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MGM. 84 minutes.
US release: 4/30/32 (premiere); 5/14/32 (general).
Not available on VHS or DVD.
Cast: Joan Crawford (as "Letty Lynton"), Robert Montgomery, Nils Asther, Lewis Stone, May Robson, Louise Closser Hale, Emma Dunn, Walter Walker, William Pawley.
Credits: From the 1931 novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes. Adaptation: John Meehan, Wanda Tuchock. Director: Clarence Brown. Camera: Oliver T. Marsh. Costumes: Adrian. Editor: Conrad A. Nervig.
Plot Summary: Based on a novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, this drama chronicles the tangled web woven by a poisonous New York socialite who tires all her means to escape the unwanted attentions of a would-be lover before resorting to murder. Joan Crawford stars as the title character whose travails begin during a South American vacation after she meets the handsome Emile (Nils Asther). For her own amusement, she dallies with him and even writes him a few passionate letters before boredom overtakes her and she decides to return to the Big Apple--without her new lover. Unfortunately, Emile has become obsessed with her and to force he to stay threatens to use her impassioned letters to socially embarrass her back home. This only increases her icy determination to return home. On the long cruise northward, she meets and falls in love with Robert Montgomery and they get engaged. Crawford has no idea that Emile has taken a plane to New York so he can greet her at the dock. He then begins stalking her and constantly threatening her with those damning letters until she decides she has had enough and puts a permanent end to his badgering. Unfortunately, her action is not without repercussions and ultimately, she must put her trust in her fiance and her mother with whom she has been emotionally estranged. ~ Sandra Brennan, All Movie Guide
• Banned in England on grounds that it "justified homicide without penalty."
• Joan lobbied for Clark Gable to get Montgomery's role, but Gable was already committed to Marion Davies' Sally of the Circus.
• Around this time, Joan discovered hairstylist Sydney Guilaroff in New York City. She liked the style he created for her so much that she travelled the 3,000 miles back to Hollywood without touching it and immediately had studio stylists copy the look for her appearance in Letty. Soon afterward, she convinced MGM to hire Guilaroff.
• Letty is not widely available today because of a 1936 court decision that ruled MGM violated copyright laws by too closely following the script of Edward Sheldon's play "Dishonored Lady." Click here to read the full court decision.
• The ruffled-shoulder organdy dress worn by Letty set off a nationwide fashion craze; according to Walker's book, the dress sold 1 million copies in America.
Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times
April 30, 1932
Joan Crawford and Robert Montgomery are the principal participants in "Letty Lynton," the film at the Capitol, which is based on a novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes. It is a feature with beautiful photography and good direction, but most of its incidents are implausible and the dialogue is often of the synthetic variety.
The opening scenes are in Montevideo, and one soon learns that a wild and wealthy young woman named Letty Lynton appears to have a great deal of difficulty in resisting the smooth talk and good dancing of a man known as Emile Renaud. One gathers that the affair between these two has gone far, for Emile appears to be sanguine that Letty cannot leave him.
Letty, however, does succeed in tearing herself away from Renaud. Aboard a vessel bound for New York, Letty, who has an elderly companion, Miranda, arranges to sit at Hale Darrow's table. Incidentally this rich young man also had asked to have Letty assigned to his table.
The scenes between Letty and Hale are moderately amusing, but the conversation between them strikes one as being an inexpert imitation of Noel Coward's dialogue. These two soon decide that they are in love, and Letty is highly gratified at having left Emile so far away. When the steamship reaches New York, however, Emile turns up on the pier. He had decided to take an airplane to meet Letty.
Inasmuch as Emile has several very affectionate missives from Letty, is it not astonishing that she does not wish to have the two men meet? Do what she will to avoid Emile, he succeeds in trailing her and in threatening to publish her letters in the newspapers. On the night that Letty is to follow Hale to his home in the Adirondacks, Emile insists that she come to his apartment.
By that time Letty hates Emile and she is so distraught by his conduct that she pours poison into a vial, which she takes with her when she goes to Emile's apartment. It is to be presumed that she intended committing suicide, but it chances that Emile drinks the champagne into which she has poured the poison and that is the last of him.
From then on the story is disappointing, for there is a District Attorney who appears to be crafty at first and subsequently extraordinarily sympathetic.
Clarence Brown, the director, pays too much attention to his photographic effects and not enough to the necessary psychology of the characters or the plausibility of the incidents. Both the comedy and the drama are forced.
