Wealthy heiress Letty Lynton (Joan Crawford) has been busy living the high life in Uruguay. She’s been carrying on a sordid affair with Emile Renaul (Nils Asther) for a while, but when she decides to give him up, she gets on the next boat home to New York. Letty’s tried leaving Emile before and has always come back, so he figures this is just another one of her whims.
But during the trip home, Letty meets Jerry Darrow (Robert Montgomery), and everything changes. They fall madly in love with each other, but Letty absolutely does not want Jerry to know about her wild past. She even considers getting off the boat when it makes a stop in Havana so he won’t find out. But before she can leave, Jerry proposes and naturally, Letty accepts. They happily continue on to New York, but when the boat docks, Letty is horrified to see Emile waiting for her. She sneaks away from Jerry and finds out the Emile wants to bring her back to Uruguay, but when Emile later finds out about Jerry and Letty’s engagement, he threatens to show Jerry the love letters she’s written to him.
Letty would rather die than let Jerry find out about Emile, so when she goes to Emile’s hotel room to get the letters, she brings a bottle of poison with her to commit suicide right then and there. Of course, Emile isn’t about to give them up. When he isn’t looking, she slips the poison into her drink, but then Emile takes the poisoned drink by mistake. Letty watches in horror as he dies, but ultimately can’t bring herself to be sorry. She flees his hotel room and goes with Jerry to visit his parents. But of course, the police come looking for Letty and she and Jerry have to be questioned.
I wouldn’t say Letty Lynton is one of the best movies of Joan Crawford’s entire career, but it is one of my favorites from her pre-code era. Story-wise, it feels a little different from the rest. One type of role Joan was most well-known for was the working class girl trying to move up in the world. In Letty Lynton, she’s already pretty high up on the social ladder. I love the scene after Emile accidentally takes Letty’s poisoned drink and Letty starts yelling at him about how she’s not sorry. That’s the kind of scene that made me understand why Bette Davis may have possibly envied Joan’s career at that time. I’m sure Bette would have loved to have played that scene. It was a total Bette Davis moment made two years before Bette even started playing those kinds of roles.
Even though I could totally picture Bette Davis in this movie, I love Joan in it. She, Robert Montgomery, and Nils Asther made a very enjoyable cast and it’s a pretty entertaining movie. As Joan Crawford fans know, Letty Lynton has been completely out of circulation since 1936 when a court ruled that it had plagiarized the play Dishonored Lady. If you look around enough, you can find bootleg copies of it, but it hasn’t been played in a theater since then, let alone shown on TV or officially released on VHS or DVD.
Joan in Adrian’s legendary Letty Lynton gown.
Late last year, reports surfaced that Warner Brothers was trying to straighten out the legal issues out so it could be released on DVD through Warner Archives and for it to be shown at the 2012 TCM Film Festival. They weren’t able to get it ready for the TCM Festival, but I’m holding out hope that it will eventually be put out on DVD because Letty Lynton deserves to be seen. Not only would Joan Crawford fans be thrilled, but this is one fans of pre-codes in general would love. And if you appreciate costume design, Letty Lynton is worth seeing if only for the spectacular Adrian gowns Joan Crawford gets to wear. Adrian did some of the best work of his career on Letty Lynton and to only be able to see that work through bootlegs copies of the movie is just unfortunate.
In the past, Warner Archive has successfully gotten The Constant Nymph and Night Flight out of legal messes and I’d be ecstatic if Letty Lynton could be added to the list. Of those three movies, I’d say Letty Lynton is the best of the bunch.