"Letter From An Unknown Woman" was originally a 1922 novella by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (1881-1942). Hollywood adapted the story in 1933 as Only Yesterday with Margaret Sullivan and John Boles, and directed by John M. Stahl (Leave Her to Heaven, Imitation of Life). Undoubtedly, fans of the original novel - including those in Hollywood - wanted to see a more accurately adapted film version, set in the turn of the century Vienna.
After Joan Fontaine's marriage with Brian Aherne ended in 1945, she dated respected producer John Houseman, and the two were engaged for a time (the engagement ended due to John's overbearing mother, per Joan's autobiography)
In 1948 Joan and her husband, producer William Dozier, formed a new production company called Rampart Productions, where they would serve as co-executive producers on film projects.
In the meantime, filmmaker Max Ophuls was looking for work since he moved to America. He became good friends with top talent such as Preston Sturges and Houseman (who eventually produced the film for Rampart). In 1946 Ophuls was fired from the first production he was associated with, possibly due to arguing with others in the studio system; he very much wanted to be in control of all aspects of the film, and especially wnated to be as mobile as possible with his camera as he shot the actors. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. gave him his first break with The Exile, a mild success with audiences (I haven't seen that film yet). For his second project, it's quite likely that Ophuls was familiar with the Zweig story enough to want to film it.
It's not hard to understand why Joan and Dozier would be attracted to the Letter project. For one, Joan was working on Billy Wilder's musical The Emperor Waltz for Paramount that same year, and like Letter, was also set in Austria. Wilder may have even talked her into the project, if not suggesting it personally. Secondly, music is a main theme of both Letter and Waltz, and Joan is a lifelong classical music fan (one of her favorite composers is Rachmaninoff).
Speaking of music, so many of Joan Fontaine's films are remembered for their musical scores or themes - Rebecca & Suspicion (score by Franz Waxman), September Affair (where Joan plays a pianist), Serenade (with Mario Lanza), and Tender is the Night (featuring its Oscar nominated title song).
Joan, in her autobiography, remembers working with Ophuls: "With [Ophuls], I communicated intuitively. After a take, Max would come over to me and start to speak in German, which I scarcely understood. I would nod before he had said six words and he would then resume his position behind the camera. After the next take was completed, he would rush over and say, "How you know egg-zactly vot I vont? Preent dat!"
Letter didn't do well at the box office when it was first released, and this may have contributed to the demise of Rampart Productions, which folded after just two productions: Letter and You Gotta Stay Happy (with Jimmy Stewart). Ironically, the inspiration for the name "Rampart" was to project feelings of sturdiness and longevity. Also sadly, Joan and Dozier were divorced in 1951.
I don't say this about too many films, but Letter is a masterpiece. One of Joan's best films, and, as many have said, one of Mr. Jourdan's best as well, next to Gigi. Many feel they both give the best performances of their careers in this movie.
Over the years, Letter has earned the respect of many film historians and buffs. This film was the #1 most requested film from fans of Turner Classic Movies for quite a long time before finally airing in April of 2010 as part of a Louis Jourdan marathon.
I will have a deeper analysis of this film in an upcoming post, for those who have already seen it.