Director William Dieterle knew his way around a sentimental romance, preferably starring Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones. My prior experience with the two was in their second pairing, 1948’s Portrait of Jennie, a film which shares several commonalities with their first team-up. Much like Portrait of Jennie, Love Letters tells the story of two disparate souls yearning for the romantic idealism of love itself. But, where Jennie took that route down a fantastical path, Love Letters has the audience question whether love can transcend murder.
Allen Quinton (Cotten) is a soldier tasked with writing love letters to a woman named Victoria (Jones) for his best friend, Roger (Robert Sully). When Roger and Victoria wed, Allen moves on but can’t get Victoria out of his mind. Upon learning that Roger died, Allen meets a vastly different Victoria, one lacking the memory of murdering her husband.
During WWII, men returned home forever changed from what they saw overseas, and many grappled with the lives they took. This could account for the small genre of romance films with murder on their mind. The “romantic murder” genre is an interesting one since audiences of today would find it difficult answering “Yes” to the question of “Would you be able to love someone accused of murder?” Love Letters’ immediate cousin is 1944’s I’ll Be Seeing You, where Joseph Cotten (again) loves a woman, this time played by Ginger Rogers, on a jailhouse vacation. (Those were the days!) Rogers’ crime, like Jones, is that she’s accused of manslaughter. Just the name of the crime invokes images of men slaughtering other men, a key image for the wives and girlfriends of WWII soldiers.
The script deftly anchors the situation allowing the audience to still fall in love with Jones’ Victoria, just as Allen does, regardless of her status as a murderer. Roger basks in Victoria’s adoration of him during the opening sequence set amidst the war. His buddy Allen writes the letters to her because he’s fallen in love with her, whereas Roger doesn’t want to work hard to win her love. After Roger’s death, Victoria gets movie amnesia, reverting back to her innocent childhood as an orphan named Singleton. Even the revelation of who really killed Roger – you didn’t think it was Jennifer Jones did you?! – coupled with his true colors has you rooting for someone to knife him in the end. All of this allows the audience to feel good about Victoria and Allen’s love, even if the revelation proves someone else knowingly sent a young woman to prison who actually didn’t do anything.
But with two consummate professionals falling in love, it’s impossible not to hope every impediment would meet an untimely steak knife. Jones was on a career high when Love Letters came out in 1945. She’d starred in her Oscar-winning breakthrough role as Bernadette Soubirous in The Song of Bernadette two years before, and the war-time family drama, Since You Went Away, the year before. Victoria Remington and Jennie from Portrait of Jennie all hearken back to Jones’ role in The Song of Bernadette. When Roger describes Victoria as a “pin-up girl for the spirit” he’s not exaggerating. Jones typified the angelic girl next door; the girl with a twinkle in her eye and the entire definition of “wholesome” bound up inside her. If you’ve seen The Song of Bernadette – one of my favorite classic film discoveries – you understand why she’s the only one who could accurately convey the wide-eyed wonder of that character. It’s a taste harder buying her as a murderer, thus why the script stacks the deck against Roger’s character, but in her scenes opposite Cotten none of that matters.
You see why these two were paired up again, because they have a sweet, somewhat mismatched quality to their romance. The situation alone is odd, but Cotten’s formal demeanor works well next to Jones’ innocent personality. There’s a father/daughter quality to their relationship that should be odd, but works, for the most part. Cotten gets the less showy role as Allen. Although both him and Victoria are characters in love with being in love, Allen is the one with the ability to say what Victoria wants to hear. Their relationship starts with words first, so it makes sense that much of their relationship develops through silence or a lack of communication. (Their first meeting comes about as he drunkenly tells the story of writing the letters to Victoria. The two lovers first meeting clouded by inebriation.)
Love Letters shows the flair with which classic Hollywood did romance films. Dieterle and screenwriter Ayn Rand – yes, that Ayn Rand – presents a romance without a hint of irony but pure, uncompromising sentimentality. Not everyone will respond to Love Letters with gushing adoration, and, upon release, neither did critics, but for those who love their romance cup running over, this will be perfect.
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