Writers: Wanda Tuchock, from a novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes with dialogue and continuity by John Meehan
Stars: Joan Crawford, Robert Montgomery, Nils Asther, May Robson and Lewis Stone
|This review is part of the Joan Crawford Blogathon blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.|
Here are the details as to why. Letty Lynton was written by Wanda Tuchock, a charter member of the Screen Writers Guild and one of maybe only two women to earn a directorial credit on a Hollywood film in the thirties: Finishing School, billed alongside George Nichols Jr. She based it on a recent novel by the prolific English novelist, Marie Belloc Lowndes, sister to Hilaire Belloc and author of The Lodger, which has been adapted to the screen many times, including by Alfred Hitchcock. In turn, Mrs Lowndes based it on the real murder case of Madeleine Smith, a Glaswegian socialite who is generally believed to have poisoned her secret lover with arsenic in 1857. He was Pierre Emile L’Angelier and the letters she wrote to him were found in his lodgings and caused her to be arrested and charged. There was much circumstantial evidence to point to Smith being the killer, but not enough to prove it, so the jury returned a verdict of ‘not proven’, a middle ground in Scotland between ‘innocent’ and ‘guilty’.
Sheldon and Barnes took MGM to court because they claimed that the film stole from their play. I’m no lawyer, so much of what I read of the case law history makes little sense to me, but I believe that what sunk the studio was the dialogue, which presumably matched that in the play but not the novel. Tuchock wrote the script, but there’s a further credit for John Meehan’s ‘dialogue and continuity’. He was hardly a minor name either, having being Oscar-nominated for writing The Divorcee in 1930, but he may have been the main reason why this film got stuck in litigation. The playwrights demanded all the profits from the film, but they got a 20% cut of the net, given that movie stars contribute to profits too; this is notable because it marks the first time that a copyright infringement claim was settled like a patent infringement claim and MGM fought that all the way to the Supreme Court. However, they chose not to hear the case and that was that. It also locked in an injunction against the film, hence why we can’t see it.
I found that it actually is a must see, though it didn’t appear that way for quite a while. I was annoyed by it for perhaps almost half an hour, as nobody in the story appeared to have any substance at all. Crawford plays the title character, a carefree socialite rather like the flappers she played in so many late silents. The Lyntons are rich, but Letty has escaped them to fritter away her time down in Montevideo in the arms of a quintessential Latin lover by the name of Emile Renaul. He’s played by the capable Nils Asther, who had frittered away time with Joan Crawford in a number of those late silents, such as Our Dancing Daughters. He’s a sleazy character with a sleazy accent and a sleazy choice of poetic phrasing: ‘When I hold you in my arms, even the memory of everything is gone,’ is but one example of many. He’s also creepy because he won’t take no for an answer. ‘This is the finish!’ she tells him in her hotel room. ‘You will never leave me, Letty!’ is his blind response. Next day, she’s on her way to the cruise liner heading north.
Fortunately, things settle down and the pair of them start to exhibit signs of being real human beings. There’s a interesting scene where they try to find deckchairs that aren’t on decks being swabbed down with hoses, as they’re the beautiful people and things like this aren’t supposed to happen to people like them. It’s at Christmas, though, that we start to feel for Letty, as while everyone else is enjoying the organised on board celebrations, she’s out on the balcony with tears ready to flow. Maybe her story about her father being shot at Christmas was true but, whatever the cause, it’s the first time she’s been truly honest and the first time that we actually see the real Letty Lynton who’s been hiding behind her fabulous wardrobe until now. Her gowns, and she has a large collection of them, were designed by Adrian and they’re impressive, even for someone as far from a fashion plate as I am. Macy’s reproduced ‘the Letty Lynton dress’, selling fifty thousand copies of it, and that isn’t even the best one she wears on board ship.
The film’s structure becomes a little awkward, as we’re introduced to people, like May Robson as Letty’s grounded mother and the new faces to me of Walter Walker and Emma Dunn as Jerry’s jovial parents, while Emile starts to threaten. Nils Asther comes close to stealing the second half, immensely surprising to me given that he was as insubstantial and annoying as Letty in Montevideo. It has to be said that he’s a very believable ladykiller, impressive given that he was ‘unabashedly gay’ in real life, as Wikipedia would have it. Then again, he’d played a similar part before in Our Dancing Daughters, in which he becomes a jealous and angry husband to a flapper who chooses her party animal friends over him, friends like Joan Crawford in the picture which really made her a star. It gets hard in this film to remember the suave and jovial Montgomery when Asther slaps a huge kiss on her and she slaps a big slap on him. ‘There’s no love for you but mine,’ he insists and our memories deliver every movie ever made for the Lifetime Channel.
And with that comment, I should add that I’d really like to see Letty Lynton in a nice, restored, official release, as unlikely as that is, given the federal injunction still in effect. Perhaps MGM could look the other way while someone records the 35mm print digitally and leaks it to YouTube. Fans of Crawford and Montgomery deserve to be able to see this film, as does anyone who remembers Nils Asther. I’ve read people citing the scene surrounding Emile’s death as the finest piece of acting Crawford ever gave. Given that she won a deserved Oscar for Mildred Pierce, that’s high praise, but it’s understandable because she blisters through it with attitude and it’s not the only scene of power that she has. Nowadays, however, it’s Adrian’s costume design that is remembered most. Many of the great MGM names worked on this, like Cedric Gibbons and Douglas Shearer, but their work isn’t recognisable in a bootleg with horrible sound while Adrian’s dresses are. But how much better would they look in a restoration? Sadly, we’ll have to imagine.