Directed by Clarence Brown
Written by Wanda Tuchok and John Meehan (based on the novel by Marie Belloc Lownes and the play Dishonored Lady by Edward Sheldon and Margaret Ayer Barnes)
Spoilers: highish, inasmuch as I refer to the details of the real-life criminal case and the copyright infringement litigation resulting in this film's unusual legal status
Update 7/15/2023: I was way off on certain details of another film's legal status, which I have now corrected, though I find my initial error incredibly embarrassing
Twice over, Letty Lynton has the taste of the forbidden. As a 1932 film, it predates the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code, often called the Hays Code, and perhaps even more often called "the Hayes Code" because a lot of people who fancy themselves cultured still can't spell; and amongst the self-selecting group of people who even care about movies from the 1930s, to be "pre-Code" grants a status that, in my experience, is still usually based more in hype than reality. I recognize my sampling bias: it's likely that the majority of the pre-Code films I've seen are the product of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, usually described as more conservative than the bad boys at Paramount and Warners (then again, Paramount and Warners complained constantly about MGM's special treatment, allowed to swan about making what feels like two dozen movies about sympathetic whores every year); likewise, many of the pre-Code films I've seen lately are, specifically, Clarence Brown movies, and Brown was avowedly conservative whereas, in regards to sex (at least as had by people other than himself and his numerous sexual partners), he was a prude, not that I think you'd guess either of those things from a body of work that, up through 1932, is the major plank of MGM's sympathetic whore platform. As far as the pre-Codeness of today's subject goes, I will stake this much right now: Letty Lynton is one of those occasions that lets you perceive, with crystalline clarity, the difference between movies made before the Code and after it, and being pre-Code is absolutely prerequisite to how it works.
Nevertheless, while most pre-Code films never think of using their freedom to do anything as special as Letty Lynton, that doesn't mean we actually have to worry about Joseph Breen bursting through the door to check if this one is giving us erections or ideas. But Letty Lynton is, indeed, truly forbidden—forbidden to be seen, and forbidden to be shown, for it transpired that this film embroiled MGM in a famous copyright infringement case, the ultimate result being that MGM consigned their movie to a dungeon somewhere beneath Culver City so as to avoid paying any further damages. (By the time this happened, the film, being a big hit but also being meaningfully pre-Code, had roughly zero re-release value anyway.) It's therefore one of the three MGM pictures directed by Brown, along with 1931's Inspiration and 1933's Looking Forward, that are not officially available in any form today, and the only one with a reason for that.
Strangely, of these three films it's the "forbidden" one that's by far the easiest to find. The strange part isn't really that you can find it, for by dint of being controversial "lost" media, it has the power to attract attention; the strange part, then, is that this heavily-suppressed film exists out in the wild at all, because it certainly isn't supposed to, and, inasmuch as in the original published draft of this essay I got an awful lot of shit wrong viz. a parallel litigation involving another Clarence Brown movie, Night Flight, I will only forward that somebody extraordinarily committed to cinema history must have smuggled Letty Lynton out into the world somehow, perhaps on a TCM broadcast that oughtn't have happened, perhaps as something else. You can watch it through gray channels now, and, as I sincerely doubt that its current Warners Discovery owners will do a damn thing with it upon the expiration of its adjudicated source material's copyright in 2026, I encourage you to do so, even if the copy looks atrocious.
Previously, I'd assumed that the district court, which held there was no infringement, must have been wrongly reversed by the 2nd Circuit, for the opinion upon appeal was written by one Learned Hand, a good jurist, but one who could be perniciously wrong about plagiarism. Despite helping confirm the well-known dichotomy between "expression" and "idea" that remains the foundation of copyright law, Hand was unable to apply it in any reasonable manner just a few years later when he heard the appeal for comics' most infamous litigation, DC's attack upon Fawcett; Hand declared, pretty much analysis-free, that of course the latter had infringed upon the former, because he couldn't tell Superman and Captain Marvel apart, which is effectively admitting to being dumber than very small children. But he was right about this one.
The essential fact of Letty Lynton is that it is based, secondhand, on the celebrated Madeleine Smith case: in 1857, the Glaswegian woman was tried for a murder she almost certainly committed, the poisoning death of her paramour Pierre Emile L'Angelier, who had attempted to blackmail her into marriage with her saucy letters; but she got off scot free, so to speak, perhaps thanks more to jury nullification, for while her advocate made a decent argument that killing the man would only guarantee the revelation of her indiscretions, Smith does not come off like a particularly brilliant murderess anyway. In 1928, she passed, and in 1930 and 1931, respectively, Smith's story became the basis for not one but two fictionalized, contemporized retellings. The first was a play, Dishonored Lady, by Edward Sheldon and Margaret Ayer Barnes; the second was a novel, Letty Lynton, by Marie Belloc Lowndes. MGM made a go at adapting the former, getting far enough that Sheldon and Barnes even wrote a screenplay treatment for them; but the studio had, sneakily, inserted a trap-door into their contract permitting MGM to abandon the project if the Code Office had problems with an adaptation of a play already renowned for its provocations. The Code Office, unsurprisingly, had such problems. Yet by 1932, MGM had begun production on Letty Lynton, which was hypothetically easier to sneak through (though the Code Office was not fooled), and I'm sure it was mere coincidence that Lowndes's novel was markedly less expensive. Later, Brown would testify that he barely knew what Dishonored Lady was, so, yes, by all means the implication is that my guy perjured himself.
