Tim Purtell
January 10, 2005 AT 05:00 AM EST

EW reviews two classic films from the 1940’s

It’s hard to imagine two Golden Age actresses more dissimilar than Bette Davis and Greer Garson. One was an emotion machine who combustively imprinted her characters onto the retina with every fiber of her body. The other epitomized British elegance and restraint; though an Oscar winner (for Mrs. Miniver) and enormously popular during wartime, Garson was always gorgeous but rarely rousing. In William Wyler’s richly torrid melodrama The Letter, Davis unsurprisingly mesmerizes as a duplicitous murderess pleading self-defense. What is surprising is how, with the help of a good, sympathetic director, she doesn’t play the role in all-out pit viper mode. Instead, Davis reveals something vulnerable and pitiable — particularly in a painfully long confession of adultery to her sad, blindly devoted husband (the dependably terrific Herbert Marshall) — that gives the film its unexpected tragic edge. Garson, meanwhile, is typically refined in Random Harvest, a gossamer weepie about a music hall performer who nurses an amnesiac back to health only to be forgotten when he regains his memory. But sometimes refinement and restraint are quite right: Garson and Ronald Colman beautifully play the delicacy of two aching souls trying to recapture their lost romance.

EXTRAS An alternate ending to The Letter, which, frustratingly, lacks explanation; MGM shorts on Harvest.
Letter: A-
Harvest: B+

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