her sense of betrayal upon learning of Hammond's affair with that "Chinese woman." When she reenacts the murder, Eagels's face contorts in the frenzied grimace exhibited during Hammond's shooting. Finally, after Robert's declaration that his wife will remain in their bungalow, trapped by her memories, Eagels emotes the famous last line of the play, not once, but twice, her face revealing regret, anger, satisfaction, and sadness. Owen actually seems genuinely startled by his costar's fury. The film then abruptly ends (it only survives as a "work print," devoid of postproduction touches). But this ending still seems appropriate, for the couple now stands completely exposed to each other, all subterfuges removed. This remarkable last scene is not only aided by Eagels's rapid- fire delivery but also by the evident decision to shoot with several cameras at the same time. Thus, we see a rare example where acting technique triumphs over the technical limitations of the early sound cinema.20
By the time of the 1940 version, filmmakers possessed three distinct advantages: improved sound techniques, the use of better production design, and the use of scoring. No longer did studio cameramen and technicians stay in enclosed booths or try to hide oversized microphones inside telephones and flower vases. The invention of both boom microphones and smaller receptacles of sound throughout a film set now ensured a more "realistic" sound. Moreover, led by Cedric Gibbons at Metro- Goldwyn- Mayer, production designers now provided detailed sets that readily suspended reality for cinematic audiences. Film scoring also became an important element, as pioneers such as Max Steiner and Franz Waxman brought the use of music as a means of film communication to a peak. Yet although Warner Bros. Studios executive producer Hal Wallis wanted to remake The Letter, he still felt constrained by the Motion Picture Production Code's impositions on showing adultery in a positive light and allowing murderers to escape retribution. No longer could filmmakers such as Cecil B. DeMille successfully skirt censorship by showing scantily clad persons in the midst of biblical exegesis.21
Even with these restrictions, the 1940 film stands as a definitive version of Maugham's play because of the direction of William Wyler, the excellence of the three lead per for mances, and the fluidity of the screenplay. Critics today tend to see Wyler as simply an accomplished director, not a great innovator such as Alfred Hitchcock or Federico Fellini. Wyler, however, not only received twelve Academy Award nominations and three Oscars throughout his long career, but also consistently exhibited an impeccable craftsmanship. His directorial sense can be seen to best effect in the film's opening sequence. It is the midst of night, and native servants wait listlessly in the relentless tropical heat in their quarters a few yards from the Crosbies' bungalow. We also hear the constant drip of rubber leaking from the nearby trees. Max Steiner's score slowly increases in tempo. Suddenly we hear some noises on the verandah. The actor playing Hammond stumbles out (we never see his face) and Leslie Crosbie follows him. The camera cuts to her seemingly implacable face as she fires bullet after bullet. Thus, through an astute use of sound and image, Wyler gives us an opening sequence that comes closer to Maugham's original play than in the earlier film.22
Besides Wyler's subtle yet effective direction, the film is firmly anchored by the per for mances of Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, and James Stephenson. Davis eagerly accepted the leading role for two reasons: she knew Maugham well, having become a star through Of Human Bondage ( John Cromwell, US, 1934), and she also admired Eagels's per for mance. She comes closer in some ways to the original conception of Leslie Crosbie, who throughout the play receives compliments for her coolness and even "iron" self- control. Davis remains adamantine during her shooting of Hammond (see figure 2), thus raising a question in the audience's mind about whether she is a cold- blooded murderess or the shocked victim of an unexpected attack.23 Davis continues to remain enigmatic throughout most of the film, maintaining a proper reserve in the ensuing scenes, wearing glasses and constantly knitting. This hard shell, which remains intact until the film's end, is a tribute to Davis's acting range. She could convincingly play seemingly reserved, aloof women as well as the emotional harridans that now linger in the public consciousness.
