Following the success of The Fountainhead, Hal Wallis had Ayn Rand write screenplays for two movies: Love Letters and You Came Along. Love Letters is very different from her bestselling novel; it doesn’t pit a hero against an irrational world. Its scale is more personal, but it’s clearly Rand’s work, dealing with themes that were important to her. The movie was a hit in its time but isn’t much remembered today, even by her fans. It deserves more notice, presenting a different aspect of Rand from The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, and her later non-fiction.
A leading premise in Rand’s philosophy is that faking reality harms both the person doing it and the person it’s supposed to help. In Atlas Shrugged, Hank Rearden tells Dagny Taggart: “What I’ve learned is that a lie is an act of self-abdication, because one surrenders one’s reality to the person to whom one lies, making that person one’s master, condemning oneself from then on to faking the sort of reality that person’s view requires to be faked. And if one gains the immediate purpose of the lie — the price one pays is the destruction of that which the gain was intended to serve.”
This theme is a driving force in Love Letters. The movie is nominally based on a novel by Chris Massie, but it draws heavily on Cyrano de Bergerac, a favorite play of Rand’s (and mine). Rand called the novel “junk” but saw it as a usable starting point.
Alan Quinton, an English soldier on the Italian front during World War II, ghostwrites letters to Victoria Remington, the girlfriend of his friend Roger Morland. He doesn’t know Victoria but enjoys the opportunity to write romantic letters. Her delighted response makes him realize there could be trouble ahead. “She’s in love with these letters you didn’t write. With my letters. … She’s in love with a man who doesn’t exist.”
When Roger returns to England, he marries Victoria. Not long afterward, Alan learns that Roger has died. He subsequently meets Victoria by chance at a party in London, not knowing who she is. She goes by the name “Singleton.” He finds out from her housemate that she had been convicted of killing Roger. The circumstances are obscure; she experienced traumatic memory loss, and the only witness, her adoptive Aunt Beatrice, suffered a stroke that took her speech away. All Beatrice was able to utter was “He struck her.”
Singleton’s condition, as far as I understand it from some Web searches, isn’t amnesia but dissociative fugue. Victoria’s case is atypical but not totally implausible to me.
Victoria is now cheerful and optimistic, a perfect representation of Rand’s “benevolent universe” premise. However, she can’t remember Roger, the murder, the trial, or the name Victoria. She easily becomes confused or frightened when something reminds her of the gaps in her life. Alan is told that if he pushes her to remember, it could drive her insane. If she regains her memory naturally, she might despise him for his deception. He marries her, fully aware of the risks involved.
The working out of the story explores the consequences of Alan’s letters. He regards himself as responsible for Roger’s death by pushing him and Victoria into a bad marriage based on a lie. However, subsequent disclosures shed a different light on the death, and love triumphs. The final scene proceeds quickly yet is highly moving.
Rand’s touches are everywhere, though they take unusual forms. The movie is one of the few places where she presents a Biblical quotation in a positive light. Victoria quotes, “What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” She says it applies to her because “I’ve lost the whole world and gained my own soul.” Renouncing what the world considers important in order to achieve what is personally important is a theme that occurs throughout Rand’s fiction.
Alan gets the most screen time, but Victoria is really the protagonist. She takes the initiative more, and she makes the journey from being a mystery to herself to regaining her identity and her love. Alan is less dynamic than the usual leading male character in a Rand story, but he shows an optimistic spirit that isn’t afraid to find out the truth or face a doubtful future.
Victoria’s relationship with Roger is similar to Cheryl’s with Jim Taggart. Both of them love a man for qualities that belong to someone else. Roger’s character is established early as he jokes that he “never had any standards” and thinks “honor’s old-fashioned.” His attitude when Victoria finds out he isn’t the man she thought he was is similar to Taggart’s, angrily demanding he shouldn’t be held up to any standard. But Victoria, unlike Cheryl, achieves a happy outcome.
Anyone who loves Rostand’s Cyrano and Rand’s work should find this movie a delightful addition to their collection.