Thursday, April 14, 2016

Letters in Old Movies

Humphrey Bogart stands on the train platform in the rain, reading the letter Ingrid Bergman has written to him.  The next few frames of the movie are focused on the letter, its handwriting melting to a blur as the ink bleeds down the page from the rain.

Some classic films, such as The Letter (1940) and Love Letters (1945) discussed here, and The Shop Around the Corner (1940) discussed here, have plots that are predicated on a letter.  A letter is the catalyst for conflict in the story.  There are a lot of movie plots we could add to this category, like A Letter to Three Wives (1949).  A letter is the incriminating evidence, or provokes a mystery, or a love letter may bring the wrong lovers together, or incite jealousy. 

But the use of letters, moreover, showing the handwriting on the letter is such a typical device used in old movies that we might regard it a clich√©, though I don’t think I’ve ever seen it parodied.  It certainly could be, but perhaps the image of handwritten letters is so natural to this era that we accept it without thinking.  In this previous post, readers responded with what were their favorite images commonly seen in old movies: the passage of time with flipping calendar pages, or the candle stick desk phones, men’s broad-brimmed hats, etc.  We can also see all of these in modern movies set in the 1930s or 1940s, and we can see them in parody skits, but I don’t think the use of a handwritten letter has been used in decades since the era when handwritten letter were the major form of communication, in business and in personal use.

I especially love moments in old movies where a letter has nothing to do with the plot, but it’s there as a convenience.  Consider White Christmas (1954), where Anne Whitfield passes a letter written by Rosemary Clooney to her sister, Vera-Ellen.  The letter informs Vera-Ellen that Rosemary, not wanting to stand in the way of what she thinks is her sister’s impending marriage, breaks up their stage act and has taken a job in New York.  Vera-Ellen merely glances at the letter to know all the contents, and passes it to Danny Kaye, who, likewise, merely glances at the letter to know all its contents.  They may be speed readers, but the director gives us a few frames of the actual letter to read because we don’t read as fast.

We are included in the letter reading.  It is as if Vera-Ellen has passed the letter around to us too.  The audience shares the news “real-time.”  We are reading over her shoulder.

Who really wrote the letters in the movies?  Was it a staff of talented handwriting stand-ins?  A studio secretary with a high school prize for penmanship?  I’d love to know.  A reader commented once that the handwriting in two different letters in two different movies looked the same.

I suppose the most famous letter in literature is the very long and detailed letter Mr. Darcy wrote to Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, explaining the back story of his relationship with Mr. Wickham and the treachery done to his sister, and why Darcy interfered with Mr. Bingley’s relationship with Elizabeth’s sister Jane.  It’s a bomb dropped in the middle of the story, and turns the whole plot on its head. 

He may be a closemouthed fellow when it comes to talking, but in a letter, Darcy goes on forever, yadda, yadda, yadda.  We would not likely see such a long letter printed verbatim in a modern novel. Even modern film adaptations of Darcy’s famous letter tend to abbreviate his epistle, or illustrate its points instead in dramatic flashback scenes.  The directors must think modern audiences will not sit still for a little juicy letter reading.

In many schools today, cursive handwriting is no longer taught.  Many of us have youngsters in our families who cannot write or read cursive handwriting.  This is unfortunate on many levels, most especially that they will not be able to read historic documents, including the personal letters preserved in their own families.

But it also means they will not be able to read Rosemary Clooney’s letter to Vera Ellen, or Ingrid Berman’s letter to Bogie, or any of the notes and handwritten clues as to why the actors are behaving the way they do—remember, their actions are not always explained.  Reading the letter saves us from having to say what has happened off screen.

“Why is Bogie sad, Mommy?”  Now, doesn't that just tear your heart out? 

The letter writing and letter reading scenes are passive, yet still powerfully dramatic.  The letters convey intimate news.  Sometimes they are kissed or embraced because they represent the person that wrote them.  Sometimes they are stashed quickly in a hiding place.  Sometimes they are burned, or crumpled and thrown away. 

This is what Bogie does when the goodbye letter that kicks his guts out has become illegible from the rain, substituting for tears, as Ingrid’s words bleed down the page.  He stands on the steps of the now moving train, crushes the soggy paper in his fist, and tosses it to the tracks.

Deleting an email, or "un-friending" someone was never so dramatic, or so satisfying.

What are some other favorite “letter scenes” of yours?

Please have a look at the other great posts in the Words, Words, Words blogathon.