By 1940 Marshall established himself as one of the premier character actors in Hollywood, equally capable of playing suave yet sinister protagonists (as in Foreign Correspondent [Alfred Hitchcock, US, 1940]) or weak yet still sympathetic men. In enacting Robert Crosbie, Marshall successfully encompasses Maugham's original conception of the character as a complicated man, an honest and decent individual still deluded about his marriage. When Robert experiences the full rending of this illusion, Marshall shows us that while his character still loves Leslie, he remains mystified about his previously cool, controlled spouse's despair and passion for her dead lover.24 Stephenson also gives a fully rounded per for mance as Howard Joyce, demonstrating a man torn between his professional obligations and his friendship with Robert. Not only do we understand by the film's end how Joyce no longer sees himself as a firm proponent of justice and fairness, but also how his original, equivocal feelings for Leslie become a secret loathing. His revelation of both the bribe and the true nature of the letter to Hammond thus becomes an attempt at self- purification.25 While the 1940 film's longer running time (ninety- five minutes) undoubtedly helped, Howard Koch's screenplay also smoothly streamlines Maugham's material while still retaining most of the original shadings and subtleties.26
Yet even with these excellent features, the 1940 film does slight the depiction of two important veils of illusion: the state of the Crosbies' marriage and, in par tic u lar, the supposed cultural and moral superiority of the British colonial elite. Part of the blame may lie with the Motion Picture Production Code's restrictions, which demanded full retribution for both adultery and murder. Thus, after Davis confesses to Robert, she enters a nearby garden and stares at the moon. Then, as clouds hide the sphere and Steiner's music swells, Hammond's former partner and an accomplice overpower and stab her to death. But part of the problem may also lie with Davis's acting decisions (or her decisions made in collaboration with Wyler). The chief weakness in Davis's per for mance is her failure to reveal inner passion, especially when she confesses her continuing love of Hammond. Davis does not turn directly to the camera, but keeps her back to the audience. One is reminded of a similar scene in San Francisco (Woody Van Dyke, US, 1936), as we only see the back of Blackie Norton (played by Clark Gable) when he breaks down. While film critic David Thomson rightfully argues that Davis's perfor mance helps convert the material into real tragedy, the actress still fails to fully convince us that her hardened facade conceals fervent feelings.27
The rending of the veil concerning supposed British superiority also possesses less impact because of the cartoonish portrayal of Seng and the removal of any racial complexity. Actor Victor Sen Yung seems too Uriah Heep- like in the role of Seng, and a scene where he drives offin an old jalopy seems more humorous than insightful. We also witness no condemnation of Hammond by the British community for his seemingly scandalous relationship with a Chinese woman. In fairness, one must keep in mind that in 1940 Great Britain represented the only major Eu ro pe an country confronting Nazi Germany. Not only did Maugham's discussion of racial complexities ruffle British sensibilities, but Warner Bros. also directly confronted Hitler in films such as Confessions of a Nazi Spy (Anatole Litvak, US, 1939). Even so, the studio worsened the situation not only by making Hammond's lover his Eurasian wife, but also by casting Gale Sondergaard in the part. While one of the most respected character actresses of the time, Sondergaard was too Caucasian to enact even someone half- Asian. This factor, of course, was not uncommon in Hollywood's peak era, when even Katharine Hepburn played a Chinese woman in Dragon Seed (Harold S. Bucquet, US, 1944). Still, one wishes that Warner Bros. could have been as honest as Paramount eleven years earlier.28
The vitality of a writer's work after his or her death depends a lot, naturally, on subsequent developments. While most people can recollect Hemingway and Fitzgerald, they may be more familiar with the two authors as characters in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris rather than as writers. W. Somerset Maugham's rather secretive, saturnine personality would never naturally attract the attention of an auteur, but his work remains a constant source of cinematic adaptation because of his facility to rend the veils of human illusion, or as T. S. Eliot testified, to show the shadows of meaning between the way we imagine ourselves and what reality reveals. The Letter remains the fecund example of cinematic adaptation among Maugham's work because it is the most fascinating rending of human illusions. By the end of the narrative, the seemingly happy marriage of the Crosbies is little more than a facade, Leslie is revealed as a woman whose passions lead her to murder, Howard Joyce's professional probity is shattered by his violations of legal canons, and most tellingly, the assumption of cultural and moral superiority by the British colonial elite is actually a condescending racism easily upended by the supposedly inferior Asians.
In addition, the two definitive cinematic interpretations of this work remain the 1929 film version with Jeanne Eagels and the more famous (or at least most viewed) cinematic interpretation undertaken with Bette Davis eleven years later. Although dated in some aspects, particularly by the primitive sound and short running time, the 1929 film shows the effective end of the Crosbies' illusions about their marriage, as well as the final breaking of Leslie's cool reserve. We also witness how the Asian characters effectively pierce the cultural and moral illusions of their supposed British superiors. The only illusion that does not receive full elaboration centers on Joyce's assumption of professional honor, and that slighting may have resulted from the need to compress two hours of stage material into little more than half that time on film.