Miss Crawford gives an efficient portrayal, and Mr. Montgomery does capital work in his rôle. Louise Closser Hale makes the most of the part of Miranda, but her lines are by no means easy to handle. Nils Asther impersonates Emile in an acceptable fashion, but Emile is a very strange person. Lewis Stone appears in the minor rôle of the District Attorney.
The gripping, simple manner in which this picture unfolds stands it squarely among the best of the month. Yet there is little that is new, and no attempt at ultra-sophistication....Joan Crawford as Letty is at her best. Nils Asther is a fascinating villain. Robert Montgomery gives a skillful performance....The direction, plus a strong cast, make Letty Lynton well worth seeing.
Motion Picture Herald (1932):
Almost everything one can wish for in entertainment has been injected into this superbly acted and directed production. The gowns which Miss Crawford wears will be the talk of your town for weeks after...and how she wears them!
Good drama with a couple of solid comedic licks tossed in by Hale. Some unbelievable plot turns mar the effect, such as the district attorney's fast dismissal of a murder charge after the false alibi. Several minutes could have been cut, most of all in the Crawford-Asther scenes. A bit of overplaying also serves to lose credibility. Adrian's gowns for Crawford were exceptional.
If you've seen Letty Lynton and would like to share your review here, please e-mail me. Feel free to include a photo of yourself to accompany your review, a star-rating (with 5 stars the best), as well as any of your favorite lines from the film.
Michael Lia (January 2011)
Rating: of 5
For legions of Crawford fans, and for many decades, was a mystery movie because of the plagiarism suit filed against MGM. The film was rarely viewed or ever shown to the public. It could be quite a challenge to try to find a copy of it and of course somebody did! Now we can all see it! There was a build-up of excitement and intrigue waiting to see this film and it does not disappoint for several reasons.
The Number One reason, of course, is ! Letty Lynton is definitely a turning point in the actress’s abilities and career. She shows a new maturity quite different from her 1931 films except for Possessed, which is where this new process began and Joan Crawford the actor transcends to the next level in the grand year of 1932. She is no longer forming at this point: She is here! (Grand Hotel and the misunderstood Rain take her to the finish line!)
At this point she is way ahead of the wispy actresses who play their craft safe and for the talented underrated ladies who never got the chance at roles MGM was passing out. Miss Crawford was an avid student and ready for the growth the studio offered her, and as her roles grew in importance, so did her confidence and being: not to mention her box office receipts and adoring public!
The other reasons this film is special cinema is for the MGM touch:
Clarence Brown (another underrated director) captures the feel of South America and the Latin night life of those times. The scenes on the ship are realistic. I find the poignant Christmas scene very touching and I always remember Miss Crawford’s tears and sadness. Her loneliness is subdued by Mr. Montgomery’s gallantry and love.
All the senses are touched by Adrian. (Need I say more?)
Miss Crawford is also graced with the wonderful character actors (Dinner at Eight), May Robson (Lady for a Day), and Emma Dunn (This Modern Age), as well as Lewis Stone (Queen Christina). All four are cinema treasures. It is true that the character actors brought in a lot of fans; I am one of those people. In fact, Miss Crawford has stated how the public loved the familiar faces -- the talent and class that came with their performances.
Miss Crawford is given two male co-stars, Mr. Robert Montgomery and Mr. (absolutely fabulous in The Bitter Tea of General Yen), aka "Mr. Suave" and "Mr. Sinister." I think Asther might have been Monty Beragon’s father. He is one nasty international dude. I always get a kick out of this particular casting since he is Swedish by birth; my mind expects Ingrid Berman features. Asther's sleazy handsomeness allows him to play the Latin Lover with scary obsession and psychopathic delight. I wonder what Letty saw in him? Oh.
Anyway, Letty makes the mistake of hanging out with this louse for feminine reasons (she and women to this day keep going for these sleazy meanies, mostly with disastrous results). Miss Crawford presents a sexuality that is desirable and glamorous and very feminine, even when she is planning on taking her own life. The fact that Mr. Asther drinks the poison champagne Letty intended for herself and she does not stop him!! It is Pre-Code cinema delight: She actually gets away with murder!!!! Never to happen again until the demise of the studio system thirty years later! That is some kind of Hollywood record!!
