The Letter (1940), The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969)


The Letter
Directed by William Wyler

I can’t get over the two opening scenes. I watch the behavior, I watch every gesture, every gliding camera angle, the way all of the characters’ heads, including Davis’, are turned away from the camera, as Davis retells the tale of how she shot that man in the first scene … It’s a huge “tell”, that “back-of-the-heads” choice, dramatic both visually and thematically. Tension! Herbert Marshall is excellent and quite heartbreaking in the role of Davis’ gentle credulous husband. And James Stephenson, as Howard, the attorney who takes on the murder trial, is also great. Much is withheld from the audience throughout, including the text of the letter (which we eventually hear, but at first we only see Davis’ reaction shot as she re-reads her own words, so we can only imagine). Watch Davis’ behavior during that early scene of questioning, in her own bungalow. The way she checks in with her husband, almost deferentially, the way he soothes her, her unconcious gestures reaching out to him, all the perfect picture of a perfect and innocent woman. What is eventually revealed, through the course of the film, with the advent of “the letter” in the title, makes you want to go back and watch that first questioning scene again, when Howard and another detective, ask her what happened earlier that night. Davis is completely in charge of what she is doing here. When the truth bursts out (late in the film, the second to last scene or so!), it’s primal and raw, and nearly destroys her husband. You can see lives being destroyed onscreen. Filmed in elegant lush black-and-white, with stark shadows, and moons going behind dark banks of clouds, and palm trees waving in the muggy night air, it’s melodramatic, filled with atmosphere and tension. Everyone is awesome, but I am mainly fascinated by Davis’ work here. She has a delicate line to walk. She can’t reveal too much, she can’t cover up too well. But she has to cover up pretty damn well, so that you are never sure what is actually going on with this woman. The performance from Davis is a marvel. I love the one later scene where she works at her piece of lace, glasses on, and you can see how ferociously she goes at it. It’s frightening. A great psychological performance from Davis.


The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes
Directed by Robert Butler

Sometimes, in grade school, on rainy Fridays when we couldn’t go outside for recess, they would have us all file down to what was referred to as “the multi-purpose room” (a cafeteria, a gym, a place where concerts/plays were put on), have us all sit in metal chairs, put up a big white screen, and show us movies. One day, they showed The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, a Disney movie from 1969, starring a gorgeous young Kurt Russell. I know they showed us other movies on other days (my friend Betsy remembers some of them), but The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes is the only one I remember. I have not seen it since that day in the multi-purpose room, when I fell in LOVE with it (and Kurt Russell, a crush which continues to the present moment). So I figured, what the hell, let me watch it again. This can sometimes be a disheartening experience. Re-visiting something you loved as a child only to find it … stupid or lame as an adult. But this still is a pretty good movie, for what it is. My “way in” when I was a kid was Kurt Russell. Those giGANtic closeups, where the camera is so close his chin and forehead are cut off, the whole screen is his mug. I love his face, and there was just SO MUCH of it to look at! Cesar Romero acts his balls off as the local businessman-slash-crime-lord who “donates” his computer to the local university and starts up all of these problems. Joe Flynn is funny as the harassed and ambitious dean of the College, a square fuddy-duddy who resists the advent of computer technology classes because there are so many other things that take precedent. But he eventually comes around. Kurt Russell plays Dexter, a college student who, one rainy night when he tries to replace the “logic board” in the new computer, gets a big shock, and then wakes up the next day, beeping from within, and able to finish his math test in 4 minutes flat. There’s a whole war that then ensues: Cesar Romero, of course, wants to co-opt Dexter to help him pick out winning racehorses. And the Dean wants Dexter to stay at his school and not be recruited by another university (Medfield University is like no college I have ever heard of. There only appear to be 15 students, first of all, and they only appear to take one class per semester). Mayhem ensues once Dexter’s increased brain power becomes apparent, he goes on a nation-wide tour, he’s given a ticker tape parade, and there’s even a car chase, involving falling buckets of gloopy orange paint, and Cesar Romero nearly falling out of his buggy as he goes around a sharp curve. Kurt Russell is so photogenic, it’s just unbelievable, his expressive face carrying this whole damn thing. It made me laugh: there are no less than two scenes where Russell is eating, his mouth so full of food that one cheek bulges out, and something happens that stuns him, or catches his attention, and there he stands, listening, with his cheek bulged out with food. Like, dude, you can swallow that!

Computer Wore Tennis Shoes

Computer Wore Tennis Shoes

I hadn’t realized it was made in 1969, I associated it with my own childhood which was later. It’s certainly quite dated now, and all of the hub-bub and anxiety about computers replacing humans is at the forefront of the film. The opening credits are straight-up late 60s psychedelia, with colorful dots filling the screen in strange geometric swirls and lines, and a funky theme song. And good to see reliable goon Richard Bakalyan play the sidekick to Cesar Romero’s sleek crime lord. Bakalyan is straight out of Runyon, and was still working fairly regularly as of a couple of years ago.

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24 Responses to The Letter (1940), The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969)

  1. Kathleen says:

    I confess (head lowered, mumbling) I watched “The Letter” not for Bette Davis, but for Herbert Marshall. I know, I know, she’s a great actress and I’m should appreciate her, but I just haven’t evolved to that place. I’m shallow, selfish. I watched for Herbert Marshall’s looks, and his gives-me-good-goosebumps, aurally delicious voice.
    Despite my base motives, I was thoroughly drawn in by the story, and years later, I still clearly remember being sucked into that story and space and its emotions. Like a good song, this story took me somewhere new in my mind and emotions. Maybe I’ll rewatch and try to see it through your eyes, for a deeper appreciation. But Herbert Marshall will always distract me.

