The Letter is the perfect product of Hayes Office interference. The foreboding censorship body of Golden Age Hollywood wrecked havoc long before the MPAA was a twinkle in the Johnson Administration’s eye. However, I think it’s far worse than anything the MPAA every dreamed of doing. But, what does it have to do with a 1940 lady picture?
Well, the classic W. Somerset Maugham story had been adapted before in 1929. Arriving at the start of sound in cinema, it was a noble effort to tell a straight novel adaptation with limited changes to the novel. However, the Hayes Office wasn’t playing that kind of ball in 1940. With that in mind, let’s take a look at The Letter.
Bette Davis was still in her first Pokemon phase of Ice Queen. Coming off a strong turn in Of Human Bondage, Miss Davis used the powers of her resting face to rile up Depression era men. Still, she was played off as the woman who didn’t know how things worked or a scheme. Whether it’s Jezebel or this film, Davis slinks around the periphery always plotting. Luckily, the film plays to this notion.
After a few forced cuts and additions, the movie goes out of its way to whiten up the main cast and make sure that Bette Davis is punished for her crimes. If the ending was anymore tacked on, it would have been a Scooby Doo version of Matt Damon’s final fate from The Departed. Such was life in the good ol’ days. Don’t step out of your station or an arbitrary moral code board will force its beliefs on you.
Warner Archive shows Bette Davis a continued love with this stacked release. The 1080p transfer shines except in darker scenes. Still, I think that has more to do with the cinematography. Apparently, somebody was trying out Gordon Willis the legendary DP before he even started working in films. The special features are rich including the alternate and more rewarding ending sequence. Plus, you get two audio tracks of radio play adaptations. It’s enough to make your grandparents squeal with delight. That is if they weren’t already living on a farm upstate.