Critics and men today have a jaded Mommie Dearest view that has even distorted Miss Crawford’s beauty and sensuality. However, the camera does not lie. Miss Crawford is beautiful as Letty. Thank you, Mr. Marsh -- another fine craftsman from the MGM roster .He does some fine camera work within the confines of the sets. I often wonder what the critics expected from in the sexual desire department. I never knew that an actress was supposed to make the critic want to sleep with her; however, thousands of men in the 30s loved Miss Crawford, and she satisfies me with her beauty.
I think any cinema lover will enjoy the taut, tight script and the unfolding of the story in a swift 84 minutes. It is fine theatre, presenting moments of frightening situations mixed with elegant glamour. Nostalgia at its best!
Shane Estes (August 2010)
Rating: of 5
Another extremely rare and amazing Crawford film! I can’t believe copyright still prevents this from seeing an official DVD release! Everyone who sued MGM over this film is long dead so it’s time to get over it! Apparently this was one of the first court cases of copyright infringement in the entertainment industry. Aside from being rare due to legal issues, this film is also notable because of its pre-Code subject matter. The protagonist Letty () gets away with the murder of her embittered ex-lover without facing any consequences for her actions. Due to the enforcement of the Hays Code in 1934, this type of ending for a film would not be allowed again for decades to come (the Hays Code was abandoned in 1968 for the MPAA rating system). I would have to say that this films ranks up there in my top 5 Joan films!
As a Crawford fan, I find this film simply amazing. It’s by far and away one of her best 1930’s pictures. 1932 was a very successful year for Crawford with Grand Hotel AND , both hugely successful films for her. As a side note, I guess Rain (1932) was a loss for United Artists, but the numbers on the “Joan Crawford Box Office” page don’t add up for me: if the film cost $591,000 to make and it made a total gross of $704,000, wouldn’t that be an $113,000 profit? I’m not really sure how that works, or why it’s listed as a $198,000 loss, but what we do know for sure is that Crawford HATED that film! In my opinion, all three of the films from 1932 are pretty damn good, but this one has to be the best.
By 1932, Crawford had definitely come into what became known as “the Crawford look." Here she has the long lashes, the big mopey eyes, the exaggerated lipstick, etc. She looks fantastic! She’s so fun to look at here! The plot is the typical love triangle, just a bit more sinister than the later 1930’s Crawford love triangles. Letty can’t seem to get away from her controlling and domineering lover Emile () despite many attempts to escape his grasp. While aboard a cruise ship she falls in love with Jerry () and accepts his proposal without telling Emile. When Emile finds out about this and still won’t let her go, Letty intends to commit suicide by poison, but when Emile lifts the glass to his own lips, she doesn’t tell him that it’s poison.
The film definitely has an early talkie feel to it, but it holds up to the test of time quite well. It has a nice combination of comedy and drama. The early part of the film has a very lighthearted feel to it, like so many of Joan’s other 1930’s films, before finally taking a turn for the dark. Some good quotes are when Jerry and Letty are getting acquainted and he is telling her a story about his run-in with a lion and she says, “Oh, lucky it was a he-lion!” Another is when Letty says to some guy hitting on her, “You know I never kiss anyone before 1 o’clock.” The best quote of course is when Emile finally realizes that he has been poisoned and Letty says to him, “Yes, I did it! I meant it for myself! Do you hear me? I meant it for myself! I’m glad I did it! You dirty filthy greedy mongrel! I’m glad I did it! If I hang for it, I'm glad I did it!” And since I’m ranting off quotes here, there is a funny quote in this film that I’ve actually heard in several other early talkies, “This isn’t the early 90’s.”
Scott Coblio (July 2007)
Rating: of 5
I give this film five stars--not for being perfect from start to finish (which it isn't--but neither were most of the scripts Joan was usually enlisted to elevate for MGM)--but for Joan's knockout performance in the (in)famous poisoning sequence, which requires her to run an emotional gamut ranging from quiet dread, abject humility as she literally begs for a chance at happiness, smoldering resentment as it is denied, shattering resign as she lets go of her dream of a new life, of ANY life, then what can only be described as celebratory hysteria when Renault takes the poison she intended for herself. Once he begins to die from its effects, we see a suddenly-lethal Letty who has fought for her life and won, but at the cost of becoming a murderess.
