Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

86-87 mins | Melodrama | May 1948

Director:

Max Ophüls

Writer:

Howard W. Koch

Producer:

John Houseman

Cinematographer:

Frank F. Planer

Editor:

Ted J. Kent

Production Designer:

Alexander Golitzen

Production Company:

Rampart Productions, Inc.
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HISTORY

Letter from an Unknown Woman was the first film produced by Rampart Productions, an independent company formed by Joan Fontaine and her then husband, William Dozier. According to information in the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, the PCA requested several story changes. In the original story, the character "Lisa" becomes a courtesan after her abandonment by "Stefan," and the lovers spend the night together after being reunited. In a 3 Sep 1947 letter to International Pictures' William Gordon, PCA director Joseph I. Breen suggested that when "Johann" confronts his wife about Stefan, he should "really slap Lisa for her stupidity--and her sin." Johann does not strike Lisa in the film, however.
       The most significant conflict between the film's producers and the Breen Office revolved around the lines that end Lisa's letter: "I feel no bitterness toward you...I love you now as I have always loved you. My life can be measured by the moments I've had with you and our child....If only you could have recognized what was always yours, could have found what was never lost...." Breen repeatedly urged Gordon to change these lines, which he believed romanticized the characters' illicit relationship, and on 18 Feb 1948, PCA official Stephen S. Jackson asked Gordon to substitute the following speech for the disputed portion of the script: "I feel no bitterness toward you--only a sort of pity for you--and humiliation and anguish for myself....When the burning truth that you did not even remember me flashed into my mind, it immediately revealed in its true light the cheapness, the sordidness, the evilness, or our relationship...." ...

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Letter from an Unknown Woman was the first film produced by Rampart Productions, an independent company formed by Joan Fontaine and her then husband, William Dozier. According to information in the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, the PCA requested several story changes. In the original story, the character "Lisa" becomes a courtesan after her abandonment by "Stefan," and the lovers spend the night together after being reunited. In a 3 Sep 1947 letter to International Pictures' William Gordon, PCA director Joseph I. Breen suggested that when "Johann" confronts his wife about Stefan, he should "really slap Lisa for her stupidity--and her sin." Johann does not strike Lisa in the film, however.
       The most significant conflict between the film's producers and the Breen Office revolved around the lines that end Lisa's letter: "I feel no bitterness toward you...I love you now as I have always loved you. My life can be measured by the moments I've had with you and our child....If only you could have recognized what was always yours, could have found what was never lost...." Breen repeatedly urged Gordon to change these lines, which he believed romanticized the characters' illicit relationship, and on 18 Feb 1948, PCA official Stephen S. Jackson asked Gordon to substitute the following speech for the disputed portion of the script: "I feel no bitterness toward you--only a sort of pity for you--and humiliation and anguish for myself....When the burning truth that you did not even remember me flashed into my mind, it immediately revealed in its true light the cheapness, the sordidness, the evilness, or our relationship...." William Dozier appealed this change, and in Mar 1948, Breen interceded and instructed Jackson to issue the film a certificate with the original lines.
       A HR news item adds Jacques Francois to the cast, but his appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. Letter to an Unknown Woman was the last film of Austrian-born actress Mady Christians (1900-1951). The film featured a musical interlude by Franz Liszt, an excerpt from Mozart's The Magic Flute and several Viennese waltzes. Stefan Zweig's novel was also the basis of a 1929 German film, Narkose, and the 1933 Universal film Only Yesterday (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40; F3.3284). A television adaptation was broadcast in 1952 on CBS.

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SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
17 Apr 1948
---
Daily Variety
8 Apr 1948
p. 3, 9
Down Beat
5 May 1948
p. 8
Film Daily
8 Apr 1948
p. 7
Harrison's Reports
10 Apr 1949
p. 60
Hollywood Reporter
28 Jul 1947
p. 7
Hollywood Reporter
29 Aug 1947
p. 23
Hollywood Reporter
17 Oct 1947
p. 15
Hollywood Reporter
8 Jan 1948
p. 10
Hollywood Reporter
8 Apr 1948
p. 3
Hollywood Reporter
3 May 1948
p. 5, 10
Los Angeles Times
5 May 1948
---
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest
10 Apr 1948
p. 4117
New York Times
29 Apr 1948
p. 20
The Exhibitor
28 Apr 1948
p. 2375
Variety
14 Apr 1948
p. 8
CAST
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
By arrangement with David O. Selznick
Leo B. Pessin
William Hall
Sven-Hugo Borg
Paul E. Burns
Diane Lee Stewart
Curt Furberg
George Blagoi
Doug Carter
+
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Max Opuls
Dir
John F. Sherwood
Asst dir
PRODUCERS
WRITER
Howard Koch
Scr
PHOTOGRAPHY
Frank Planer
Dir of photog
ART DIRECTORS
Supv art dir
FILM EDITOR
Film ed
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
COSTUMES
MUSIC
MAKEUP
Makeup
Hairstylist
PRODUCTION MISC
Coordinator of prod
Tech adv
Prod mgr
Scr supv
STAND INS
Piano double for Louis Jourdan
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the novel Brief einer unbekannten by Stefan Zweig (publication undetermined) and the English-language translation Letter from an Unknown Woman by Eden and Cedar Paul (New York, 1932).
LITERARY SOURCE AUTHORS
DETAILS
Release Date:
May 1948
Premiere Information:
New York opening: 28 Apr 1948; Los Angeles opening: 4 May 1948
Production Date:
late Aug--mid Oct 1947; addl scenes early Jan 1948
Copyright Info
Claimant
Date
Copyright Number
Rampart Productions, Inc.
10 June 1948
LP1916
Physical Properties:
Sound
Western Electric Recording
Black and White
Duration(in mins):
86-87
Country:
United States
PCA No:
12855
SYNOPSIS

