Monday, May 26, 2014

Letters in Classic Movies

Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones
in Love Letters.
Letters have brought lovers together, torn marriages apart, incriminated the innocent, blackmailed the guilty, and caused endless misunderstandings.

Frequently in films, the identity of a letter’s author is an intentional deception. A little girl sent her mother’s photo to her lonely soldier pen pal in Never Say Goodbye (1946), never suspecting that he would come visiting. Similar pen pal deceptions occurred in 1945’s A Letter for Evie and the 1947 hit comedy Dear Ruth. Cyrano de Bergerac (Jose Ferrer) wrote poignant love letters to the beautiful Roxanne, but signed the name of his hapless friend Christian in the 1950 adaptation of Edmund Rostand’s celebrated play. Jennifer Jones, who suffered amnesia in Love Letters (1945), learned that her wartime love letters were not written by her fiancé. The deceiving letters penned by the devious Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close) in Dangerous Liaisons (1988) eventually led to the death of her lover (John Malkovitch).

Stewart and Sullavan in The Shop
Around the Corner.
There was no intent to deceive in The Shop Around the Corner (1940), in which pen pals James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan fell in love through their letters, not realizing they were co-workers. Likewise, there was no intended mischief with the unsigned love note dropped into a high school locker in the pleasant 1985 comedy Secret Admirer--though it subsequently revealed a host of hidden feelings. The same can't be said for A Letter to Three Wives (1949). Celeste Holm provided the voice of the authoress of the title letter, in which three ladies learn that one of their husbands has run off with Holm’s character.

Loretta Young looks
Cause for Alarm.
Paul Lukas played a converted Nazi incriminated by false letters sent by a former friend in Address Unknown (1944).  Loretta Young tried to retrieve another incriminating letter, one framing her for murder, in 1951’s Cause for Alarm. Pat Boone was similarly panic-stricken over a hard-to-retrieve letter in the British comedy Never Put It in Writing (1964).

Misdirected letters reaching their destination after a year-long delay provided the premise for the three-part TV-movie The Letters and its sequel Letters from Three Lovers (both 1973).

84 Charing Cross Road (1987) traced the charming 20-year letter-writing relationship between a New York book lover (Anne Bancroft) and a British book dealer (Anthony Hopkins). Below is a representative list of classic films in which letters played a major role:

The Strong Man (1926)
Poison Pen (1939)
The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
The Letter (1940)
Address Unknown (1944)
Love Letters (1945)
A Letter for Evie (1945)
Never Say Goodbye  (1946)
The Captive Heart (1946)
Dear Ruth (1947)
The Lost Moment (1947)
Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)
A Letter to Three Wives (1949)
Cyrano de Bergerac (1950)
Cause for Alarm (1951)
The 13th Letter (1951)
Demoniaque (1958)
Fate Takes a Hand (1961)
Never Put It in Writing (1964)
Dear Brigitte (1965)
The Go-Between (1971)
The Letters (1973 TVM)
Letters from Three Lovers (1973 TVM)
No Sex Please, We’re British (1973)
Dirty Tricks (1980)
Touched by Love (aka To Elvis, With Love) (1980)
The Letter (1982 TVM)
Love Letters (aka My Love Letters) (1983)
A Letter to Three Wives (1985 TVM)
Secret Admirer (1985)
84 Charing Cross Road (1987)
Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

Reprinted with the authors' permission from the Encyclopedia of Film Themes, Settings and Series.


  1. Interesting to think of letters in movies, in that a literary form is combined with a visual one, and the words you see written on a page are important. There's also the letter not sent by Kim Novak to James Stewart in Vertigo, in which she confesses her deception, but then tears up (and the audience being allowed to read/hear the letter is how we discover the deception); plus the fake letter-to-the-editor ("the old switcheroo") in Meet John Doe, which kick-starts the plot.

  2. Letters are a wonderful plot device. The farther away we get from putting pen to paper, the more romantic it seems.

    Priscilla Lane sent soldier James Cagney a picture when she was all made up for a play in "The Roaring Twenties". He wasn't expecting a schoolgirl when he got back from the front.

  3. What a fun motif to examine! I'm sure I could add to the list if my brain didn't suddenly go blank, of course. Such a simple device, but used well it can have a great effect.

    And my favorite part of letters in older movies of course—the gorgeous handwriting! :)

  4. MEET JOHN DOE, VERTIGO, and THE ROARING TWENTIES are all great additions!