After watching Dishonored Lady (1947) the other day, I was reading a little about its background and found out about Letty Lynton, an obscure early Joan Crawford film. The details of the legal battle over the film, which has made it the hardest-to-find Crawford film, are long and complicated, but also fascinating. A brief summary: in 1930, playwrights Margaret Ayer Barnes and Edward Sheldon had a successful run on Broadway with their play “Dishonored Lady,” loosely based on the 1857 case of Madeline Smith, a Glasgow socialite who had affair with Pierre Emile L’Angelier, a gardener from the Channel Islands. Unaware of what was going on right under their noses, her parents arranged a financially upward marriage to William Harper Minnoch. When Madeline tried to break things off with Emile by asking that her love letters be returned, Emile turned to blackmail, threatening to use the letters to expose their affair, and ruin Madeline and her family. Soon after, Emile died of arsenic poisoning. Although evidence showed that Madeline had bought arsenic, her responsibility for his death was not proven and she was set free.
The Barnes and Sheldon play was a hit in 1930, and in 1931 Marie Belloc Lowndes, best known for the novel The Lodger which Hitchcock adapted into his best silent film, published the novel Letty Lynton, also based on the Madeline Smith case. The MGM film Letty Lynton, released in 1932, was nominally based the Belloc Lowndes novel. The problem is Barnes and Sheldon had been fishing around Hollywood to sell the film rights to the play and had been turned down by MGM. Since both their play and the Belloc Lowndes novel were based the same real-life event, it is not surprising that the playwrights found similarities between their play and the film, and filed a lawsuit. The trial dragged on until January 1936, and the courts ruled that the film followed the play “Dishonored Lady” closely enough to constitute copyright infringement.
The film has been out of distribution ever since. In July of 1939, a legal precedent was set when courts awarded Barnes and Sheldon one-fifth of the profits of the film. MGM appeal up to the US Supreme Court by the end of the year, but couldn’t get the ruling overturned. To make the story even more complicated, Dishonored Lady was released in 1947, nominally based on the Barnes and Sheldon work, but less like the play than Letty Lynton. Then in 1950, David Lean directed Madeline, which was closer to the actual case than any of the previous adaptations. Because of this complicated history, Letty Lynton is still not available as a commercial release, and is not likely to be until the copyright on the Barnes and Sheldon play runs out in 2025.
Not willing to wait 15 years, I got my hands on a copy (not saying how) and really enjoyed this film. Crawford’s role in Grand Hotel, also from 1932, is the most well-known example of her early sound-film work, but her lead role here is far more substantial and is infused with much greater emotional depth. Letty Lynton is not only a great early Joan Crawford film, it is also a great example of a pre-code film, full of sexual innuendo, and free of the awkward endings that post-code films were often forced to tack on in order to punish the supposed villains so as to not glamorize crime. As this film was released four years before the body enforcing the production code went into effect, Letty, like the real-life Madeline Smith, gets away with murder and goes on to live her life.
An Adrian-designed dress Crawford wears in one scene is definitely of note, but I think I will save that for a future article on great cinema dresses on one on Adrian’s career.