Saturday, January 16, 2010

'Letters' Worth Revisiting

Between my recent countdown and the death of the lovely Jennifer Jones in December at age 90, I decided to revisit a film I had not watched in more than 20 years.

"Love Letters," released in 1945, is a soap opera, one of those films that requires the viewer to not think and just go with the flow. I first saw it during a time when I was devouring any old film that was being shown on TV. I remembered both its flaws and enjoying the film, although its reputation is not as stellar as other films of the same type.

So why revisit? It's an experiment I enjoy, seeing a film after a long gap to see if age, wisdom and knowledge has changed my viewpoint.

The basic plot of "Love Letters" is pretty straightforward. The movie opens with Allen Quinton (Joseph Cotten) writing a love letter. However, the letter isn't for his girl, it's for the girl of his war buddy, who can't manage much more than a salutation. Quinton has fallen in love with the letters from this girl, and it's clear she's fallen for the writer of his buddy's letters, unaware another is composing them.

After leaving the service, Quinton later finds out that his buddy married this girl but was killed. Quinton, a bit of a loner, can't get her out of his mind and tries to find her. Along the way he meets Singleton (Jones), an amnesiac ... and you can probably figure out where all of this is going.

The screenplay, believe it or not, is by author Ayn Rand (who wrote the novel "The Fountainhead"). This appears to be her only screenplay. Anyway, in revisiting "Love Letters," I was struck immediately by something that bothered me when I initially watched the film: the accents, or lack of them. This film takes place in Great Britain, and all of the characters are British -- except for Singleton, who is Canadian. Apparently just telling us this was enough for the filmmakers, as the actors range from having British accents to none at all. This film could be set in the Indiana countryside rather than in Europe.

In addition, what struck me this time around was the amount of time required to get into the story. The first half hour is spent on setting up the plot. If you don't have patience, you may give up on this film, because it seems to crawl. And the coincidences in this film begin to mount. In particular, Quinton's aunt/great aunt (can't remember at the moment) dies and leaves him her cottage, which happens to be 10 miles from where his buddy's girlfriend lived! How convenient.

Then there's the friend of Quinton's brother named Dilly who seems to know exactly what Quinton is looking for and initially passes along mysterious warnings about his search for the girl.

But, finally, after about a half hour, we meet Singleton. And with that appears Jones, who is a like a breath of fresh air. Lovely and full of life, she radiates charm.

In fact, I was rather surprised at myself for being drawn into this obvious romantic drama during its second half. Jones and Cotten are such an appealing pair that you really want them to triumph, although there's little doubt that they will. Yet they make you forget the clanking plot mechanics.

Their performances also bring up an age-old question: Is it easier to give a great performance with great material or with lesser material? I don't know the answer, but here's proof of two good actors elevating their material several notches, which could not be easy. In fact, Jones received her third consecutive Oscar nomination for this role.

The film was released by Paramount, with both Jones and Cotten on loan from David Selznick. Selznick, in his usual way, gave numerous notes, criticisms and unwanted advice on what to do with his stars to producer Hal Wallis and director William Dieterle. I'm sure Selznick took credit for how Jones glows in this film, regardless of whether he's to thank. Add in a lovely score from Victor Young and "Love Letters" did what everyone wanted -- it turned a profit at the box office.

"Love Letters" will never be a well-loved classic. But I was surprised at how fond I remain of this film, in spite of its shortcomings. It provides a comfy afternoon at the movies if you're willing to go along for the ride, and sometimes that's all a classic movie lover needs.

4 comments:

  1. I haven't seen it in a long time (though TCM recently showed it...and I missed it). It's a flawed film, but nonetheless entertaining. Not nearly as good as PORTRAIT OF JENNIE, which made better use of the same stars (plus Ethel Barrymore).

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  2. I don't think I've ever seen this, but it sounds interesting, especially the Ayn Rand connection. I recently finished reading "The Fountainhead" which I greatly enjoyed though I don't buy her looney philosophy for a minute. Does any of her philosophy make it into "Love Letters" script?

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  3. Hi Rick, I do agree that Portrait of Jennie is much better, but I was surprised at how much I ultimately enjoyed Love Letters after having not seen it in nearly 20 years.

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  4. Hi Kevin, No, her looney philosophy isn't in "Love Letters" except for flashbacks to a trial with Singleton, which sounds more like Rand rather than a character speaking.

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