The problem lies in the first two thirds of the film leading up to this-- "Letty" walks the usual tightrope between soap opera and melodrama that Joan patented and did better than anyone else, but the film--like "Rain" which followed it--is parched for physical action, talky to a fault, and the lengthy dialogue is nowhere nearly as clever or as cute as the screenwriters, director, et al, apparently thought it to be. Joan, of course, is gorgeously lit, coiffed and dressed in her Adrian finery, but the cruiseship romance/love triangle formulas are not given enough of a twist until too late. By the time the plot heats up, the viewer has already been exhausted by too much idle chatter.
That said, Joan makes up for it in the aforementioned Renault-death scene. Her performance here is actually very modern. Listening to him perish from the next room, with no more pathos than a lioness has for a dying animal she has hunted, Joan's face seems to have undergone some transformation into something almost ugly and bestial. Not content to just HEAR him expire, she stalks back into the main room to watch his death throes. Her face, her posture, her movement, all betray a woman who still wants to attack, to rend and kill this oppresser with her bare hands. But there is no need, for the poison is doing it for her. Watch how she snatches the phone out from beyond his grasp as he lunges to call for help. And her stridence when she tells him she's not sorry. The Letty character is letting herself feel her own bloodlust, with no apologies and no remorse. Like a prototype for the female protagonist in "The Burning Bed" (still decades away), she has ceased to be victimized and in her way is enjoying this act of revenge. And part of that revenge is letting him SEE that she's enjoying it. She is no longer prey. Having turned the tables on her predator, she has discovered that she--like Renault-- can now oppress, cause suffering, that she too can kill. Once Renault is dead, and the threat he posed neutralized forever, Letty collapses, her rigid posture melting immediately into heaving, relieved sobs. She is crying, but not tears of regret. Surprise! While the standard Crawford heroine would have been overcome with remorse and surrendered to authorities, Letty still wants her freedom! And in fact Renault has wreaked such havoc on her life by this time that the viewer is compelled to view his execution as a public service.
With characteristic resilience, Crawford wipes her fingerprints off all the doorknobs and glasses, then stalks out of the hotel-room-turned-crime-scene (but not before grabbing his framed picture of her, in a gesture that was probably not meant for comedy--for she seems to locate it almost by scent!). She arrives at her loveless mother's house in the early morning hours, laconically answering the old woman's questions about her whereabouts with blatant lies. After all, her mother was only the first in a long line of people who have failed Letty--does anybody deserve the truth? Having exterminated the enemy, Letty thus retires to bed until the inevitable police sirens. But as Letty said to Renault as he lay dying, "If I hang for it, I'm glad I did it!"
Joan would of course play madwomen and bitches after "Letty Lynton," but never so bewitchingly or with such abandon for the audience's sympathy as she does here. Nor with such complexity, for in "Letty," she is neither victim nor villain, but rather something poised uncomfortably between.
Stephanie Jones (October 2005)
Rating: of 5
Joan is "Letty Lynton," a seemingly gay but actually rather emotionally confused young woman who can't quite seem to figure out what to do with herself. Rejected by her mother ("Home and mother. I wonder who ever put those two words together."), New York socialite Letty has spent the past 3 months debauching in South America with a smouldering, dangerous Latin Lover (Nils Asther as "Emile Renaul") in the type of clubs "where society dances with the underworld" and patrons, searched for weapons upon entering, don't go home 'til daylight.
The interesting moral ambiguity of the story presents itself immediately with Letty's indecision: One minute she's languishing in Emile's arms saying she'll stay with him forever; the very next, she's suddenly disgusted with herself and him and their decadent lifestyle, threatening (as she has several times before) to abandon him and return home to New York City.
This time she's serious about leaving and does sail for New York. Aboard ship she meets the pleasantly charming and rich Jerry Darrow (Robert Montgomery), who, unlike the seedy Emile, would rather talk than kiss. This pureness of heart is initially a bit annoying---Letty and Jerry's early conversations are weakly written and their on-deck scampering more cloying than actually cute. A redeeming scene, though, comes on Christmas Eve, when apparently all passengers but Letty have received greeting wires from someone at home. Jerry, seeing Letty's stricken expression, gallantly pretends that he, too, hasn't received anything---a touching, sweet gesture that made me forget about the earlier overdone cuteness.
