At first glance, 1945’s Love Letters appears to be a glossy, run-of-the-mill wartime love story. Starring Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones in their first romantic pairing (a full 3 years before Portrait of Jennie), the film is a mesmerizing, perplexing, layered work that defies genre categorization. The love story is definitely there, but the film also has elements of Noir, straight up mystery and courtroom drama.
The tale begins innocently enough – when a handsome, arrogant, unlettered solider named Roger Morland (Robert Sully) meets a girl he wishes to impress (Jennifer Jones) he enlists his comrade in arms, Alan Quinton (Joseph Cotten) to write love letters to the girl in his name. Alan agrees, against his better judgement, and finds a kindred spirit in Victoria. The two share a friendship that is unlike anything he has known before. When the war ends, Alan and Roger part company and lose track of each other, but Alan never forgets the sweet, understanding girl who corresponded with him as he masqueraded as Roger. When Alan’s aunt passes away and wills her lonely country cottage to him, he takes the opportunity to spend time by himself to sort out the happenings of the war, especially his feelings for Victoria. But it just so happens this cottage is located near the small English village where Alan sent the letters to Victoria, so he embarks on a mission to find out what happened to her and Roger. And he isn’t prepared for what he uncovers.
The supporting cast list reads like a Who’s Who of character actors: Cecil Kellaway, Gladys Cooper, Reginald Denny, Anita Louise and (my personal favorite) Ann Richards. Ann Richards plays Victoria’s calm, wise and mysteriously prophetic friend Dilly – a character with some of the best lines in the whole film. Anita Louise is Alan’s social climbing girlfriend whose attitude about his wartime hardships is surprisingly cold, detached and uncaring. It’s an impressive performance that deserves more appreciation and recognition. It astounded me the first time I saw it because I’m used to seeing Anita Louise as a loveable, sweet-tempered girl.
The original novel entitled Pity My Simplicity was written by Christopher Massie in 1944. When Paramount decided to make the book into a film, Ayn Rand took on the task of writing the screenplay. Yes, you read that right – Ayn Rand of Objectivism, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged fame. She spent a few years in Hollywood working as a screenwriter for Hal Wallis’ production company while she wrote the screenplay for The Fountainhead (source). Because I’m a big fan of the film, I decided to hunt down Chris Massie’s book and find out how much of the plot was his writing. After all, if the story I liked was his, it was a good bet his other works would be worth reading.
Well, Ayn Rand said it best: “The novel on which the picture was based was a holy mess.” There isn’t a bit of understatement in that sentiment. Chris Massie’s novel is full of superfluous supporting characters who muddy the plot and make it impossible to follow. The Joseph Cotten character lacks any sort of appeal. He is selfish, self-pitying, childish and even worse, his name in the book is Maurice. The novel is needlessly tear-jerky, to the point of being laughable. A long scene involving a mirrored-wall room filled with pillows and balloons (mercifully omitted in the screenplay) qualifies as gibberish. And the ending infuriated me to such an extent, I fumed and raved about the injustice of it for a full hour. If I had read the book before seeing the film, I would have avoided the film at all costs. I realized that the parts of the film I enjoyed the most – the brilliant, insightful dialogue about life, love and human relations – were all Ayn Rand’s additions. She eliminated the characters who confused the story, created the role for Cecil Kellaway (his character is a woman in the book) and bolstered the Dilly character into the strong, confident woman I admire.
When the film premiered, critics took an instant dislike to the effort. Bosley Crowther (what a name!) writing for the New York Times dismissed the film as “sentimental twaddle,” pronounced William Dieterle’s direction as “mushy and pretentious” and described Jennifer Jones’ performance as “a tipsy high school school girl who has smelled the cork once too often and is all giggly and loose at the joints.” Hmm. Sour grapes, Mr. Crowther?
Despite Mr. Crowther’s scathing opinion, Love Letters remains in an honored place at the top of my favorite films list ever since I first saw it on TCM years ago. The combination of the stellar cast, engaging plot and memorable lines keeps me coming back to it over and over again.
The song Love Letters (sung by Dick Haymes above) does not appear with lyrics in the final print of the film, but this version was released the month after the film and rose to #11 on the Billboard chart.
Be on the lookout for the first scene where Joseph Cotten writes a letter. The handwriting pictured is rumored to belong to David O. Selznick himself. (Screencap above belongs to Jacqueline T. Lynch of Another Old Movie Blog. Check out her fascinating in-depth post on Love Letters here.)