The film itself is rather openly a mash-up of both play and novel (the detail that gets me is that Nils Asther, a Dane, plays the bad lover, who in the novel is a Swede, while in the movie he's a Latin, much like in the play); rather heinously, it seems to have poached at least one idea (a lengthy sea voyage) from the playwrights' treatment. This didn't (directly) figure into the legal reasoning, but the Second Circuit would've had plenty else to go on, anyway, like the way the film ends, which draws from the play and is as far from the ending of the novel as the basic concept could allow. As for that novel, it is—I have done far too much research—not very good: Lowndes has some psychological insight, but she's a clunky stylist (she certainly uses the phrase "love passage" more often than it can bear, that is, more than once); plus I swear she straight-up forgot that she'd started her novel off with a retrospective, "true crime" conceit when she decided to awkwardly switch from past to present tense for the inquest finale. As for her heroine, Lettice Alice Lynton, she never resolves into anything more than an unlikeable borderline personality dream girl, who just kind of... does stuff, and with whom we spend 260 pages before the novel's plot finally starts. Like this review!
Brown, being an efficient 30s melodrama-maker who definitely did not read source materials, gets there quicker, and it's surprising how much his movie, composite of so many things, becomes its own thing, so that I'm fairly confident it's the best version of its story. (A comparison to the 1947 screen version of Dishonored Lady is as instructive about the pre-Code and Code eras as anything could be. Bizarrely sleazier, in mitigation of this it inflicts mid-40s psychiatry upon our heroine; sadly, suggesting that a woman's sex drive is nymphomania isn't usually actually nicer. Its most maladaptive Code-driven mutation, however, would be a superfluous third male character, whom you gradually realize has usurped the core function of its particular Madeleine Smith.) But the important thing is that, being a Clarence Brown melodrama, Letty Lynton instinctively takes its heroine's side, banking on the relatability of Letty's anxious, high-pitched feelings in ways that I know the novel never attempts with its pretty sociopath, and that I doubt the play manages, either. Crucially, Brown's version is genuinely a love story, which neither of its sources bother with; and one of the things it takes from the novel, its heroine's mother's contempt, is itself vastly better-handled insofar as here it has a point. The goal, of course, was probably to make it more conventionally commercial; but I personally find it more sophisticated this way, compared to the nihilism embodied in the novel and play.
So: on the seedier side of a Montevideo night, we find Letty (Joan Crawford, right back to careless aristocrats after finding her more enduring working-class persona in Possessed), held fast by the barely-veiled sadomasochistic allure of Emile Renaul (Asther). They dance till morning, and with some charity, we could interpret the unpleasant brightness of Oliver Marsh's cinematography and, moreover, the incredibly terrible rear projection and bad framings it occasions, as Brown's way of giving us Letty's subjective experience of the cold light of day; she decides she's had enough. She's had enough before, but this time she says she's serious, absconding with her maid Miranda (Louise Closser Tale) with the full intention of returning to her stern widowed mother (May Robson) back in New York, almost-if-not-quite in time for Christmas. She probably wouldn't have done more than set a new personal record in putting distance between herself and Emile—she might have made it as far as Havana—for when Christmas comes and goes and Letty doesn't even get a seasons-greeting telegram from her mother, she's threatened with falling right back into her decadent spiral. Yet on this trip she's met a new man, Jerry Darrow (Robert Montgomery), a man much of her social class but, more importantly, kind—capable of a love distinct from Emile's possessive cruelty.
By the time they've reached America, they're engaged, but this is complicated by the reality that air travel is faster than sea travel and Emile has a plane. Claiming ownership of her future as well as her past, he threatens to publicize the letters that memorialize, in detail, the filthiness of their affair. She agrees to see him one more time, hoping that there's something human there she can plead with—though she doubts it, which is why she brings a vial of poison with her to take when, as she expects, her efforts fail. They fail completely, and, behind his back, she pours a lethal dose into her champagne. But Emile is so eager to celebrate her submission that the matter of which champagne glass is his gets ever-so-slightly confused.
There's some bad in Letty Lynton and it's almost entirely frontloaded: I've come to the unfortunate conclusion that Asther just isn't that good, and while this is his best performance that I've seen, he's not initially that good. The temptation, of course, is to say he never came up with really effective strategies to convincingly pretend to be heterosexual, which would explain his absent charge with actresses, though that's very unfair here; I believe Emile's straight, but there's not enough dark charisma here to comprehend why Letty's stuck in the mud with him, and Brown, though resorting to his old bag of erotic tricks, isn't entirely successful in getting Marsh or editor Conrad Nervig to conjure the languid atmosphere that would supply such a charisma on Asther's behalf. Maybe it's just down to an 84 minute movie's need to hit the ground running—Crawford is likewise bad for the first several scenes—and, like everything else, Asther gets better as this movie goes along. He is good at playing outright nastiness, and while it flirts a little with camp, I won't forget a death scene defined partly by the pitiful absurdity of Asther repeating in his nasal Argentinian-by-way-of-Scandinavia accent, "why is it so dark?"
