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Year: 1945

Director: William Dieterle

Cast: Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Ann Richards

Three years before Dieterle used Jones and Cotten to make his masterpiece Portrait of Jennie, he put together what you might call a dry run with this little gem. Love Letters at its simplest could be called a riff on Cyrano. During WWII, soldier Alan Quinton (Cotten) is writing exquisite notes to the love interest of his buddy Roger Morland — played by Robert Sully. The latter is a crude lothario, lacking in intelligence and grace. His absence of written skills would be a handicap if Alan wasn’t there to do him the favor. The object of Roger’s lust is a beautiful young woman named Victoria (Jones). The two met only briefly in England during shore leave, but Alan’s missives cause her to fall in love with Roger from afar. Cotten’s G.I. — despite his good intentions — finds himself clamoring for Victoria as well, a development that would be difficult to explain to his own girlfriend. No matter, the impetuous Roger marries Victoria making his pal’s conflicted angst superfluous.

During a particular skirmish, Alan is critically wounded and sent to England with an honorable discharge. He convalesces at his parents home in London. With his military identity gone, our protagonist is at a loss to occupy his days. To make matters worse, he finds out that Roger was killed in a marital spat by Victoria. Apparently Roger’s bait and switch did not please his wife. Alan inherits a deceased aunt’s country home in Beltmarsh, a place he used to love as a boy. Having no other plans and just wanting to get away, Cotten’s character decides to take a train and check the place out. His brother suggests they attend a party to celebrate so Alan can leave town on a positive note. The former G.I. is over served during the bash and Dilly (Ann Richards) — the apartment’s tenant — feels badly for the brooding Alan. His drunken confessional concerning the guilt over Roger’s death and the deception of Victoria strikes a chord within Dilly. She makes the connection between his object of desire and her own friend Victoria Singleton. Ms. Singleton killed her husband, went into shock, and was committed to an institution for a year. The young woman has recovered in every way save for her amnesia concerning what happened the night of the murder. Dilly has been kind enough to share her home with Victoria until she decides to move on.

Dilly whispers some clues to the inebriated Alan about what he should be prepared for in Beltmarsh. It seems Roger and Victoria had lived in a neighboring village. The day before his trip, our hero does some archival research on the particulars of the murder. His curious nature and continued jones for Victoria compel him to seek her out. When he finds Jones’ character, he discovers that his feelings weren’t misguided. How does he explain to this beautiful creature of his dreams that his correspondence set in motion events that led to such a heart-breaking tragedy?

One of my local theaters is dedicating the month of January to Jennifer Jones. I’ll be seeing some other pictures and writing reviews as my own tribute to an acting icon. Love Letters has critics who call it sappy, too much like a soap opera. The plot is a little convenient in some key areas, but I found Jennifer sparkling in all her b & w glory.

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2009 was yet another tough year when it comes to celebrity deaths. Much like 2008, there were quite a few upsetting and shocking deaths (Natasha Richardson, David Carradine, Michael Jackson, Brittany Murphy). There were also, as usual, several deaths in the classic film world, but perhaps this year wasn’t as upsetting as last year, when we lost film giants like Paul Newman and Richard Widmark. Nevertheless, we lost several wonderful and memorable contributors to classic film. As usual, I can’t right something for the many people who passed away, but here are just a few that hit me hard.

Early this year we lost the wonderful character actor Karl Malden. He was 96 years old, one of the oldest of the great actors left. He didn’t have the movie star looks to be a leading man, but he was easily one of the best actors throughout the latter part of the classic era, turning in several incredible supporting performances. He won an Academy Award for his performance in A Streetcar Named Desire, and received another nomination for On the Waterfront. These are easily his two most famous performances, but he was also amazing in movies like I Confess, Gypsy, The Birdman of Alcatraz, and Baby Doll, which is my personal favorite performance from him.

Director Robert Mulligan is best known for To Kill a Mockingbird, which is an excellent film. It is easily his best film, but unfortunately a lot of his other films are overlooked, and he made many good ones. I’m pretty fond of Love With the Proper Stranger, starring Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen. It’s a really strong romance and Mulligan worked with the chemistry between Wood and McQueen so well. Fear Strikes Out is also an really good film, one of the better biopics of the era. He also did an excellent job with the uniquely structured Same Time, Next Year.