Upon their arrival in New York, the couple are greeted by a wild press mob eager for news about their just-announced engagement. Also on hand is Emile, who doesn't yet know about Jerry and is eager to reunite with Letty and take her back to South America. Letty pretends to greet him warmly, then skips out on him, only to have him show up at her mother's house later that evening, threatening to reveal Letty's letters to the press and to Jerry if she doesn't meet him at his hotel that evening. (Seemingly unfortunately for Letty, her cold, disapproving mother---who's already ignored Letty's Christmas gift, barely welcomed her home, and said she's untrustworthy---happens to overhear this conversation...)
The scene at the hotel is intense and frightening---we've been told that Emile is "dangerous" and indeed, he does strike Letty twice as they argue, but what is actually the most spooky and dangerous thing is the look on Letty's face and in her eyes during most of this scene---a borderline-demonic (yet subtle, if "subtly demonic" is possible!) blend of eroticism and revulsion. Emile notices this, too: After Letty's expressed her loathing of him and there's a brief lull in their fighting, he picks up a poison-laced glass of wine that she has fixed with the intention of killing herself. As she watches him drink, and makes no move to stop him, her eyes are glitteringly fascinated and he says, smugly misunderstanding: "You look as though you were interested in me once again." And, suddenly she is, embracing him hysterically before asking to be left alone for a moment. After he leaves, she is completely still as she listens to him singing in the next room; she has an expression of palpable distaste, but there's much more than that... The camera lingers on her expression for a long time, and I had to keep replaying the instant to try to figure out what it was that was so disturbing and compelling about it... Perhaps it was the sheer complexity of how Joan was channelling the character---at that moment I didn't feel like I was watching an actor playing hatred and guilt and morbid curiosity, but rather a real person actually feeling those things. You rarely see such complicated emotions adequately transferred to the screen by any actor---the shock that you feel when you do see it makes you realize and appreciate the skill involved.
And the scene doesn't let you off the hook here. Finally, Letty goes to the other room to see what is happening to Emile. The two look at each other for an instant as he's dying, and finally Letty can't stand it a second longer and lets loose, eyes again glittering ferally: "Yes, I did it! I meant it for myself...I'm glad I did it! You dirty, filthy, greedy mongrel! I'm glad I did it! If I hang for it, I'm glad I did it!" The intensity here is similar to what Joan would only months later conjure up in Rain as Sadie Thompson in Sadie's famous rant against the Reverend Davidson (which also gave me goosebumps). But even that scene can't compare to Letty's outburst here. Sadie's just plain mad at Davidson for his hypocrisy, but Letty's anger at Emile is more primally a pure bloodlust and desire for revenge. She hates him for trying to ruin her new pleasant life with Jerry, but also hates him because he's a reminder of her own decadent past that she's perhaps still tempted by.
Despite the rather slight plot-line, Letty Lynton's morally complicated characters make this film unusual and interesting: Letty is clearly confused and rather disturbed by both her recent and her family past (immediately after Emile is poisoned, Letty goes home from his room to Mother, who, inappropriately for that moment, chastises her for not "naturally" bringing her fiance Jerry home to meet the family; Letty wearily replies "Several natural things might've happened this evening, Mother, if you'd ever cared anything about me. It's too late for that now.") Aside from Letty's non-cardboard heroine, Emile is also not a cardboard villain---he'd clearly become used to Letty's caprice and understandably couldn't quite figure out when "No" really meant "No"... Even the "mean mother" ultimately reveals an unexpected depth of feeling. The film was banned in England for its non-PC denouement, but it's that very element of surprise that made this film so interesting to me.
Oh, and how could I not mention the clothes?! Also starring in this picture are the now-iconic dresses by Adrian---the organdy shoulder-ruffle dress that created a nationwide fashion craze (selling 50,000 copies at Macy's in NYC alone), the high-collared fur-trimmed coat and Garboesque skullcap, the ultra-glam gold lamé dress, the black-and-white shoulderless dress only briefly seen at the beginning of the film but immortalized by Hurrell...
Letty is rarely seen today because of copyright issues that have prevented its public release or showing on television; the fact that it remains a talked-about and important part of Joan's cinematic legacy is a tribute to its iconic style (as well as to the bootlegs out there that continue to showcase Joan's highly interesting, intense performance).
The one-two punch of Grand Hotel and Letty Lynton, released within a month of each other in the spring of '32, established with both the public and critics that Joan Crawford was a first-class actress as well as a star. Rain, released in the fall of the same year, wasn't so successful at the time, but this triumvirate when regarded today points to 1932 as the most cinematically productive and important year of Joan's career.
The Best of Everything