“LOVE LETTERS” ( 1945 ) Joseph Cotten, Jennifer Jones. Directed by William Dieterle. What can I say. I am a h0peless, c0ck-eyed r0mantic. And I lay this at the feet of both stars of this romantic drama.
If you are not inclined to like either Jones or Cotten, you can skip to my Lou to another post or blog. No hard feelings. This essay contains spoilers, my admiration for Joseph Cotten and my unabashed love for Jennifer Jones
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WHAT’S LOVE GO TO DO WITH IT? PLENTY!
We see the love of a friend; the love of a guardian; the love of a lover. “Love Letters” touches on so many ideas:
- lost, longing, protection,
- who we love,
“Love Letters” is the Cyrano de Bergerac tale taking place in a post-WW2 setting. These themes are inter-woven in the story of a man who’s in love with a woman he’s never met, but writes to, for a friend.
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THE MAN ~ JOSEPH COTTEN
Cotten plays Captain Allen Quinton, a lost and sad soldier who pours his heart and soul into ghost writing love letters for a fellow soldier named Roger Moreland ( played by Robert Sully. ) He wants to quit the letter-writing campaign: ( “She’s in love with a man who doesn’t exist.” ; “She’s a pin-up girl of the spirit.” ) Allen makes this his last letter. Allen is betrothed to Helen Wentworth played by the exquisite Anita Louise. ( Why wasn’t she and
brunette counterpart, Marsha Hunt, bigger stars? ) But there’s something missing for Allen; a deep, true, soul-quenching love. There will be an amicable break-up between Allen and Helen, reminiscent of Robert Young and Hillary Brooke conveniently breaking up in “The Enchanted Cottage.” Helen and Allen both realize they are not really right for each other. Allen longs for and misses something he’s never had. He’s poured it all out in his buddy’s letters and is saddened by the news that his cad of a friend actually married the girl of the letters. Allen is, also, that soldier who has come home from the war changed, aimless, no direction.
We get the sense of Allen’s romanticism by his writing, which we hear read aloud, and in the scene where he goes through his childhood memorabilia, discovered in a treasure chest in the country house he’s been given by his late aunt. ( Whew! What a sentence. Are you still following me? Good! ) Usually in films, men would rummage and run. But Allen slowly pours over everything. ( I like director Dieterle not rushing through that scene. ) I loved the fact that they used Cotten’s actual boyhood photograph in that scene. It was also used in “Shadow of A Doubt.” Yes, this same Hitchcock villain, could be a troubled romantic hero. There are some gold sovereigns also as part of his
loot past. This scene says to me that here is a man comfortable with the past. His loneliness is exacerbated by the guilt he feels for the death of his soldier buddy, Roger, and that he was liking his girl. He’s a romantic broken man. If unchecked, untreated…he’d be crazed and brooding as he was in “Niagara.”
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THE FRIEND ~ ANN RICHARDS
The B.F.F. of “Love Letters” is a dilly. Actress Ann Richards plays Dilly Carson. She has a great way about her. There is a quiet elegance and eloquence in her; an understated sexuality too. What a great voice she has. I love listening to her. In fact you can close your eyes and listen to this movie and the voices of the gravelly soft drawl of Cotten, Jones’ alto-ish voice, the brogue of Cecil Kellaway and Gladys Cooper’s British elocution later on in the film. Back to Dilly, she is loyal and fiercely protective. I think Dilly had her eye on Allen for herself. She is quite attentive to him at the party at her house:
DEREK: “Well, Dilly here’s my brother Allen in person and at your own risk. You asked for it, now take the consequences.”
DILLY: “I’ll take them. How do you do?”
ALLEN: “How do you do. Why all the flattering interest?”
DILLY: “Oh for obvious reasons, some not so obvious. I don’t mind sharing you with the others to begin with.”
She’s not coquettish, but straight-forward, smart, genuine with a winning smile, and understanding. Allen even makes a small pass at her by the curtains near her front door. He might’ve been attracted to Dilly…if he hadn’t met Singleton.
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THE WOMAN ~ JENNIFER JONES
Lounging apart from the other party guests is Singleton. Yeah, Jennifer Jones does seem kind of posed the way movies used to do when first introducing the star into the proceedings. We see her briefly at the party but in earnest when Allen re-visits Dilly’s place later. Singleton is charming, forthright, guileless; she doesn’t filter what she says. She says what she means: “I don’t like people to try to be what I want them to be.” Her voice is kind of childlike, but check it out…her voice drops a register during their conversation: ( “It’s no use when others tell you what you don’t really remember.” ) I like the way she looks off into the distance. She even wheedles out of Allen that he’s in love with Victoria Moreland before he’s ever really admitted this to himself. She’s gooood. I loved when, off-camera, we hear Allen ask “What’s your name, what’s your first name?” We and Singleton think he’s talking to her when she answers she has no memory of her full name. But we see he’s really talking to the little cat…and then he realizes what she says. There is something lost about someone who has no memory. You want to protect them.