"Lynch’s book is organized and well-written – and has plenty of amusing observations – but when it comes to describing Blyth’s movies, Lynch’s writing sparkles." - Ruth Kerr, Silver Screenings

"Jacqueline T. Lynch creates a poignant and thoroughly-researched mosaic of memories of a fine, upstanding human being who also happens to be a legendary entertainer." - Deborah Thomas, Java's Journey

"One of the great strengths of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is that Lynch not only gives an excellent overview of Blyth's career -- she offers detailed analyses of each of Blyth's roles -- but she puts them in the context of the larger issues of the day."- Amanda Garrett, Old Hollywood Films

"Jacqueline's book will hopefully cause many more people to take a look at this multitalented woman whose career encompassed just about every possible aspect of 20th Century entertainment." - Laura Grieve, Laura's Miscellaneous Musings

"Jacqueline T. Lynch’s Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is an extremely well researched undertaking that is a must for all Blyth fans." - Annette Bochenek, Hometowns to Hollywood

Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star.
by Jacqueline T. Lynch

The first book on the career of actress Ann Blyth. Multitalented and remarkably versatile, Blyth began on radio as a child, appeared on Broadway at the age of twelve in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, and enjoyed a long and diverse career in films, theatre, television, and concerts. A sensitive dramatic actress, the youngest at the time to be nominated for her role in Mildred Pierce (1945), she also displayed a gift for comedy, and was especially endeared to fans for her expressive and exquisite lyric soprano, which was showcased in many film and stage musicals. Still a popular guest at film festivals, lovely Ms. Blyth remains a treasure of the Hollywood's golden age.

The eBook and paperback are available from Amazon and CreateSpace, which is the printer.  You can also order it from my Etsy shop. It is also available at the Broadside Bookshop, 247 Main Street, Northampton, Massachusetts.

If you wish a signed copy, then email me at and I'll get back to you with the details.

My new syndicated column SILVER SCREEN, GOLDEN YEARS, on classic film is up at Go60  or check with your local paper.


CineMaven said...

Ahhhhh..."The Letter" is one of my great 'letter' movies. Enjoyed your examples.

John/24Frames said...

While I know about schools not teaching cursive writing any longer, I still find it unbelievable that it is no longer being taught. I really do not understand the reasoning behind it. Anyway, fascinating article. Letters in films can express so much and truly can move the story in a variety of directions.

Silver Screenings said...

You know, I also wonder who wrote the letters in films. Whoever they were, they certainly had beautiful handwriting.

As an aside. I find it unsettling that a generation of kids is growing up, unable to read cursive writing. I remember, as a youngster, learning how to write (vs. print), and when I realized I could do it – man, there was no stopping me! I was always writing little stories (and forcing everyone to read them). It was like a rite of passage in a way. I felt so grown up!

Anyway, back to movie letters, I think my fave is the "Dear John" letter Bogart receives in Casablanca, with the rain causing the ink to run. It always tugs at my heart a little, each time I see it.

Rick29 said...

This was a lot of fun, especially since I once write an entry on "Letters in Movies" for a lot of book. You included many of the same ones, plus others that I omitted like WHITE CHRISTMAS. One of my favorites isn't a classic film but still warrants a mention: 84 Charing Cross.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks so much, friends, for dropping by and sharing your thoughts on the movie letters. Dropping a comment is as good as leaving a handwritten note.

Caftan Woman said...

I'm sure there are many reasons my grandmother loved my father, but her face would glow when she when speak of the penmanship prize he won in Junior High School. It was an engraved pen/pencil set with a leather case. He passed on a pride in handwriting to his children, along with the notion of keeping your shoes shined and tiny, and sitting with your back to the wall when you are in a strange bar.

In 1931's "The Black Camel" Inspector Charlie Chan is about to read from an incriminating letter when - ta-dah - the lights go out!

Anonymous said...

Great post! I remember that White Christmas one but mostly because of Vera-Ellen's long red nails! I don't know about who wrote the letters, but when I was researching "The More the Merrier" I found a photo of Jean Arthur's "hand/writing" double writing her journal entries with the camera over her shoulder. You can find it here: I would love to know more about how the letter writing worked!

FlickChick said...

So much fun! I really loved this post. Oh, the romance of receiving a letter. One of my favorite letter scenes is in Chaplin's "Shoulder Arms" as the soldier who gets no letter from home, but reads along with another (unsuspecting) soldier over his shoulder. Great post!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I love these examples of favorite letters in the movies. Thank you all!

And dear Paddy "...and sitting with your back to the wall when you are in a strange bar." My laugh for the day.

Cameron, I remember your post on THE MORE THE MERRIER and how much I enjoyed it, but I forgot about that shot of the handwriting stand-in. spectacular.

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