The 1940 film also becomes an important version of Maugham's play, exhibiting the conclusive helming of William Wyler; the three strong per formances of Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, and James Stephenson; and the complex, subtle script of Howard Koch. We see the slow collapse of the Crosbies' marriage and, in par tic u lar, the professional self- destruction of Howard Joyce. But due to the era's censorship restrictions, the odd restraint of Davis's acting, and the ridiculous selection of a white actress for the role of Hammond's Asian partner, the rending of two important veils of illusion- the revelation of Leslie's hidden emotions, particularly her continuing love for Hammond, and the supposed superiority of the British colonists- remain relatively undeveloped.
Finally, these two film versions of The Letter also illustrate the primary factor for the continuing relevance of W. Somerset Maugham's work in cinema. The melodrama convention still exists, even in the cynical twenty- first century, as contemporary audiences continue to watch films that describe a protagonist's overcoming of, or succumbing to, the vagaries of human existence. Yet the reliance on coincidence and obvious climaxes, as exemplified in the hit film Way Down East (D. W. Griffith, US, 1920), found little confirmation a de cade later with the growing sophistication of mainstream audiences in the United States. With their emphases on the rending of personal and social facades disguising ugly truths- from the existence of adultery to the racism of the British planter class in Malaysia- both films significantly contributed to the ongoing refining and deepening of the melodramatic genre in Hollywood studio productions.
1. T. S. Eliot, "The Hollow Men," in The Waste Land and Other Poems, Including the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, ed. Helen Vendler (New York: Penguin, 1998), 64.
2. Ann Sheridan appeared in The Unfaithful (Vincent Sherman, US, 1947), which was an apparent reworking of Maugham's play. John J. O'Connor, " 'The Letter': Maugham Thriller," New York Times, May 3, 1982, www .nytimes .com (accessed October 21, 2011). Terry Teachout, the librettist for the 2007 opera, did not look at any filmed version of the 1927 play because of possible copyright problems. Personal e-mail communication with author, December 13, 2009. Robert Calder, "Somerset Maugham and the Cinema," Literature/Film Quarterly 6 (1978): 262- 273.
3. Eagels and Davis received Academy Award nominations for their per for mances, but both still retain the dubious distinction of being the only two Best Actress nominees to be selected for the same part, only to lose in the final balloting. I first viewed the extant copy of the 1929 The Letter in the film archives of the Museum of Modern Art in May 2006, and then again after Warner Archives issued a DVD version in July 2011. I viewed the 1940 The Letter (William Wyler, US, 1940) on both videotape and DVD. I wish to acknowledge a major source for the development of this article from an interview done with Edward Norton for his 2006 picture; Edward Norton Interview, The Painted Veil, 3:50, www . youtube .com, posted by zenbeer (accessed July 16, 2011).
4. Ernest Hemingway, "The Art of the Short Story," in New Critical Approaches to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, ed. Jackson J. Benson (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990), 3. Not everyone reacts so positively to Maugham's oeuvre; see, for example, Edmund Wilson, "The Apotheosis of Somerset Maugham," in Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1950), 319- 327.
5. This was Maugham's first appearance in a film based on his work.
6. Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929- 1968 (New York: Dutton, 1968; De Capo, 1996), 166. Quotation from Cameron Crowe, "The 'Wilder Touch': Both Sweet and Sour," New York Times, April 7, 2002.
7. See also David Malcolm, "W. Somerset Maugham's Ashenden Stories," in A Companion to the British and Irish Short Story, ed. Cheryl Alexander Malcolm and David Malcolm (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008), 227- 235. A good discussion of how Hollywood began changing the nature of the melodrama convention in the late 1920s can be found in Christine Gledhill, "Between Melodrama and Realism: Anthony Asquith's Underground and King Vidor's The Crowd," in Classical Hollywood Narrative: The Paradigm Wars, ed. Jane M. Gaines (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992), 129- 166. A classic description of melodrama can be found in David Bordwell, Jane Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 71.
8. The best biography remains Selena Hastings, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham (New York: Random House, 2010). Other vital sources for Maugham's life and writing career are Gore Vidal, "Maugham," in United States: Essays 1952- 1992 (New York: Random House, 1993; Broadway, 2001), 228- 250; and Robert Calder, Willie: The Life of W. Somerset Maugham (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989). Robin Maugham, Somerset and the Maughams (New York: New American Press, 1966) remains an informative, affectionate account of his uncle, but its content must be considered in light of other, more objective sources.
