Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.
There’s a joy going into a film completely cold. Based solely on the title and the year, I figured Libeled Lady was probably a melodrama starring someone like Bette Davis. What a joy to discover that this is a William Powell/Myrna Loy screwball comedy with Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow. Libeled Lady was one of at least three Powell/Loy films from 1936; both After the Thin Man and the Best Picture-winning The Great Ziegfeld were released the same year. I like Powell and I love Myrna Loy, and I especially like them both together.
Like many a screwball comedy, there’s a large romantic subplot here and the plot turns on the functions of a newspaper. Warren Haggarty (Spencer Tracy), managing editor for the New York Evening Star is pulled away from preparing for his wedding to deal with a serious problem. A report has come in from Europe accusing Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy) of breaking up a marriage. Connie’s father (Walter Connolly) is a long-time enemy of the paper, making the story extra-juicy. The problem is that Connie wasn’t at the event in the story and is completely innocent. While the Evening Star attempts to recall the papers, a few get out, and Connie files a $5 million libel suit.
This doesn’t address Warren’s personal problems. His long-suffering fiancée Gladys (Jean Harlow, in her first film under that name) is finally fed up with Warren and his putting the paper before her happiness on a daily basis. But Warren has no time for this. Desperate to prevent the libel suit, he searches for a former reporter named Bill Chandler (William Powell) who used to work for him. Bill has a way of making libel suits disappear. In this case, he asks for $50,000 to take care of the problem. His idea is a quickie marriage and then an effort to woo young Connie Allenbury, who then could be legitimately accused of splitting up a marriage. The problem is that there’s no one for him to enter into a quick sham marriage with…except for long-suffering Gladys.
So that’s the set-up. Gladys is forced into a marriage to Bill Chandler so that Bill Chandler can get Connie Allenbury to fall for him and be accused of breaking up Bill’s and Gladys’s marriage. Then, when the suit is dropped, Bill and Gladys will have a quickie Reno divorce and Gladys can marry Warren. But, of course, Bill Chandler actually falls for Connie and Gladys falls for Bill since Warren has ignored her for so long. Bill tries to protect Connie while Gladys decides that pressing forward with the suit is worth doing, since she decides she’d really like to be Mrs. Chandler.
It’s fun to see Spencer Tracy in an early comedic role like this one. Tracy was always likable on screen, even in a case like this where he’s kind of a cad, or at least an opportunist. And, of course, Powell and Loy are almost always magical together. William Powell was always better as a comedian in my opinion and Myrna Loy could pretty much do anything she put her mind to.
And then there’s Jean Harlow. I believe this is the first of her movies I’ve seen, and I better understand the tragedy of her early death (she did only two films after this one). Like Myrna Loy, she was possessed of excellent comic timing. It’s hard to dislike a film like this with such a strong cast saying genuinely funny lines. Often screwball comedies don’t work for me because they’re so completely out there in terms of the plot. That’s not the case with Libeled Lady. Okay, it’s extreme, but it all seems to fit within the realm of the plausible. Crazy, but plausible.
Libeled Lady is one of those rare films that was nominated for Best Picture and nothing else. It seems to me that it could certainly have been in the running for something regarding the screenplay. It’s a harder call with the cast. I love all four of the principles here, but it could be argued that there aren’t really any leads, that everyone is supporting everyone else. Since this was the first year for the Supporting Actor/Actress categories, perhaps the Academy can be forgiven for not really knowing how to handle the category.
In short, Libeled Lady was a pure pleasure. The comedy works, the characters work, and even if the plot goes to some crazy places, the cast play it beautifully and make the whole thing hold together. What a joy to have the opportunity to see this. When Libeled Lady wanders back onto TCM (NetFlix doesn’t have it), set your DVR. I can’t imagine you’d be disappointed in it.
Why to watch Libeled Lady: A lovely cast and a very funny plot.
Why not to watch: The screwball plot may be too unbelievable for some viewers.