Patching Up Memories: Adapting Love Letters

The storyline of Love Letters hinges on a decent young woman’s suffering from amnesia and whether the young man who loves her can wrest from her mind her memory of her past.  Unconscious forces within her might compel her memory loss to become permanent.  She had been at the scene of her husband’s killing and was found with a bloody knife in her hand.  She had moments earlier discovered that the letters she presumed to have been written by her husband while he courted her had actually been written by a stranger.  In these moments before the murder, the husband’s true character was discovered by her to be a drinking lout.  This characteristic repels her.  The identity of the sensitive soul who composed the letters might never become known to her.  The young man who does not meet her until after her amnesia has a secret, too: he knows himself to be the author of the letters, but dares not mention that fact lest he be hated for setting in motion the misery which befell her.

The adaptation of the Chris Massie novel into the movie of Love Letters resulted in the changing of characters, of one instance of the change of gender of one character, and in alterations of the storyline.  The Production Code correspondence makes no mention of at least one character in the novel, that being the female housekeeper, Miss Cromwell, long a fixture in the home of the male protagonist’s aunt.  The function that Miss Cromwell serves in the novel is transformed in the movie to a newly-created character of a middle-aged male caretaker named Mack (referred to by the male lead as “Gargoyle”).  The reviewers working for the Production Code Administration, being upholders of the religious view of morality, could be expected to have objected to persons of opposite sex not married to each other living in the same household without chaperone.  (In the movie, the aunt dies before we are introduced to this caretaker, so it is only the nephew who shares the home with the caretaker during the course of the story.)  The story developers within the Hal Wallis organization may have headed off such likely objections by quickly deciding to change the caretaker into a male before they labored far on the adaptation.  Why expend energies developing the screenplay in a manner that would not pass a review by the Administration?  The change enabled Wallis to hire talented character actor Cecil Kellaway for the role.


For each screenplay on which Ayn Rand worked, the Production Code Administration produced a chart that itemized each character on the basis of how he or she would be perceived by a hypothetical audience.  The possible categories were: “Prominent, Minor, Straight, Comic, Sympathetic, Unsympathetic, Indiff.”  On Love Letters, no lead characters had an “X” in the column headed “unsympathetic.”

Two characters of the many minor characters were identified as “unsympathetic” on this chart.  The first of these appears within a sublist spotlighting characters identified as belonging to “Races or Nationals.”  He’s described as “(1)” “British.”  The second “unsympathetic” character is listed under “Miscellaneous” and described as “(1)” “British Army Personnel.”  One or both of these certainly is the character Roger who contemptuously woos a beautiful woman through letters he did not write and who, subsequently, nastily tells the woman he has since married that those letters were meaningless because they were written by a man to whom she had no value.

The chart was but one item on a standardized form that was completed anew for each production.  The form was apparently copied in quantity and then completed with a typewriter for each production.  On Love Letters, in answers to a preprinted item labeled “Liquor shown,” this heading has beneath it these preprinted items and newly-typed answers (shown here underlined where the typed answers were filled in above preprinted straight lines):

Home  X   Other  Cafe 
(b) incidental - social.  (b) Lead gets drunk at party.

Likewise, there is a heading for a section on criminal matters, under which is itemized:

Crime(s)  Murder 
No. killings  1 
Other violence  Stabbing - Slapping 
Fate of Criminal(s)  Ind. woman committing justifiable murder will soon die 

[“Ind” presumably means “indifferent” morally]

The form reflects the religious underpinnings of the censors themselves with this preprinted item and what was typed as the answer for this film:

Religious ceremonies?  Wedding   How handled?  High dignity 

The Production Code personnel used the form to pigeonhole scripts on the basis of how each depicted such sensitive subjects as persons of other nationalities, the imbibing of alcohol, the commission of murder or violence, and types of religious ceremonies, if any.  In doing so, they were not merely satisfying curiosity.  The Administration was charged with enforcing the Production Code, and that Code mandated particular treatment of particular subjects when those subjects occurred in films.   One example of this was the following statement: “The use of liquor in American life, when not required by the plot or for proper characterization, will not be shown.”  (Section I, item 4.)

