Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees is convinced that if more newspapers kept men like Spencer Tracy and William Powell on staff, there would be fewer lawsuits—and higher circulation.
"You'd make your crippled grandmother do a fan dance for that paper!"—Gladys to Warren
Libeled Lady is like a comedy buffet. It features no less than four great stars—Spencer Tracy, Jean Harlow, William Powell, and Myrna Loy—and elements of all kinds of different comedy styles from the fast-talking newspaper comedy to society comedy to slapstick to the kind of marital muddle that prompts lines like "She may be his wife, but she's my fiancée!" For those who like their laughs elegant, William Powell and Myrna Loy (reunited in their first comedy since their hit The Thin Man) bring all the sophistication one could wish for. For those who prefer earthier comedy, we get the blunt, tough-talking Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy. The combination results in an outstanding comedy gem.
Facts of the Case
Here comes the bride…and she is miffed. Gladys Simpson (Jean Harlow, Dinner at Eight) has been stood up at the altar again by her newspaper editor fiancé, Warren Haggerty (Spencer Tracy, Desk Set). When she tracks him down at his office, she expects to be conciliated, to be appeased, but especially to be married. She'll get the last of those wishes, at any rate, but her husband won't be her fiancé, if you follow. It'll be ex-newspaper man Bill Chandler (William Powell, My Man Godfrey).
The problem is that Warren is in trouble. Heiress Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House) is suing the paper for printing a story that libelously claimed she was a husband stealer. Unless Warren can make that claim a reality, the newspaper will go under. His solution: Send in Bill Chandler, the best libel operator in the business, to place Connie in a compromising position, and then reveal that he's married. Hence Gladys as his wife—in name only, of course, but Connie won't know that, and neither will the world at large.
Naturally, this brilliant plan doesn't proceed without a hitch. First Gladys
has to be persuaded to marry Bill, and that's not easy—to put it mildly.
Moreover, although Connie's angler father (Walter Connolly) takes a shine to
Bill, Connie is a
With four terrific stars to anchor Libeled Lady, it's difficult to know where to start discussing the acting, but I'm going to start with Myrna Loy for the perfectly subjective reason that, among the four stars, she gets short shrift in the packaging of this movie. She doesn't appear on a single one of the menus, and that's just shameful. Classic movie fans will of course be familiar with the delightful Miss Loy, who started out playing evil Orientals, progressed to sophisticated comedy, and became both the crowned Queen of Hollywood and America's image of the perfect wife due to her collaboration with William Powell in the hit Thin Man mystery series. Her work in Libeled Lady shows the qualities that made her ideal for this and other comedies. Loy's patrician bearing and light, unstudied style of vocal delivery make her the perfect embodiment of natural sophistication, but there's a warmth to her that makes us believe she's a nice kid underneath. As Connie, she initially appears to be exactly what the other characters believe her to be—a spoiled, wealthy brat—who looks right through Chandler and treats him with offhand contempt. But as soon as she makes her first, dry comedic thrust at him we recognize her intelligence and her perception: It's not snobbery so much as her B.S. meter that's prompting her to give him the glacial treatment. This moment comes when they are dancing on board the ship where Chandler has managed to get introduced to the Allenburys. "I'm afraid that dancing isn't exactly my line," Bill apologizes, charmingly. "I should say it was part of your line," is her deadpan response—and all of a sudden Connie becomes someone we know we're going to like. She's speaking our language.
Connie's intelligence and skepticism forces Bill into an ingenious series of ploys to try to get into her good graces and maneuver her into a situation in which she can be framed as a husband stealer. As the ever-resourceful Bill, Powell is in top form; he can rise to suave sophistication at the drop of a banknote, yet there's a deliciously sneaky level always ready to surface. He also excels in the serious moments that show Chandler reevaluating his priorities as he begins to fall in love with Connie. Powell and Loy had worked together in five films by this point, and their instinctive understanding of each other's rhythm is evident; they work in a perfect harmony, even when their characters are at odds. Powell also gets to pull the Connie Allenbury treatment on Harlow, zinging cutting little putdowns at her—but then, when he wants to recruit her to his side, winning her over with his suave charm. And, of course, there's his great slapstick set piece: Since he has presented himself to the Allenburys as a passionate angler, he has to put his money where his mouth is and actually go fishing with them. His battle with nature will end up taxing all his resourcefulness and overturning his usual elegance. It serves an important function in the film by becoming a turning point in his acquaintance with Connie, but simply in itself it's a great comic scene. From start to finish, Powell's performance in Libeled Lady is one of his best.
