The first glimpse we get of Letty Lynton (Joan Crawford) is when she’s in the middle of a crowded dance floor, with a man. She says to him that she wants to stay with him, to be with him and eat lotus and poppy. These symbols of “Orientalism” are referenced to signify the decadence of Letty’s lifestyle, and signify the man, Emile (Nils Asther, often cast a pesky “Other”), as a source of . She’s a bored socialite, on extended hiatus in South America, indulging in opiates and foreign lovers.
They leave the club, and she says she’s thinking. “Silly business,” says her lover. “I think I’ve had about enough,” is her response. She’s clearly been trying to leave him for a while, and she tries again. Emile follows her to her apartment, and she tells him she is leaving, again. He resists, says that she will stay and he will make her love him more and more. She glances at him, and replies, “no”. Simple as all that. Still, she succumbs to his charms once more (and with a moustache like that who can blame her?), for one more night (quoting Macbeth, of all things), and the next scene is shown escaping on a tender going out to the ship at sea, where she proclaims to her dedicated maid, “I feel as though I’m escaping from a burning building.” (There’s a few great other lines, too. “You know I never kiss anyone before one o’clock,” she says to another suitor in South America.)
She meets Jerry (Robert Montgomery) on the ship, and she is fast drawn to him. While in conversation, she says that she wishes she were a man. It’s not an uncommon for women in pre-Code films to express this wish. It’s demonstrative of a desire for more power than their sex traditionally offers, a drive for more freedom and personality. Even with this wish, though, she proclaims, “I never make any rules.”
A classic pre-Code woman, she says, “I haven’t been steering my course towards marriage, very much,” she says, resisting his approach, but she knows she will follow him. They kiss, then they’re engaged, and it’s all on. Off the ship in New York, her old beau finds out and tries to win her back, kissing her against her will, so Letty gets a good slap in there. The slap is one of Joan’s specialties. He blackmails her into his grasp, promising that he’ll expose their love affair to her new fiancé if she doesn’t. So she packs some poison, goes to his hotel, and asked for a glass of wine. She tries once more to beg for freedom, for the chance to marry her true love, but Emile won’t let her go. So she pours poison into her own glass, but to top off his arrogance, he takes the glass as she reaches for it and downs the whole thing.
Joan Crawford’s eyes are incredible in this scene. Earlier, when she made the decision to poison herself, her face and eyes blanked over with a terrifying determinism, a deathly blank stare. It happens again here as she reaches for her glass, then watched Emile drink his death. She waits, screams that it was meant for her but she’s glad he drank it, then leaves the room as the poison takes effect. She watches from behind a curtain as a waiter clears the tray from the hotel room, assuming Emile to be blackout drunk, and in a touch of humour, takes a glass of champagne for himself, too. (Clarence Brown’s direction is classy, typical of the time and yet so much more. Each placement of the camera suits the mood.) Letty then makes her escape from the room, wiping away her fingerprints, apparently planning to pretend she was never at the scene. Is it true that she never meant to poison him? We can’t be sure, but she seems genuinely sad, and ready to sacrifice her life if it means relief from unhappiness.
Suspecting her of murder, the police detective doesn’t only target her for the crime, but accuses her of living with the man for months! It’s as though the shame in that is worse than murder. That’s when it gets really heated. Jerry sticks up for her, gallantly (and to save his own face), “we’re not living in the early nineties” (those conservative times!). Letty Lynton is a true pre-Code diamond because Letty not only kills her former lover and gets away with it, but because she gets away with it because her new lover and her own mother provide false alibis, knowing she must be guilty. Upon realising that she’s a “tainted” woman, Jerry sticks up for her, stays with her, and they marry to combine their fortunes.
Letty Lynton was released, but has been widely unavailable since the 1940s, when a lawsuit decided against MGM that portions of the screenplay were plagiarised. (I’m sure its status as a pre-Code didn’t help either.) While adapted from a novelised version of a real-life murder case, Letty Lynton (written by Belloc Lowndes), was deemed too close to the play Dishonored Lady (1930) by Margaret Ayer Barnes and Robert Sheldon. Dishonored Lady was released as a film in 1947, a vehicle for Hedy Lamarr. If you get a chance to see it, consider yourself lucky, and make sure you do.
What’s more, Letty Lynton is famous for this dress, with the puffy sleeves. But isn’t the other much more incredible? The costume design by Adrian, who dressed Joan Crawford often, is pretty excellent.