Archive for November, 2013

Letty Lynton (1932) by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on November 16, 2013 by mchoffman

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The Rediscovered will go beyond the films we showcase in our 2014 series. We’ll also examine those rarities that are out of our reach… Letty Lynton is one of the rarest films you will hear about. Don’t bother Netflixing it– you won’t find it there. A legal case involving plagiarism has kept the movie out of circulation for decades. But in my various travels as a film historian, I must admit that I do not always interact exclusively with distinguished universities and revival theatres. There is that less-publicized element of filmdom we convention-goers know as the “bootlegger.” From such a figure I was able to view a copy of the film which was taken off a 16mm print.

Only nitrate film can do Letty Lynton justice. The depth and clarity of the image is lost in any other format. So what I saw was only an approximation of the film. Nevertheless, one can clearly see that this was one of Joan Crawford’s most glamorous roles. One of the film’s biggest assets are the gowns by Adrian. One of which created a fashion craze at the time of the film’s release. When it came to wardrobe, makeup and glamour photography, MGM was the best. No one looked better in this period than Joan Crawford. She was 28 when she made Letty Lynton. There were certainly many phases to her long career, but some of us prefer this pre-Code era when she looked her best in films like Grand Hotel and Rain— both 1932.

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In Letty Lynton, Joan Crawford plays the heroine of the title– a free-spirited socialite who is having a romantical foray abroad in Montevideo, Uruguay. This is a world of crowded tango cabarets. She is living with a Latin playboy who is domineering and possessive. Emile Renaul (played by Swedish actor Nils Asther) is addicted to Letty and can’t let her go. “You will never leave me” he tells her with a melodramatic intensity. She responds to his will by saying she hates him– “In ten minutes you’ll love me.” His nature is on display early in the film when he smacks his driver in the face for falling asleep. Letty finally realizes she’s had enough and, with her maid Miranda in tow, leaves him for New York.

Onboard ship she meets Jerry Darrow (Robert Montgomery), a good-natured gentleman who is staying in the stateroom across from her. Later that day he arranges to have the occupant of room 787 seated at his table in the ship’s dining room. (Letty’s maid also arranged to do the same.) Letty makes her entrance in a fashionable evening dress. After ordering their meal, Jerry tries to start a conversation.

“Some people are born lucky.” he says. “Others gather it as they go along, and some have it thrust upon them.”

“Oh, that’s delightful,” Letty responds. “Who said that?”

“I said it.”

“Oh … I thought it was out of a book. Shakespeare or somebody.”

Over a couple of dry martinis, Jerry tells his “hair-raising experiences” of living in Africa with panthers and lions to a clearly enchanted Letty.

The Letty Lynton dress on the Grand Hotel set!
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They are enjoying each other’s company while the ship is sailing during the holidays. But for Letty, Christmas is associated with tragedy and the death of her father, so her scene with Jerry has a poignancy. (This is also the sequence where Joan Crawford wears the famous shoulder-ruffled dress.) A shipboard romance develops between them. Even though Jerry never once tried to kiss Letty, he asks her to marry him. She agrees, but on the return to New York she is startled to find Emile waiting for her on the dock. He had apparently flown back in order to meet her. After successfully keeping the two men apart while going through customs, Letty retreats to her stately home. Her mother (May Robson) is a stubborn woman who has been hurt in the past and has disconnected herself from human affection.

Emile shows up at the home and demands that Letty meet him at his hotel that night. After blackmailing her with love letters she had written to him during her torrid South American adventure, she consents. Letty is trapped. She wants to be true to Jerry and would rather not live at all without him.

At the hotel she tries to convince Emile to turn over the letters. She’s been thinking about love and she pleads to him that this is her chance now. “Women don’t think.” he tells her. “They change their minds. That’s all.” Emile strikes her repeatedly. The scene culminates with a poisoned glass of champagne.

The hotel scene is the best part of the movie and it’s nearly 14 minutes in length. (The films runs a total of 84 minutes.) It’s a suspenseful and well-staged sequence that even has a touch of the macabre with the room service waiter making a toast to the lifeless body of Emile. I don’t want to reveal too many details of how the fatal drink goes down, but Letty had every intention of killing herself in that room.

The next day Letty is visiting her in-laws-to-be when a detective shows up unannounced. Letty is taken to a hearing in which the D.A. (a well-cast Lewis Stone) tries to trap her with his line of questioning. Jerry, who came along with her mother, steps forward with a fabricated alibi. Her mother then backs up Jerry’s story with a straight face.  This is something you would never have seen during the heyday of the Production Code when the guilty never went unpunished. But Letty Lynton raises a moral dilemma about truth and the greater good. Characters lie and fabricate an alibi involving fornication between Jerry and Letty, and yet her fate and the ending is just. She was an abused victim– not someone trying to beat the legal system.

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Crawford’s performance– especially her last words to Emile– have an intensity that make her scenes dynamic. Like many of her roles dating back to Our Dancing Daughters, Joan is a “modern” girl from a wealthy family. As her mother tells the D.A., “We are not living in the early ’90s.” Like many heroines in the pre-Code era, Joan plays a girl with a past who wants to go “the right way.” Unlike Barbara Stanwyck’s character in Baby Face, for instance, Letty Lynton is not willfully deceiving and manipulating men to her own advantage. She makes the decision to break away but only finds herself pursued by her past. To modern viewers, the film may appear dated with notions about love they can’t understand or melodramatic with the dialogue, but the film deals with universal truths and issues that are just as relevant today with women victimized and trapped in abusive relationships. The film handles the subject in an adult way.

Letty Lynton, which was directed by Clarence Brown, is a terrific pre-Code film. Is it a lost masterpiece? No, but it is of value to fans of Joan Crawford and fans of the Hollywood style. She looks amazing in this film. Letty Lynton has that MGM gloss and sophistication. It’s a piece of classic cinema containing so many things that have fallen by the wayside: elegant movie stars like Joan Crawford and Robert Montgomery, the great Art Deco sets as seen on the ship, the camerawork and staging of the actors in all their best angles– and that aforementioned wardrobe that helped shape Joan Crawford into a screen legend.

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NOTE: The MGM film version is based on the Marie Belloc Lowndes’s novel called Letty Lynton. Edward Sheldon and Margaret Dyer Burnes, authors of the play Dishonored Lady, sued MGM claiming plagiarism. Their play, like the Lowndes novel, was based on a real-life incident and trial in 1857 in Scotland involving Madeleine Smith and the poisoning of her lover. (This was later made into a 1950 David Lean movie called Madeleine.) Eventually, MGM lost the case, but the legal battles continued over how much of the Letty Lynton profits should go to the authors of the play. (The U.S. copyright on Dishonored Lady expires in 2025.) This legal morass has kept the film from being released commercially.