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When Dilly returns to her flat she sends Singleton to the store and we get the requisite exposition of Singleton’s story. Dilly tells Allen he’s been talking to Victoria Moreland for the last fifteen minutes. Wha’?! And via flashback, with that lovely voice of hers, Dilly tells how she found Victoria with a knife in her hand, blood on her blouse and Roger dead at her feet. The shock robbed her of her memory ( hence ‘Singleton’ is born ) and doctors suggest she must be allowed to regain her memory naturally. Allen’s dreamgirl’s right there within grasp but with all her issues, and his guilt, he must leave her. As he sadly prepares to leave the little flat he also dashes any hopes Dilly might have had of being with him by leaving her this message for Singleton:
“Tell her I’m in love with Victoria Moreland.”
…And this gives Dilly her answer too. Poor girl.
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HE CAN FIGHT NO MORE FOREVER
So who shows up at Allen’s house…….SINGLETON!!!!!!!!!!
YAY!!!!! She’s hiding on the couch and pops her head up like a brand new puppy. And though Allen tries to keep his cool, it’s really impossible to do so with her ( Jones’ ) disposition and those apple cheeks when she smiles. Her forthrightness is disarming and he’s taken off-guard ( in a good way. )
“You don’t have to be afraid to speak of that Allen. It’s no secret. I know I have no memory.”
Wha’??!! Memory seems to be used to good advantage in a number of films, i.e. “Random Harvest” coming to mind. Singleton’s stockings are torn from walking in the fields from the train station to his house, which merely engenders his protectiveness towards her. Singleton prevents Allen from calling Dilly to let her know where she is. Their hands meet on the phone. They look at each other, smile, hold each other’s gaze. That’s it folks. That’s love. There’s a genuineness of that moment; I recall reading Cotten and Jones genuinely liked each other during filming. You feel it. Allen’s a goner. He can’t fight his feelings…he can’t fight his longing…he can fight no more forever. Singleton sits at his feet by the fireplace looking up at him. I think here, Jennifer Jones uses her real voice. He’s making confessions and everything. Such longing, so poignant. She asks openly of Victoria Moreland:
SINGLETON: “You love her very much?”
ALLEN: “Desperately and hopelessly.”
Singleton speaks plainly, calmly, with acceptance of her situation:
“I’ve forgotten, and you don’t want to remember. That’s the only difference between us.”
She doesn’t realize the girl he’s talking about…is her.
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THE GLASS HALF-FULL; THE GLASS HALF-EMPTY
Allen has to take Singleton home and I LOVE THIS SCENE: Her heel has broken, he carries her onto the carriage. There’s a medium shot of her hand on her broken heel, the camera slowly pans up with her hand going across her torn stockinged leg, going up as her arm goes around Allen’s neck and they are already in a kiss. < SWOON! >
“You know, that’s the difference between us. You’re happy because that can never happen again. And I’m happy because it’s happened once.”
A little bit of polar opposites emotionally. And that’s the kind of plucky ethereal spirit that makes a romantic picture: two opposing ideas meeting, wanting different things, having different objectives; the glass half empty meeting the glass half-full. Allen has no choice but to move forward with the relationship despite Dilly’s Cassandra-like admonitions. He wants to marry Singleton. And on a moonlit London Bridge, he asks her to marry him.
SINGLETON: “Oh Alan, if something in my past, I don’t know what it is. Something horrible. Allen if I remembered someday, it might hurt you.”
ALLEN: “Singleton, nothing could hurt me except to lose you…we have to face the future in the past. That’s the only difference.”
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REGRETS AND BLESSINGS
THE AUNT ~ GLADYS COOPER
Allen visits Victoria’s Aunt…Beatrice Remington, in a nursing home. Played by the great Gladys Cooper, she is a far cry nicer here than she was as Bette Davis’ mother in “Now, Voyager.” Beatrice has had a stroke, beaten down by regrets. Her eyes are beautiful…in fact, even with her age I thought Gladys Cooper looked very beautiful in this movie. Beatrice’s connection to Victoria is having found her in a foundling home as a baby, and showered her with love and affection. A foundling home. Victoria has been on her own for a long long time. Beatrice couldn’t testify at Victoria’s trial because of her stroke. And without that testimony, Victoria had to do time in jail. Beatrice, too, is fiercely protective of
Singleton, Victoria and wracked with guilt:
“Young and reckless. She’d never been hurt. I swore she never would. I guarded her as I would guard my own life. I wanted her to have all the happiness I’d missed. But that was wrong. You can’t find happiness through another person. You finish by destroying the one you love. I tried to protect her, but I couldn’t save her from myself…The girl you call Singleton is not alive. Not a woman. Not herself yet. She may never be…You’re proposing to marry two different women at once.”
I thought Cooper quietly tender and wonderful in this film.
I love Cotten’s line reading when he tells Mrs. Remington he’ll take the risk to marry Singleton. He sounds like a zombie, a slave to his feelings as though he has no choice but to follow his foolhardy heart when he flatly says:
“I ask myself those very questions. There are no answers. I simply have to take the chance. I love her.”
