Letty Lynton is one of those hidden movies cinephiles look to unearth from the sands of time. In this case, it’s namely because it’s notoriously difficult to view after a court case in 1936 deemed it was too close in plot to the play Unfaithful Woman, which, coincidentally was made into a later movie with Hedy Lamarr.
It’s rather astounding, as we near a century later, the film is still fairly hard to come by though not entirely obsolete. Could it be that this plays mostly into its mystique as a forgotten classic? Partially, yes. But it’s yet another stellar showcase for Joan Crawford’s unparalleled stardom in the 1930s even as it highlights the perils and burden of womanhood.
Letty (Crawford) is a gorgeous socialite who has all the men fawning over her and why not? She’s Joan Crawford draped in luxuriant furs and the immaculate creations of Adrian. However, one of her suitors, Emille (Nils Aster) is particularly persistent. She’s made a habit of leaving him only to return for more passionate romance. This time she’s ready to end it for good.
It’s not healthy for her and so she and her faithful maid prepare to run to another far-off destination by ocean liner never to be seen by Emille again. This is of primary concern. It just happens she is birthed across from Robert Montgomery and you hardly have to tell him twice when he’s caught a pretty girl in his sights. He makes a note of it until the right moment…
Still, two can play the game. They’re both intent on making each other’s acquaintance, and so it is arranged. They spend a jaunty evening cavorting until the wee hours of the morning, being chased around the decks by the crew of sailors washing it down for the night. Their rapport builds fast and easily.
Crawford is a modern girl with her puffed sleeves as decadent as can be. It seems obvious that you need a certain amount of confidence or, dare I say, audacity, to pull off such a look, and Crawford was nothing if not audacious. It helps to cement her legacy in the annals of cinematic fashion.
Christmas comes with streamers and ice sculptures. Despite the gaiety, she has a few bittersweet tears, and he does everything to cheer her up. There they are in her cabin, their feet kicked up on the furniture, and he proposes marriage with a glance as he holds a lit cigarette.
Letty is incredulous, even mesmerized by him. He’s a different sort of man. In a world swimming with men all clawing to get their hands on her, Jerry’s not like that at all. He never tries to kiss her or hold her hand or any of that. He’s not looking to get fresh because his character is genuine.
It wins her over. And then we remember it’s still Christmas, and they are deliriously happy banging on every cabin door as they stroll down the corridor madly in love and rousing the deck with some late-night yuletide cheer. For the first time in her life, she’s going straight and sincere, and Letty’s never felt better.
But it’s inevitable. The boat docks and waiting on the other side stands Emille. It’s wishful thinking to assume he would leave her be. She’s faced with a problem: there are two men in her life. One she doesn’t want to lose and the other she wants desperately to get rid of.
Not taking “no” for an answer, Emille pulls her in his arms and kisses her — trying to seduce her — and she rears back to slap him.”I’ve never had anything in my life I’ve loathed like that,” she says.
In a world hopefully far more aware of the burden of proof thrust upon women, Letty Lynton hardly feels dated. The import of its core drama is here with us today, despite the obvious notes of theatricality. It’s all spelled out through the crazed expression on Crawford’s face, a mix of relish and abject horror at what she’s witnessing.
Because she was prepared to end her life with poison rather than be forced to be blackmailed by her former lover, but she never has the chance to drink her medicine. In a development analogous to future dramas like Blue Gardenia, she becomes both a victim and the accused simultaneously.
Again, she looks to delay the repercussions and kick the can down the line. There’s the obligatory meeting with Jerry’s parents. They are decent, down-to-earth folks who welcome her in, thankful their son has settled on such a fine woman.
Imagine the embarrassment when a police detective shows up to take Letty in for questioning as she is closely implicated in a crime. Her fiance stays by her side as they go before the judge (Lewis Stone) in the privacy of his office as he deliberates on whether or not to bring the case to court. It doesn’t look good.
In her state of hopeless helplessness, Letty receives some steadfast aid from all sides. The ending is too pat — with looming consequences of perjury — but they insinuate the theme of the movie: happiness is tenable when we surround ourselves with loved ones who will loyally intercede on our behalf. So often relationships are tossed by the waves or racked with tension. What a wonderful thing it is to find the kind of renewed stability Letty installs in her own life.
The movie employs a bit of a cornball ending, but between the amiable chemistry of Montgomery and Crawford, and the redemptive arc, for such a hard-sought picture, Letty Lynton is a worthwhile film to seek out.