Creating an enjoyable contrast to the duo of Powell and Loy is the embattled relationship of Harlow and Tracy. Tracy, as Warren Haggerty, is exactly right as the fast-talking newspaper man who will ruthlessly use his fiancée to suit his needs but who gradually comes to realize that he actually does want to marry her. Tracy is justly admired for his acting prowess in dramas, but let's not forget that he was also a favorite in comedy, and he's as natural in the role of Warren as in his own skin. Opposite this heavyweight, Harlow really gets to shine as Gladys. Initially, when we see her in a shouting match with Warren, there's nothing particularly special about her performance, but as the film progresses her character and her performance both get to develop and grow in complexity. Harlow is hilarious in her scenes as Powell's bride and antagonist, even more so when they have to play the loving couple for onlookers, and downright delightful as she starts to warm up to Bill for the simple reason that he treats her like a gentleman, as Warren never has. She's also a very physical character: Where others use words as warfare, Gladys's methods are more direct, like throwing things and biting. We get to see both the brassy and the womanly sides of Harlow's persona, and Gladys emerges as an outstanding character. The wonderful Walter Connolly (Nothing Sacred) is also superb as the seemingly crusty businessman who lights up like a Christmas tree when the subject of trout fishing is introduced.
The screenplay on which these performances are based must definitely be singled out. The snappy dialogue and endless succession of plot twists come courtesy of Maurine Watkins (who wrote the original stage play Chicago), Howard Emmett Rogers, and George Oppenheimer, who based their work on a story by Wallace Sullivan. If the plot summary makes the film seem little different from standard romantic comedies of the era, it's true that it's working in familiar territory—but its treatment here is stellar, from the standout dialogue to the eleventh-hour plot twists. Libeled Lady also makes the unusual and even courageous move to omit a scene that we all sense is coming—the one in which Connie confronts Bill about all the lies he's told her. The film just sails right past that point, giving the characters credit for being grownups and having sorted it out—and then launches us into a new and surprising set of complications. It's an elegant variation on the usual comedy structure. Jack Conway's direction creates an enjoyably fast pace and must be credited for steering the actors into such deft performances; there's a lightness of touch to the film that raises it above the level of lesser comedies. The famous MGM gloss also enhances the experience, with handsome sets and some absolutely eye-popping costumes for Harlow's character. (They are so extravagant that I can't help wondering if one of Gladys's conditions for marrying Bill Chandler was a complete new couture wardrobe.)
Picture quality for this delightful film is, I am sad to say, rather disappointing. The bad news first: This print shows a lot of damage, predominantly speckles (sometimes quite large ones) and scratches; at times the vertical scratches are so persistent they give the appearance of rain falling onto a scene. In this respect it looks very much like the version I recorded during its cable broadcast. Perhaps a restoration would have been too costly an endeavor for a modestly priced release, but I was really taken aback at how much visual interference there is here. The good news is that there is fine contrast and an attractive richness and depth to the black-and-white tones, and grain, while present, is only intermittent. Audio, fortunately, is much cleaner than video, with only rare instances of hiss or buzz, and in this film's many rapid-fire dialogue sequences, the audio track acquits itself just fine.
Extras, sadly, are slender indeed. In the absence of a radio adaptation of the film, the more usual accessory for Warner's classic releases, we get a bit of an oddity: a 13-minute radio promotional spot about the film that features audio clips from different scenes. It's cumbersomely long for an advertisement, but not long or substantial enough to satisfy as entertainment; still, it's an unusual bit of ephemera and offers a taste of the way the film was promoted. The theatrical trailer, like the radio spot, makes much of the presence of four stars (as why should it not?) and captures the film's sense of breezy energy—but it also includes footage of a scene that isn't in the movie, which is confusing.
Libeled Lady deserves to be recognized as one of the best screwball comedies of the 1930s, and this release should heighten awareness of this wonderful comedy. Even though I disapprove of double-dipping on principle, I can't help but hope that this increased exposure will evoke enough demand that we will see a fully restored version released in the future, preferably with some nifty supplementary material.
The charge of libel is hereby dismissed. Warner Bros. is guilty of serving up a disappointing transfer and subpar extras for this release, but due to its otherwise clean record, the sentence is suspended.
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