    • sheila says:

      hahaha I love your comment! He really is so wonderful, and you are right about his delicious and expressive voice. His journey in the film is quite devastating – and he really managed to show the essential good-ness of this guy WITHOUT making him seem weak, or like a chump. You know? He was a good guy. He was married to a monster. You really feel for him.

      That scene near the end, where she goes off telling the truth, and he puts his head in his hands for the entirety of the monologue …

      just crushing.

      He’s wonderful!

      • Kathleen says:

        Yes, you nailed it! I don’t think I would have endured or even liked the movie if his character were more traditionally masculine (gruff, self-centered, and so on). I think part of the shock of the plot twist is built from seeing the (culturally entrenched, for better or worse) emotional expressions of the husband and wife stretched and switched. Herbert Marshall is an underappreciated gem.

        • sheila says:

          Right, if he had been a gruff controlled guy … it wouldn’t have worked. He wasn’t weak, or anything – just loved and trusted his wife, that’s a good thing. It’s tragic what happens to him. You can see why Davis dreads the “reveal” because she knows it will destroy him.

          Such an excellent actor!

  2. gina in alabama says:

    Gale Sondergaard as the victim’s wife, silent, steely, chilling. I haven’t seen this for awhile but whenever it’s on TCM, I watch it. I wonder if Bette Davis did her own crocheting (?) or lace making, it looked real.

    • sheila says:

      Yes, every time that wife appears, it’s like the whole film stops in horror. She’s the only thing that Davis is really afraid of … because Davis knows she can see right through her.

      Her lace-making totally looked real. It was a fascinating character detail.

  3. I believe Bakalyan was a Sinatra buddy, too.

    I’d just like to mention that I do a killer Joe Flynn impression. Usually I just say “Oh Kurt Russell, you must be the strongest man in the world.”

    • sheila says:

      Joe Flynn plays the most improbably college dean I have ever seen. The college really feels more like a high school in the movie. And the movie came out in 1969 – a crazy year – and there’s only one reference to what was going on on college campuses – Joe Flynn, in the opening scene, says something about – “and there’s so much unrest, we don’t want any unrest …” and then he looks out the window and sees the group of kids below huddled around a table (they are listening through a walkie talkie to the meeting going on upstairs) – and he gets all nervous – like THAT is “unrest” to him. A bunch of kids in letter sweaters sitting at a table. Ha.

  4. mutecypher says:

    I remember seeing “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” when it first came out, at a real Saturday matinee. Just a theater full of kids, with the host of some local TV show coming out and getting us both into our seats and excited enough to boo the villains and cheer the heroes. And Kurt was way cool from back then. I can’t say I was sure he had Snake Plissken in him way back then (’cause I was all of 9), but I wasn’t surprised by that or Nick Frescia a few decades later. You always just want to watch the guy.

    Didn’t he play some guy you’re always going on about?

    • sheila says:

      Kurt Russell is one of my favorite actors and I love how he transitioned from kid star (he kicked Elvis’ shin in It Happened at the World’s Fair!! – years before he played the guy himself) to adult movie star. I mean, come on – Silkwood? Breakdown? Miracle? He’s a genius.

      • mutecypher says:

        I didn’t know about kicking Elvis’ shin … that’s great.

        Do you have a signed Kurt Russell as Elvis, or was that just included in a post? I remember the picture, I just don’t recall if it belonged to you.

      • mutecypher says:

        I remember seeing him in Sky High, since my daughter was of the age to want to see it. He just did the role without any winking. He wore the silly super hero suit (and looked the part) and was the dad of a young kid with super powers who loved his kid and wanted to be proud of his boy. I also love him in his John Carpenter stuff. He just seems like he does what he wants to do with “A” stuff and prestige “B” stuff.

        Find something interesting and act in it.

  5. Mitchell Fain says:

    Davis’ hand..the one she shoots him with, retains a tension throughout the entire film…its genius…she cannot let go of the grip on that gun. Its esp. noticeable in several of the “back-ting” scenes…nobody used her back or her walk to tell a story like Davis.

    • sheila says:

      Yes! Brilliant back-ting here, throughout. With that sort of smooth cap of hair. Amazing.

      I noticed her hand, too.

      She was so good. She just totally transforms from picture to picture – and in such smart ways. Her “innocent” act here is almost foolproof, wouldn’t you say ? That first scene where she’s being questioned – you can see why that one guy totally believes her. She doesn’t “telegraph” to the audience I’M LYING – although that hand would give it away.


  6. Maureen says:

    Like mutecypher, I also saw “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” in the theater, I was 9-and I think Kurt Russell became my very first celebrity crush. He is so, so cute!

    I love “The Letter” and will watch it any time it is on. Couldn’t agree more with what has been mentioned about Herbert Marshall-I adore him, and feel he is a bit unknown now. I think he was hugely popular in his day, though. Hard to believe he lost part of his leg in WW1-I never noticed it at all in any of his movies. “The Razors Edge” is one of my all time favorite movies, and he is just wonderful in that. I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen at the TCM Festival, and seeing him, Gene Tierney and Tyrone Power on such a large screen-it was almost too much!!

    • sheila says:

      I know Herbert Marshall was a major stage actor – which helps to explain why his voice is such a powerful and expressive instrument. It really is a special voice.

      I love him in Blonde Venus and Duel in the Sun – but I should investigate more of his work.

      • Lisa in Fort Worth says:

        I think I’ve asked you this before, if you’ve seen The Enchanted Cottage? He’s in it as the blind story weaver. It’s wonderful. One of my favorite movies.

  7. It could just be me, but I always thought the idea of Joe Flynn being in charge of anything–anything at all–was way-y-y-y more subversive than anything Weatherman came up with.

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