Image: May 18, 1932, “Letty Lynton” is opening in Los Angeles. Credit: Los Angeles Times
Note: This is an encore post from 2011.
In the novel “Letty Lynton” and the play “Dishonored Lady,” the heroine gets away with murder, thanks to lies of friends. In the cinema world, however, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer earned major punishment for plagiarizing the play. It was assessed huge monetary damages and saw its film “Letty Lynton” forever removed from circulation. It didn’t have to end that way.
Playwrights Edward Sheldon and Margaret Ayer Barnes wrote the play “Dishonored Lady,” based on the 1857 murder trial of Scottish Madeleine Smith, who murdered her lover. It opened 1930 in New York to tremendous success. MGM negotiated twice to acquire the play’s screen rights, but both times the Will Hays Production Code Office nixed production because of immorality. The studio instead bought the rights to novelist Marie Belloc Lowndes’ book “Letty Lynton,” also based on the same story as the play. Studio Creative Chief Irving Thalberg desired the story for Joan Crawford, who played coarser, tougher roles than most of the MGM starlets.
The film “Letty Lynton” scored at the box office when it opened, earning both big profits and praise for star Crawford. The May 23, 1932, Los Angeles Times review noted that the film greatly resembled the play, and reported that it contained one of the “strangest finales in the history of the movies’ moralistic code: the murderess goes scot-free on the testimony of her sweetheart, her mother and her maid.” The reviewer pointed out that the Los Angeles audience hooted with laughter at the lies by the various characters.
Sheldon and Barnes sued MGM for plagiarizing in 1933, and the court ruled in 1934 that the film was not based on the play. The plaintiffs appealed the decision, and in January 1936, the United States Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for the authors, overturning the lower court decision. It also awarded damages and issued a temporary injunction against further release of the film. The court examined the novel, the movie, and the play, and stated that the film followed the action of many significant scenes in the play “almost to the letter (Variety, Jan. 22, 1936).” In fact, Judge Learned Hand felt that the anti-climax of the movie “was so close to the stage play as to make the very essence of the co-authors exposition the very voice with which they speak.”
MGM appealed to the Supreme Court in April 1936, claiming it had not copied the play, that the main story the novel, film, and play were based on were all in the public domain, as well as claiming that the lower court judges had made over 60 errors in their decision. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case, letting the lower court verdict stand. The playwrights had won.
On May 15, the playwrights renewed their original complaint because MGM had ignored the previous ruling for more than a year, and they asked for a permanent injunction as well as monetary damages. The permanent injunction was granted August 3, 1936 by U. S. District Court. If MGM had not been so arrogant and power hungry, and paid damages, the playwrights might never have asked for a permanent injunction.
Photo: Nils Asther gets friendly with Joan Crawford in “Letty Lynton.” Credit: Video Hippy.
The Appeals Court required a hearing in front of a special master to determine damages. Adolph Zukor, Harry Cohn, and Louis B. Mayer were required to testify in March 1937 on how their studios divvied out an average picture’s cost to story, actors, construction, etc. Cohn testified that Columbia applied 5% of costs to the story. Zukor stated that Paramount applied 25% to story. May 9, 1938, the special master awarded Sheldon and Barnes over $587,000, basically the entire profits of the picture. This was the largest amount ever awarded in the 1930s for this type of suit, and the second highest total went to Prince and Princess Yorsopoff, who earned $250,000 for slander from MGM in 1933 in regards to the film “Rasputin and the Empress.”
MGM appealed that the award was too high. In that hearing, MGM Attorney John W. Davis admitted in court on July 5, 1938 that Metro had “innocently pirated Dishonored Lady…,” according to the July 6, 1938, Daily Variety. In the 1939 appeal ruling, the judge awarded the playwrights over $900,000, which included attorneys’ fees and interest payments of $100 a day. MGM entered into serious negotiation with the authors over the amount at that point, and finally resolved damages on November 17, 1939 at $115,803 plus fees, for a total of $153,030, one fifth of the net profits of the picture.
Studios and production companies now buy the rights to articles, newspaper stories, and books, as well as the rights of individuals involved in court cases, scandals, and heroic episodes in order to avoid being sued. The play “Dishonored Lady” is under copyright until 2025, so the film “Letty Lynton” cannot legally be screened anywhere until at least this date.