Ayn Rand had the responsibility of adhering to the Production Code while delivering a screenplay which would please her producer and the public, and which would preserve the characters set forth in a novel written by someone else.  The studio continued to consider the author of the original book as important even as their attention turned to securing a good adaptation from the screenwriter whose work was in progress, as was evident by this studio note addressing the subject of screenplay credit:

We agree to announce on the film of any photoplay that may be adapted from THE LOVE LETTERS, substantially incorporating the plot, theme, characterizations, motive and treatment of said story, that said photoplay is based upon or adapted from or suggested by a story written by Chris Massie (Author), or words to that effect, and if we elect, upon such other material as may be incorporated in any photoplay, with or without the names of the authors of such other material.

During a little more than a quarter of 1944, from August 31 to December 9, the studio and the Production Code Administration exchanged the screenplay and stray pages of script, as well as correspondence containing words never intended to be heard or read by the public at large.  Typically, this was civil in tone, each side respectful of the other for its being engaged in work that could be wearying.  Uncommon among correspondence exchanged between studios and the PCA is even a hint of accusation that the writers might be intent upon undermining the mores of the nation or that the Administration sought to go beyond the mandate given them by the studios.

The Administration was mindful that filmmakers sought to “put over” prohibited connotations by stopping just short of saying something, having set up a dialogue or a visual such that the minds of many viewers would complete the moment in the way that the filmmaker intended.  One director who was a favorite of Ayn Rand (although they never worked together), Alfred Hitchcock, was masterful at not only such intimations but also at bargaining with the Administration after murkying its ability to freshly evaluate his work.  In 1960, twelve years after Miss Rand’s last battle with the censors, Hitchcock attained PCA approval for his notorious “shower” scene in Psycho by presenting first a version more graphic than what he sought.  By conceding to demands for particular edits in the filmed-and-edited sequence, Hitchcock surreptitiously procured his right to depict his scene as he truly wanted.  His intention was to dispense of overkill.  His PCA adversaries had become inured to the effectiveness of images that had first been presented buried within those more graphic—as Hitchcock knew they would be.   The Administration reviewers could no longer gauge the reaction of the heretofore unexposed audiences who would be the ticket-buyers at the theaters.

Miss Rand was newly among long-time Hollywood professionals who had come to know how to manipulate the Production Code Administration.  To untrained eyes, the correspondence left behind may read as if PCA demands were being ignored.  In actuality, the studio may have been keeping the minds at the PCA on particular details, distracting them from something else.  In the correspondence for the second film that Ayn Rand wrote for Paramount, You Came Along (see the next page of this article), at least one memorandum repeats the demand of a much-earlier one, even though the studio had prepared revised pages of the script and had sufficient time to incorporate the change specified by the agency.  The letters written by the PCA regarding Love Letters indicate that their personnel were keyed to not allow one possible opening for shading a scene.  An unfinished sentence made by a character could have been delivered in such a way that the audience would complete the thought for themselves.  The PCA asked the studio not to let a “broke line” be such a portal.  (See sidebar immediately below.)

The Production Code Administration always retained the strongest club in the mutual arsenal: they could declare the finished picture unsuitable.  Quite apart from the screenplay, a complete movie can convey prohibited themes by means of performance, visuals or juxtaposition achieved in editing.  Consequently, the PCA wrote into much of its correspondence a “boilerplate” remark that served as both a reminder and a warning: “You understand, of course, that our final judgment will be based upon the finished picture.”

sidebar.gif (193 bytes) Written Exchanges Between Studio and PCA Regarding Filmable Script

The earliest correspondence regarding Love Letters between the Production Code Administration and Paramount or Hal Wallis occurred August 31, 1944.  At this time, Wallis sent Geoffrey Sherlock of the MPPDA pages 1-86 of a script for Love Letters dated August 29, 1944.  Given that the completed 101-minute picture likely had a script of as many pages as minutes of screen time, it may be surmised that the majority of what was expected to be the final script was part of that delivery.

On September 7, 1944, Joseph I. Breen, head of the Production Code Administration, wrote Wallis with dictates for changes to be made on the incomplete script received.  He wrote:

Page 10: Please avoid any questionable lip action in the broke line in scene 10.

