I’m Jeanne Eagels proud to report when I star in The Letter of 1929, before the Motion Picture Production Code lengthens dresses and stifles hearts to promote moral hypocrisy, we ignore melodramatic compromises and tell the truth about passionate, profane, and imperfect human beings. I’m relieved, for a moment, pumping several shots into my longtime lover Geoffrey because he no longer wants me. He’s fallen for and begun living with a Chinese woman played not by a Caucasian but an oriental, Lady Tsen Mei. She doesn’t stab me, or take any other punitive action, for murdering her husband. As in life, criminals sometimes get away with vile acts. In my case, the reprieve is unappealing since vengeful husband Robert vows to force me to live with him forever. Poor Bette Davis also gets to shoot the same Casanova in a 1940 remake, but The Code won’t permit the decedent’s wife to be Chinese, she must be Eurasian and played by Gale Sondergaard, a decidedly white lady from Minnesota.
Bette and I might be doomed to the gallows if our attorneys don’t enable us to purchase our letters from the widow. These emotional messages, for which we secretly spend all of Robert’s money, are written in our own hand and urge Geoffrey to come and see us and emphasize our husbands will be away and we’re “desperate” to talk. Indeed, we’re desperate for his love in hot and horrid Malaya where our husbands are more concerned with rubber than romance. Absent the letter, Bette and I testify in court that Geoffrey attacked us and tried to force himself on us, and we survived only by grace of our husband’s revolver in a nearby desk. In my final scene, and Bette’s penultimate, we tell weak husbands still eager to cherish us that we cannot promise the same, for “with all my heart, I love the man I killed.”
Bette should not be asked to emote any more, but The Code demands punishment, and this the Eurasian widow, Gail Sondergaard, delivers with knife strokes to Bette’s gut beneath a full and clear moon suddenly darkened by clouds as a policemen walks by, at least alluding to consequences for the avenger.
I have another moving story to offer. A beautiful and talented actress marries and has a child who dies, and she breaks down but recovers enough to continue acting on stage and in silent films and marry again and, despite years of alcoholism and abuse of heroin and other drugs and several stays in sanitariums and periodic hallucinations and another divorce, she is poised when motion pictures appear with sound and she stars in a classic. Shortly thereafter she completes another movie, Jealousy, and then spends ten days in a New York hospital following eye surgery, and upon release begins to behave erratically, more so than usual, and goes into convulsions and dies at age thirty-nine. Her last film is lost. The Letter remains. Her life story would make a fine picture. The Code wouldn’t have permitted Bette Davis to faithfully portray me. But someone could do it now.