I'll even admit that it took a second watch before I began to fully vibe with Montgomery and Crawford, too, though I now find that vibe very rewarding. From the 30s romcom construction of the mutual "subterfuge" of their meet-cute to their subsequent mutual gravitation during their ocean voyage, that staple of 30s romance, it all feels productively strange in context with the rest of what the film's about (abuse, blackmail, callous matriarchs, lies, murder). But Montgomery does quietly generous work in making it feel safe, and that's the point.
The value, for Letty and so for us, is in the contrast; in a sense it's "better" for being merely okay 30s romcomedy, rather than overly-stimulating, sparkling 30s romcomedy. Montgomery's playing it down the middle, never the blank slate for a fallen woman's newfound domestic aspirations that he was in Inspiration, but neither the fucking goon he often was in other films like The Divorcee or Riptide (or, with Crawford again, Forsaking All Others), and it's altogether the right choice for the awkward semi-charm of a somewhat doofy courtship. The emotional protectiveness is underlined during the odd Christmas telegram scene, where Jerry contrives to pretend he didn't get any holiday telegrams either, so hers probably also got lost in the shuffle, and in a movie that Brown is arguably treating a little too prosaically outside of the flashier "big" scenes, this is the sequence that gets his Tourneur-style shadowbox treatment, so that we can see Letty see Jerry hide his own messages, from her vantage in the dark. (It's also a good sequence in terms of sound design: a certain plane flies overhead and the way the noise violently slashes through the Yuletide hubbub does more than just foreshadow the danger waiting for Letty in New York, it calls deeply into question the security that Jerry offers.) But in a movie that's defined by its most bombastic scenes—very much a "three great scenes, no bad scenes (not particularly bad scenes, anyway)" type of film—Montgomery gets two of them, the first being his joyous reaction to an affirmative response to that marriage proposal, effectively chasing the camera down a hall like a madman, wishing his annoyed, sleepy fellow passengers a very merry Christmas.
But the great scene, well, that's pretty obviously when Emile eats it, and this belongs principally to Crawford, in what might be in the running as, if probably not the nerviest scene in a pre-Code film, then at least in an MGM one. Compromises for the Code Office were imposed, but they only made it all the more interesting and fraught, on the one hand ensuring that the screenplay would take enormous pains to tell you that, oh, goodness no, Letty doesn't intend to kill her lover, while the filmmaking is exactly as plain that Letty saw a last clear chance to stop it and damned well intentionally refused to take it, with a high-angle shot on Crawford's face where she mingles horror, breathless anticipation, confusion at her own inaction, and dawning triumph, all at once and tied together with the most minute smile that feels more like the suppression of a giggle. Marsh gets to do his best work in this scene, too, with a truly sinister mix of sordid shadows and extremely bright onscreen light sources that flare more than you usually see in this era. It eventually becomes an entire blackly comedic thriller setpiece—well out of Brown's usual ambit but awfully well-handled in its dizzying morbidity—but not before Crawford gets to shriek at her tormentor with fully-physicalized rage, and like I've practically never heard anybody shriek before.
Letty Lynton climaxes with only its second-best scene, then, but its best scene leaves a lot of room for the second-best to be excellent. It's not, however, so much the Brown of it—it's pretty resolutely staid as a piece of filmmaking—though maybe it was Brown's choice to pull in a latecoming Lewis Stone for what would, otherwise, have been the purely instrumental role of Letty's new antagonist, the D.A., and Stone's very perfect for this small role, deploying a combination of barely-concealed mean-spiritedness, the businesslike indifference of a busy attorney, and thrust-and-parry playfulness. But it's kind of just actors in a box—the D.A.'s office isn't even a richly-designed box—and I suspect I benefit from watching it in sequence with two of Brown's recent movies, namely A Free Soul and Emma, for while this is one part where it steals brazenly from the play, I don't know that this means that my initial supposition, that Brown merely wanted to dispense with the prospect of yet a third courtroom finale in barely more than a single year of making movies, was actually wrong. The brusqueness of it works, anyway. The Madeleine Smith story can only have the one ending and still be "the Madeleine Smith story," of course, so it's curious that of the four versions I'm aware of, they all still end so distinctly. This one is the best at tying up the throughlines of the story, and it's by far the one that's the happiest—to the extent that the guy whose job it is to put Letty in jail is still perfectly happy to immediately give up—and it's just one of the most wildly disorienting ways to end any movie, pre-Code or otherwise. And just to spin you around in your seat one more time, Montgomery gets a beautiful last line that burns the film's unexpected, orthogonal morality right into your brain.