Obscure Films: “Moran of the Lady Letty”

And once again, one blogathon is hot on the heels of another! I’m happy to be participating in the Rudolph Valentino blogathon, hosted by Timeless Hollywood

One of Valentino’s lesser known vehicles, watched mainly by his fans and not often discussed outside of that circle, is the seafaring drama Moran of the Lady Letty (1922).

Valentino moran with dalton photoplay '22

Photoplay, 1922.

Some time ago, before viewing Moran for the first time and after reading some fairly enthusiastic but slightly tepid reviews, I was all set to either like it or consider it merely another interesting artifact of film history under my belt. But midway into the film I not only liked it, but was happily absorbed by its straightforward, entertaining charm.

Valentino plays your typical shiny-haired Rich Bored Playboy, Ramon Laredo, who “spends the dash and fire inherited from his Spanish ancestors in leading cotillons.” In other words, his natural manliness is subconsciously being squelched by stuffy, high-society life. He’s shown as being “the idol of all the debutantes,” yet he’s indifferent to all the attention. “At times I feel like chucking this crowd–running away somewhere, just to escape from it all,” he sighs, after sipping on some afternoon tea.

A portrait circa 1922, looking nicely upper class.

The Moran of the title (pronounced More-ANN) is a young woman “reared as a hardy seaman” on her father’s ship, the Lady Letty. Then-popular actress Dorothy Dalton sports bobbed hair, which attracted some appreciative comments back in 1922 (one Photoplay review mentioned: “Dorothy Dalton with bobbed hair–yum yum!”), and a mannish gait.

With yum yum bobbed hair in place.

The impeccably dressed Ramon goes to the San Francisco harbor for a yachting excursion, but since he’s irresponsibly late the yacht leaves without him. One thing leads to another, and he ends up being shanghaied and brought aboard The Heart of China, a boat with an “evil” reputation.

The rough crew and their crusty captain (played by the Laurel and Hardy regular Walter Long, in what was apparently part of a long tradition of playing villainous sea captains!) don’t know what to make of this dandy with the coordinating outfit. The captain welcomes Ramon by punching him out and then vows, “I’ll make a seaman out o’ him yet–seaman or shark-bait!”

Ramon must be a fast learner, because he quickly proves himself to be a hardy and hard-working seaman, able to punch out other crew members with aplomb. The captain approves, and makes him his second mate.

Back on the Lady Letty, the crew discovers their coal has spontaneously combusted, filling the ship with deadly coal gas. When the captain succumbs to the fumes, the panicked crew abandons the ship. Moran courageously tries to put out the fire but ends up passing out. The Heart of China spies the seemingly empty ship and decides to loot it, leading to Ramon discovering Moran and rescuing her.

Long wastes no time in leering at his new female crew member and trying to prey upon her, leading to conflict with with the decent-minded Ramon. Moran and Ramon grow close, and he professes his love for her–but she, having been raised such a tomboy, is hesitant about returning it: “I never could care for a man–I’m not made for men. I ought to have been born a boy.”

She does care for him, of course (despite your instant leaping to conclusions after my previous sentence), allowing herself to become a bit more feminine throughout the course of their romance. In the last third of the film, drama and action sequences ensue, eventually leading to a showdown between Ramon and the captain. You might guess that the conclusion is satisfying, but I won’t spoil it for you.

I dug Moran of the Lady Letty. I dug the story, dug the characters, dug all of it. It’s one of the better minor silent dramas out there, wonderfully paced, with great actors and a brisk but still satisfying running time of 71 minutes. Valentino does an admirable job with this role, which allows him to be both a sleek society type and a he-man. He also gets to look more naturalistic throughout much of the film, compared to the more made-up looks in, say, Camille (1921). He seems to be relaxed in the role, and enthusiastic about the action sequences. Dorothy Dalton pulls off her commanding, hardworking character very well, which I can’t see too many other actresses doing as successfully. And Walter Long is his usual excellent character actor self.

The plot was based on a novel by Frank Norris (one of my favorite writers) who wrote the famous McTeague that Von Stroheim so butt-kickingly made into Greed (1924). Much of this plot hinges upon class differences, both exploring and critiquing them at the same time: the society man is dissatisfied with his way of life but finds lower class labor to be more fulfilling and masculine, while the blue collar woman is content with being lower class but at the expense of her femininity.

You’ll notice how Ramon is prominently described as having Spanish ancestors. In Norris’s novel, Ramon Laredo was actually named Ross Wilbur, but since Valentino was still fresh off his success as Julio in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) the studio wanted to keep things Latin. Norris just might’ve approved, since he was always much taken by the idea that we “inherit” certain traits from our respective nationalities, for good or for ill.

I can heartily recommend Moran of the Lady Letty, an underappreciated classic that you just might like as much as I do. It’s been nicely restored by Flicker Alley and scored by Robert Israel, both major plusses. Unwind, take a look, and feel free to let me know what you think!

18 thoughts on “Obscure Films: “Moran of the Lady Letty”

  1. Pingback: The Rudolph Valentino Blogathon is Here | Timeless Hollywood

  2. This is one of my absolute favorite silent movies, let alone a favorite Valentino film. Every time I watch it, I discover more layers of subtext, like the fact that “Ramon” and “Moran” are anagrams, which I think highlights how they’re almost two sides of the same coin — two people whose upbringings have sublimated their “natural” gender traits.

    And it’s just a doggoned fun movie 🙂

  3. While I found George Melford’s direction on this film to be uninspiring, everyone else makes up for it. Valentino’s a lot of fun here, as is Walter Long as the villain. Tell you what though, it’s weird seeing Valentino with his hair not slicked back!

  4. I’m glad someone wrote about it and am looking forward to seeing the film. He was already trying to play roles outside the character he was becoming known for. A quote from George Melford, the director in an interview while they were making the movie:
    “Wait till you see Valentino in it. You’ll find out what a husky red-blooded chap he is. We hired a schooner out of ‘Frisco for a number of the scenes. Valentino and Walter Long fight a fist battle way up in the rigging of the ship that’s the most thrilling thing you ever laid your eyes upon. After the fight Valentino climbed up to the very tip of the mast – just for the exercise. The hard-boiled crew of the ship gasped.”

      • Definitely–after watching The Eagle, you can’t help wishing that he had more chances to do comedy. I can really picture him doing some light comedies of the “ballroom and ballgown” sort, where he could use those debonair looks to his advantage while still being able to poke fun at that sort of thing. He seemed to have a great sense of humor in real life.

        • Definitely. We get glimpses of his comedic abilities in All Night (1918) as well, though aside from his performance, it’s a rather sorry movie.

  5. Valentino has never been my kind of guy, but in this movie he managed to make me breathe a little faster in the scenes where he wears a sweater. He looks so cute in that sweater, he should have kept it on for the rest of the movie. Valentino always looks better in casual clothes, don’t you think? I also liked him a bit in The conquering power when he takes off the formal suit.

    • He looks good with a more casual hairstyle, too! I heard that at home he liked dressing casually and tinkering with his cars, maybe comfy clothes made him feel more relaxed. 🙂

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