When Allen and Singleton visit the vicar to get his blessing I enjoyed watching Singleton very child-like be distracted by all of the things in the vicar’s office, rather than intently focusing on the questions she’s being asked. She’s so cute here. Forthright but distracted. Still truthful, nothing to hide. There’s nothing the vicar can do but offer his blessings.
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WEDDED BLISS OR…WHY MEN ARE ATTRACTED TO DAMAGED WOMEN
Dilly is ever watchful during the wedding ceremony. Allen damns the torpodoes and it’s full steam ahead with his life with Singleton. The heart wants what the heart wants. It’s their wedding day. So now we know what Allen knows:
- Singleton is really Victoria Moreland
- She’s gone to trial and prison for murdering her husband
- Allen is NOT to bring up the past
Life should be a bowl of cherries.
It’s a shame we won’t see Dilly anymore in the movie. I liked her presence and she cared as much for Singleton as Allen does. Singleton brings that protective spirit out in everyone.
Singleton is selfless. This word comes to mind in two respects:
- Giving of one’s self and
- Having NO sense of self.
Singleton can read but she can’t write. There’s something about receiving letters scares her. She wants to learn to write but he says she doesn’t have to. That comment of Allen’s put a little tickle in the back of my throat. Hold up…wait a minute. Is he trying to help her or is it his own self-interest he’s looking out for?? You know, the thought passed through my mind that him not allowing her to learn to write is akin to keeping her barefoot and pregnant.
Her learning to write AND her recognizing his handwriting when he writes a love note to her that reads: “I LOVE YOU” causes her to struggle to remember something. Do you pick a damaged woman so you can re-create her / mold her into what you want her to be? Wasn’t Scotty hot for recreating Judy into Madeleine in “Vertigo”? Is that a man’s dream…to have a full-blown woman who is really childlike so he can teach her everything she needs to know ( or everything HE wants her to know. ) Singleton’s determined to learn to write by her birthday but she doesn’t remember her birthdate. ( Now THAT may be every woman’s dream…to NOT know her own true age. ) She wants to do this to be worthy of Allen’s love. She wants to do this to become whole again for him. But the thing is, her becoming whole again and finding out Allen wrote the letters that caused her to fall in love with Roger Moreland will turn her against Allen. It’s a Catch-22 all the way ’round.
When they come home from visiting her old cottage ( – which she doesn’t remember is her old cottage with Mrs. Remington – ) she playfully walks on the bricked wall outside the garden ( in heels, no less! ) It’s a lovely “movie” moment when she swings around the tree and he wants her to stop so he can look at her. She’s so pretty there. But then a memory comes flooding back to her as the camera slowly dollies towards her:
“I think of you my dearest as a distant promise of beauty untouched by the world.”
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PUSH – PULL
I love the push-pull of things “Love Letters” brings:
- Singleton wants to learn to write again……Allen says she doesn’t have to
- Singleton wants to remember……………..Allen doesn’t really want her to
- Aunt Beatrice wants to speak at her trial…but suffers a stroke
- Singleton at her trial he swears to tell the truth…but truthfully says she doesn’t want to remember
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OUT…OUT DAMNED SPOT
By the last time Singleton is out in the garden you can see that this not remembering issue is no picnic for her. It’s debilitating. She looks beaten down. When she gets fruit stains on her hand which reads like blood, she screams. It’s shocking, sad, painful and heartbreaking. She’s at her most vulnerable, her wit’s end. She’s totally breaking down. She’s hysterical. Memories painfully flood back. Something’s got to give. And it looks like it’s going to be her.
I’m trying to leave you something, but my hope is that you already know this film, hopefully seeing it tonight on TCM. And if you’re with me this far, I might as well go all the way. Let me try to tiptoe here. Singleton sits on the floor by the fireplace with knife in hand and bloodstains on her blouse. She gives a sidelong glance to the letters in the fire as they burn. That shot of Jennifer Jones giving that glance as the camera pans down to the letters is wonderful. Victor Young’s music is a touch overwrought…but I don’t really mind it. The music underscores the scene playing out in this flashback. Her reaching in the fire for those letters just about kills me, I gotta tell ya. Her cries of “My letters…my letters” hurts.
“Love Letters” is one of my favorite movies of the 40’s. I prefer it to “Portrait of Jennie” which is another romantic classic. ( Have you read my friend Fernando’s write-up on “…Jennie”? ) Who do we love? And how? Is it really love if you keep someone trapped in their sickness than helping them break through, even if it means you lose them. Can you fall for someone because of the way they write? I love this film for the aching romance of it. If you IMDB Dieterle, you’ll see this is not his first time at the rodeo of romance ( “A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream”, “I’ll Be Seeing You” and the iconic “Portrait of Jennie.” ) He has a soft touch. I love seeing Joseph Cotten in love. He really portrays a man torn by his love; But mostly, I love the movie because of Jennifer Jones. She carries the film. You care about her. I believe her. She’s not cloying or annoying. She’s a lost woman you want to help and Jones puts that over wonderfully.
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