Presumably this refers to a line to be read by an actor where the line is written as an incomplete sentence, to be cut short as if the character cannot complete his thought.  In instances like this, there may be concern that the actor will be instructed to emote his face in such a way that the actor completes the thought through a facial expression of a thought that would not be permitted in the script were it stated explicitly.

Page 21: Please change the line “… a brunette with all the virtues except the inconvenient ones.”

Page 22: In the following sequence, please avoid stressing the drinking and drunkenness, beyond the point necessary for telling the story.

Given these last two page numbers, it can be reliably surmised that the sequence in question was the party at the home of Dilly Carson, where Alan first meets Singleton.   Alan’s intoxication prevents him from remembering her on their next meeting, recalling only that he had made arrogant speeches in the presence of people he later suspects have become unimpressed with him.

On September 13, 1944, Paramount sent to Breen page 87 through the end of the script.  The accompanying note reported that these pages were dated 9-12-44.

September 15, 1944, was the date that Paramount received the brief remarks that Breen had on the end of the script:

[We] are happy now to report that the basic story seems to meet the requirements of the Production Code.

The one item in these pages of the screenplay singled out for comment was not an objection but merely a perfunctory cautionary remark:

Page 111: In the scene where Alan takes off his wife’s dress, we assume that she will be shown wearing a slip underneath and not merely dressed in underwear, which latter would be unacceptable.

What was purported to be a final script, dated September 28, was found acceptable to Breen, as expressed by him in a letter of October 3.


The studio would deliver new script pages, and consequently the Production Code Administration worked some more on this film.  Though the PCA had been working on every page of the screenplay for weeks, they did not have an outline of the story.  On October 1, 1944, C. R. Metzger of the PCA wrote a summary of the screen story as thus established: “The story opens in Italy in 1944 when Capt. Alan Quinton is…,” then continuing in much detail, a sample of which is, “Alan goes to… the address to which he had written Victoria, and is told by two old farmers that Victoria is gone… .”  The summary doesn’t merely read “Alan learns that Victoria is gone from the address to which he had written” but rather specifies that this household has “two old farmers.”  In this way, the PCA could keep account of the many characters and formulate concerns about how these characters might be depicted and what unacceptable behaviors they might exhibit.

For all the complaints that moviegoers may have about the PCA defiling writers’s intents, the Administration was responsible about quickly communicating their edicts.

sidebar.gif (193 bytes) The Revisions

Revisions to pages 32-35 and 115 of Love Letters were dated October 2, sent to Breen on the 3rd, and accepted by him the 4th.  Breen proved equally efficient at approving pages in the weeks to come, maintaining the quick turnaround time established for these three pages.  Many more changed script pages were dated October 19 but were deemed acceptable on the 20th.  Revisions to pages 25 and 26 were dated October 28, not sent to Breen until November 3, yet he accepted these changes November 4.  Likewise, when more changes were made November 9 and sent out that same day, Breen again accepted them the next day (November 10).  Changes to pages 36, 37 and 39 were dated November 15, sent November 15 and accepted November 16.

December 9, 1944, brought the last memo on page changes.  Breen wrote:

We have read change pages 11 and 11-A dated 12-8-44 for your proposed production THE LOVE LETTERS, and are happy to report that these seem to meet the requirements of the Production Code.

You understand, of course, that our final judgment will be based upon the finished picture.

Breen’s choice of phraseology in referring to the “proposed production THE LOVE LETTERS” reveals his awareness of his own power.  He almost certainly would have known that sound stages, cameras, sound recording equipment, major talent and expensive craftsmen at Paramount had been busily committing the screenplay to film stock for more than a month.  By December 9, a scant 13 days remained until what turned out to be the last hour of filming.  While using a word like “proposed” suggests that a producer could turn away from production plans losing nothing other than script costs, Breen denied the substantial corporate investment made by an entity that had little recourse should Breen deem the resulting film unworthy of the eyes and ears of the nation that the studio sought to interest.

See cast and credits for Love Letters and Ayn Rand’s other movies.  (Opens in a new window)

Continue this article with Ayn Rand’s next screenplay: You Came Along.



This article © 2000, 2005 David P. Hayes