9. The conclusions about Maugham's plays and novels come from my extensive reading of the writer's oeuvre. Lady Frederick can be found in The Plays of Somerset Maugham (New York: Heinemann, 1931).
10. The conclusions about the short stories also come from my extensive reading. See the series Collected Short Stories, Vols. I- IV (New York: Penguin, 1978- 1993).
11. W. Somerset Maugham, The Letter: A Play in Three Acts (New York: George H. Doran, 1927), 1- 47.
12. Ibid., 51, 55- 58.
13. Ibid., 65, 67- 68.
14. Ibid., 79- 97.
15. Ibid., 97- 127.
16. Ibid., 127- 177.
17. This comes from my own reading of Puzo's novel. It demonstrated the often startling differences between the original source material and its filmed "version."
18. Richard Koszarski, Hollywood on the Hudson: Film and Tele vi sion in New York from Griffith to Sarnoff(New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 184- 187. The conclusions about The Cocoanuts come from my personal viewing of the film. I thus partially disagree with Richard Koszarski's arguments that the Marx Brothers' film represents an advance in the use of sound technology. Ibid., 187- 188.
19. Scott Eyman, The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926- 1930 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), 254- 257. Elia Kazan, A Life (New York: De Capo, 1997), 51.
20. The comment about knives comes from Dave Kehr, "A Tragic Actress's Twilight, Burning, Not Dimming," New York Times, July 15, 2011, www .nytimes . com (accessed October 21, 2011).
21. The historiography concerning the development of film sound, production design, and scores during the 1930s remains rich and diverse. Significant examples are James Wierzbicki, Film Music: A History (New York: Routledge, 2009); Douglas Gomery, The Coming of Sound: A History (New York: Routledge, 2005); Vincent LoBruto, The Filmmaker's Guide to Production Design (New York: Allworth, 2002); and Rick Altman, ed., Sound Theory, Sound Practice (New York: Routledge, 1992). The historiography on the Motion Picture Production Code and its effective implementation in 1934 is even more extensive. Significant sources are Thomas Doherty, Hollywood's Censor: Joseph L. Breen and the Production Code Administration (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007); David P. Franklin, Politics and Film: The Po liti cal Culture in the United States (New York: Rowan and Littlefield, 2006); and Thomas Patrick Doherty, Pre- Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930- 1934 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999). The specific criteria from the Motion Picture Production Code about murder and adultery come from John Belton, ed., Movies and Mass Culture (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996), 139. Scott Eyman, Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010).
22. Jari Harman, A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood's Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler (New York: De Capo Press, 1997), 182- 229.
23. These observations, and subsequent ones, come from my multiple viewings of the 1940 version of The Letter. Axel Madsen, William Wyler: The Authorized Biography (New York: Crowell, 1973), 200. Bette Davis, The Lonely Life; An Autobiography (New York: Putnam, 1962), 100. Of Human Bondage ( John Cromwell, US, 1934).
24. Very little, unfortunately, exists on Marshall's lengthy film career. An informative obituary can be found in "Herbert Marshall Is Dead at 75," New York Times, January 23, 1966.
25. Stephenson received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor in early 1941, but lost to Hollywood veteran Walter Brennan. Within a year, he died of a heart attack. The best source for his tragically short film career can be found on the Turner Movie Classics Web site.
26. Koch, however, did not receive one of his two Academy Award nominations for the film.
27. "The Letter," in David Thomson, "Have You Seen ...?" A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films (New York: Knopf, 2008), 465.
28. For British reactions to The Letter and the 1940 film, see Hastings, Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, 267- 269 and Thomson, "Have You Seen ... ? " 465. The early stand by Warner Bros. against Nazism is discussed in several sources, particularly Michael E. Birdwell, Celluloid Soldiers: The Warner Bros. Campaign against Nazism (New York: New York University Press, 2000). A recent, interesting discussion of the depiction of Asians in Western films can be found in Yunte Huang, Charlie Chan: The History of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History (New York: Norton, 2010).
John Thomas McGuire is an instructor in the State University of New York system. A winner of the Philip S. Klein Pennsylvania History prize, his articles and book reviews have appeared in Administration & Society, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Policy History, the Journal of Urban History, the Journal of Southern History, and the Quarterly Review of Film and Video (forthcoming).
I wish to thank the Museum of Modern Art archives and the anonymous reviewer whose comments helped im mensely.…