Dorothy Coonan is probably best known as Mrs. William Wellman. They were married for 41 years, until his death. But before she married Wild Bill, she made a few movies. She was a dancer and chorus girl in 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. But her most impressive work onscreen is in her husband’s film Wild Boys of the Road, in which she plays a young girl living her life on the railroad, hopping freights. It’s an honest movie about the Depression, and Coonan’s performance is quite affecting.

Ricardo Montalban is mostly remembered for his later work in Fantasy Island and The Wrath of Khan, but he made a few good films back during the classic era. He costarred in a few really good musicals in the late 1940s (On and Island With You and Neptune’s Daughter) as well as Battleground, a very good World War II movie from 1950. He also starred in Latin Lovers with Lana Turner. It’s not a particularly good movie, but I’m fond of it.

Jane Bryan’s career was pretty brief. She only made 18 films and worked only between 1936 and 1940. But in that four year period, she had supporting roles in some really wonderful films, like Marked Woman, The Old Maid, and Each Dawn I Die. She was extremely charming in the lead female role in the crime comedy A Slight Case of Murder.  Bryan had a really great, understated screen presence, but she married in 1940 and quite the business for good.

James Whitmore is one of my favorite character actors from the 1950s. He was in John Huston’s caper drama The Asphalt Jungle, and he more than held his own among a really impressive ensemble cast. He also costarred with Montalban in Battleground. Whitmore had a screen presence that was really electric and versatile. He went from films like The Asphalt Jungle to musicals like Kiss Me Kate and Oklahoma.

I wrote about Jones’ death a few weeks ago when it happened. She’s one of my all time favorite actresses, who could handle both comedy and drama with amazing skill and ease. From Portrait of Jennie to Cluny Brown, she was simply dazzling to watch on screen. She was also great at going from the good girl (in something like Since You Went Away) to the bad girl (her fiery performance in Duel In the Sun). Her talent is simply unforgettable.

Academy Award winning actress Jennifer Jones passed away today in Malibu at the age of 90.

Jones won an Oscar in 1943 for The Song of Bernadette. She was nominated four other times, for Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Duel In the Sun, Love Letters, and Since You Went Away.

I don’t really talk about Jennifer Jones a lot on this site, but she really is one of my all time favorites. She’s definitely very high on my list of actresses working in the 1940s. Portrait of Jennie is one of my all time favorite movies. It’s an incredible love story, and Jones’ performance is amazing. She plays Jennie from a child (I believe she starts the story at 10 years old) to an adult, and she’s believable at every stage of her life. She also manages to imbue the character with an otherworldly feel that’s essential to the character. Joseph Cotten was her leading man in this one, and I think he was easily her best leading man.

She also made Love Letters with Cotten. It’s a bizarre movie that’s kind of impossible to explain without ruining. But it’s really fantastic. It’s weird and twisty and just so damn good, and Jones gives another stellar performance. It’s a difficult character, with some serious emotional and psychological problems, but she also needs to be convincing in her romance with Cotten, and Jones pulls off both sides of the character perfectly.

I also love her in an underseen Lubitch film, the endlessly charming Cluny Brown.  Her performance is really essential to the film. Played by a lesser actress, the character could have easily come out as supremely annoying. But Jones makes her so funny and lovable.

Madame Bovary doesn’t get a lot of attention, but I think it’s a pretty great movie.  Her character does bad things and Jones is able to make the character sympathetic without condoning her actions. And she infuses her with an incredible amount of passion.

Jones does have a few missteps in her filmography, particularly her two remakes, A Farewell to Arms and The Barretts of Wimpole Street. Both movies are pretty terrible, pale imitations of their originals, but that’s not Jones’ fault, of course.

Really, compared to other stars of the studio era, Jones’ filmography is pretty short. In her 35 years in Hollywood, she made only 27 films (when you look at a lot of stars from the 1930 and 1940s, they’ll have 80, 90, sometimes over 100 films to their credit). But with the exception of a few films, all of her works was wonderful. Hers is definitely a case of quality over quantity, and she will definitely be missed.

By Katie Richardson