On a rainy night in turn-of-the-century Vienna, Stefan Brand's friends drive him home and tell him they will return to collect him for his duel at dawn. Stefan informs his mute butler John that he has no intention of keeping this appointment, and instructs him to have a carriage ready in an hour. He then finds a letter waiting for him and is astonished by the first line: "By the time you read this letter I may be dead." The letter goes on to describe the writer's memories of first seeing Stefan: Young Lisa Berndle watches in fascination as the beautiful possessions of Stefan, a handsome concert pianist, are moved into the building where she lives. Although she is too shy to speak to him, Lisa quickly falls in love with her new neighbor, who comes to dominate her every thought. When Lisa's widowed mother remarries, the family moves to Linz, and Lisa eventually begins keeping company with Lt. Leopold von Kaltnegger. One afternoon, Leopold begins to speak of the future, and Lisa tells him she is secretly engaged to a musician in Vienna. Her mother and stepfather are shocked, and Lisa returns to Vienna and takes a job in an exclusive dress shop. One night, Stefan notices her standing on the street near his apartment, and is charmed and flattered by her devotion. After dining with her in an elegant restaurant, Stefan gives Lisa a single white rose, then takes her to an amusement park, where they dance until late in the night. They then return to Stefan's apartment and fall into a passionate embrace. The ...

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On a rainy night in turn-of-the-century Vienna, Stefan Brand's friends drive him home and tell him they will return to collect him for his duel at dawn. Stefan informs his mute butler John that he has no intention of keeping this appointment, and instructs him to have a carriage ready in an hour. He then finds a letter waiting for him and is astonished by the first line: "By the time you read this letter I may be dead." The letter goes on to describe the writer's memories of first seeing Stefan: Young Lisa Berndle watches in fascination as the beautiful possessions of Stefan, a handsome concert pianist, are moved into the building where she lives. Although she is too shy to speak to him, Lisa quickly falls in love with her new neighbor, who comes to dominate her every thought. When Lisa's widowed mother remarries, the family moves to Linz, and Lisa eventually begins keeping company with Lt. Leopold von Kaltnegger. One afternoon, Leopold begins to speak of the future, and Lisa tells him she is secretly engaged to a musician in Vienna. Her mother and stepfather are shocked, and Lisa returns to Vienna and takes a job in an exclusive dress shop. One night, Stefan notices her standing on the street near his apartment, and is charmed and flattered by her devotion. After dining with her in an elegant restaurant, Stefan gives Lisa a single white rose, then takes her to an amusement park, where they dance until late in the night. They then return to Stefan's apartment and fall into a passionate embrace. The next day, Stefan visits Lisa at the dress shop and cancels their date for that evening, explaining that he must go to Milan for two weeks. He asks her to see him off at the train station, and bids her a warm farewell before joining another woman on the train. Stefan does not call Lisa again, however, and she later gives birth to a son, Stefan, Jr. Back in the present, Stefan looks with pleasure at the enclosed photos of the son he never knew he had. Lisa's letter continues that when the boy was nine, she married the wealthy Johann Stauffer: One night, Lisa and Johann, who treats Stefan's child like his own, go to the opera, and Lisa is stunned to see Stefan, whose musical career has not lived up to his early potential. Greatly agitated, Lisa tells Johann she has a headache and is about to go home when Stefan, who has been watching her from his seat, intercepts her and asks to see her again. Lisa hurries to her carriage, where she finds Johann waiting for her. As they ride home, Johann asks Lisa what she is going to do, and Lisa confesses that she feels powerless before Stefan and believes he needs her. The next day, Lisa puts her son on a train back to school, but they are asked to move after accidentally being seated in a compartment that has been quarantined. As Lisa walks away, bystanders comment that a case of typhus has been discovered on the train. Lisa then buys a bouquet of white roses and goes to see Stefan, as Johann observes her from his carriage. Stefan welcomes her amorously, but when she realizes that he truly has no idea who she is, Lisa leaves in tears. After wandering the streets of Vienna for hours, Lisa goes to see her son, only to learn that he died of typhus during the night. Now very ill herself, Lisa writes that she loves Stefan as much as she always has. The letter suddenly ends, and Stefan finds a note from a nun at the hospital saying that Lisa has died. With tears in his eyes, Stefan remembers the moments he shared with Lisa. Johann and his seconds arrive, and Stefan, ennobled by his sorrow, goes to fight a duel he knows he cannot win, pausing only to pluck a rose from the bouquet Lisa left behind.

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Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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