Thursday 28 July 2016

Letty Lynton (1932)

Director: Clarence Brown
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.
I had a blast taking part in the 1932 blogathon earlier this month, so had no intention of saying no when I got asked to take part in another one. This is to commemorate the work of Joan Crawford, so I wandered through her filmography looking to see where my gaps are. When I realised that Letty Lynton is the only film of hers from 1932 and 1933 that I hadn’t seen, synchronicity nodded its head at me. When I read up on it and realised why I hadn’t seen it, it became a must. For the Joan Crawford blogathon, hosted by the blog ‘In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood’, I’ll happily watch the Crawford movie that I’m not supposed to watch. Hey, what can I say? I’m a rebel. The reason I’m not supposed to watch it is because MGM, who made it in 1932, were taken to court for plaguarism and lost. The film hasn’t been released since so, like any other potential viewer, I was forced to trawl through the grey market and suffer through a digital rip from a bootleg VHS tape with poor quality visuals and notably crackly sound.

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’.
Such a prominent murder was bound to resonate and Mrs Lowndes wasn’t the only author to base a work on it. Two playwrights brought the case to the stage under the title Dishonored Lady. One was Edward Sheldon, whose highly successful work was often adapted to film in the teens and twenties; he had a huge hit with Romance in 1913, a play which ran for over a thousand nights in the West End and was adapted twice onto film: in 1920 with Doris Keane and again in 1930 with Greta Garbo. Perhaps because he was going blind because of crippling rheumatoid arthritis as of 1929, he started to collaborate with Margaret Ayer Barnes, a lady who took up writing to bide her time while recovering from a traffic accident which broke her back. She did pretty well at it; she won the Pulitzer Prize for her debut novel, Years of Grace. That was in 1931, after Sheldon had retired. Dishonored Lady was his last hurrah but just a beginning for her. It was also directly adapted to film, but much later, in 1947 with Hedy Lamarr.

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.
And that’s rather frustrating today, whatever the quality of this particular film, which I was now even more eager to see. Just look at the people involved! It was directed by Clarence Brown, the pre-eminent director of women at MGM; he directed Greta Garbo in seven films and Joan Crawford in six, including this one. She was never a minor leading lady; she’d risen during the silents to play opposite actors of the calibre of Lon Chaney and successfully made the transition to sound. Her pre-codes had variable success but her infamous ‘box office poison’ era wouldn’t show up until the end of the decade; it surely can’t have hurt that she’d also married into Hollywood royalty in the form of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Robert Montgomery was her co-star in 1929’s Untamed, his first picture as a leading man and her first sound film; this could be seen as a thematic sequel in some ways, given that the pair meet and fall in love on an ocean liner travelling to New York in both films. Add in Nils Asther, Lewis Stone and May Robson and it’s a must see.

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.
To highlight how insubstantial Letty is, let’s look at how long it takes her to move on from mad and passionate Emile. Miranda, her maid, does float the idea that there might be someone interesting on board and Letty does say, ‘I hope not,’ but, before the door to her stateroom is even closed, she spies Robert Montgomery just across the hall and we’re off and running with the usual romantic shipboard entanglements. There’s a nice scene as both Miranda and Jerry Darrow, Montgomery’s character, pay the steward to sit the pair together at dinner. They seem to be a perfect match, the pair as insubstantial as each other. She’s from Long Island, while he’s from Boston. ‘Mayflower?’ she asks. ‘Sure,’ he replies. His father is a rubber company; hers is a chemical works. He makes up wild tales about his adventures in Africa, as if he’s Baron Munchausen, while she hangs on every word. I liked the improvisational feel of the dialogue, but felt nothing for either of them. At this point, I was hoping they were on the Titanic with an iceberg ahead.

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.
When the real Letty Lynton emerges from her carefully fashioned facade, it shows just what Joan Crawford could do. Never mind the first twenty minutes, in which she’s insubstantial fluff, the 1932 equivalent of Kim Kardashian, it’s the last hour that shows her talent and it begins out there on the balcony fighting away the tears at Christmas. Reality firmly introduces itself here, first with a proposal from Darrow who has known her all of two weeks and then with the appearance of sleazy Emile Renaul (remember him?) at the New York dock waiting for her to arrive. ‘I’ve got to keep those two men from meeting,’ she tells Miranda, but this is a long way from a screwball comedy; this has just turned from a romance into a psychological thriller. I don’t know what depression era slang called a stalker, but she’s got one of those right in her face and Louise Closser Hale memorably sticking out her tongue when he turns the other way isn’t going to be enough to get rid of him. Now we can see how the source material is going to apply!

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.
It’s hard not to spoil a film when the bits that constitute spoilers are the ones taken from real life and I’ve already introduced that case as an explanation of why we officially can’t see this film and why I had to see it anyway. However, I can emphasise that there is some serious power to the final scenes, which are reliant on more actors than merely Crawford and Montgomery. I can also say that this is a quintessential pre-code, that brief era of black and white Hollywood which exhibited freedom in a way shocking to us today, used as we are to the golden age under the hefty restrictions of the Production Code. Let’s just say that this story could not have been told in the code era, at least not like this, and when Hollywood tried it, with Hedy Lamarr in that adaptation of Sheldon and Barnes’s Dishonored Lady, the Hays Office required serious cuts which excised characters and cities, a ‘night of sordid passion’ and every suggestion that the leading lady had even thought about murder. Letty Lynton it sure ain’t.

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.


Christian Esquevin said...

Great review and historical info on this film. I've seen photos from it but have never seen he film itself. I know Adrian's work and this movie made him famous internationally. It would have been a successful film for MGM, too bad.

LĂȘ said...

I also became an outlaw in order to review Letty Lynton. I agree that the first half an hour is boring (what is that kind of dance Joan and Robert do at the ship?) but I'd like to see a restored print. We can dream, can't we?
Don't forget to read my take on the movie!

Silver Screenings said...

Interesting background to this film. I've never come across it, but it sounds like it's worth the effort to track it down – even if it's not a digitally restored version.