Saturday, November 21, 2015

I'll Sue for This!

Film: Libeled Lady
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.


  1. I saw this years ago and I have very vague but fond memories of it being one of the better screwball comedies that I had never heard of. Your summary prompted me to remember it a lot better.

    Yeah this is great! I saw this on the TCM schedule and I thought about DVRing it but I loaded up on Norma Shearer (she's the star of the month) and you got to try to put some limits on the DVR or you end up recording everything!

    Almost as good as Libeled Lady is Love Crazy, also starring Powell and Loy.

    1. Next time this one comes around, I say go for it. I can't imagine that you wouldn't enjoy this on a rewatch.

    2. But I had to get all those Norma Shearer movies! I've watched five in the last ten days. "The Last of Mrs. Cheyney" is as good as "Private Lives" or "The Women." And "Let Us Be Gay" is almost as good, despite the definition shift.

      The others were a little more mixed. "Their Own Desire" is downright stupid but it's thankfully only 65 minutes and I love Mrs. Thalberg in her polo outfit!

      Your mileage may vary. I love the early talkies! And by early, I mean 1929 and 1930!

    3. TCM's Star of the Month series is the least when you like or are curious about the star. I was able to finally catch up with the last remaining few of Norma's sound films that I'd been missing. The properly named Strange Interlude was the final one for me, and all I can say positively about it is that it offered Gable an unusual role.

      I prefer latter day Norma around the Marie Antoinette period with Escape being my favorite of her films. She seemed to be toning down her theatricality just as she chose to exit pictures.

      Could not agree more about "Their Own Desire" so clunky and oddly paced, almost like it was filmed as a silent than reworked.

    4. I didn't think much of Their Own Desire except for Norma Shearer. She was worth watching. The rest, not so much. I think it might well have been a reworked silent.

      There's a real joy in discovering some of these older stars, though.

    5. I watched "Smilin' Through" last night and I really enjoyed it! Not just Norma and Leslie Howard, but Frederic March (who I generally like but he doesn't do much for lackluster movies, he's great in "A Star Is Born" and "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" but he doesn't do a thing to make "Anthony Adverse" any less a snorefest) is also really good.

      Also O.P. Heggie, who achieved immortal movie fame as the blind man in "Bride of Frankenstein," is very good as Leslie Howard's longtime friend.

      And also Ralph Forbes! I've come to really like him over the last year or so, and he is very funny in this as the guy who loves Norma Shearer but loses her to the bigger star. He's not in it a lot, but I love his early scenes a lot and I thought his scene at the end (where he comes back from World War I and runs into Norma at the train station) was emotional despite how brief it was.

      I almost watched something else (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) last night because I'm afraid I might get a little sick of Mrs. Thalberg. Among the last movies I saw were "Riptide" and "Strangers May Kiss," and though I liked them both (not as much as "The Last of Mrs. Cheyney" or "Let Us Be Gay"!) I am getting a little frustrated with Norma ending up with jerks like Herbert Marshall's character in "Riptide" and Neil Hamilton's character in "Strangers May Kiss." (The guy in "Let Us Be Gay" isn't nearly as bad as these two.)

      But I watched a few minutes of "Walk Hard" and I think it looks good, but I'm still living in the world of Norma Shearer's early talkies! So I watched "Smilin' Through" and I'm so glad I did.

      I love Norma's later films too. "Romeo and Juliet," "Marie Antoinette" and "The Women" are all great movies. And I'd forgotten about "Escape"! Yes, that's a really good World War II thriller.

      I'd hate to have to choose between her early talkies and he later films. If you were to consider them en masse, the late 1930s would win because it's one great movie after the other! In her early talkies, she's always great, but the movies are sometimes a little disappointing. "Private Lives" may be her best movie, but I think "The Divorcee" and "A Free Soul" are a little overrated, and something like "Their Own Desire" is actually kind of stupid. (It's never boring, though, you must admit.)

      I've set up the DVR to get "Her Cardboard Lover," "We Were Dancing" and "Idiot's Delight." I've never seen any of them. I'm really looking forward to it.

      I was just looking at her filmography on IMDB and I'm surprised to find that when I'm done, I'll have seen all her talkies except for "The Trial of Mary Dugan." I'll have to see if it's on YouTube.

    6. I just watched the first twelve minutes of "Strange Interlude" and I've already decided to take a break. I'm not sure I'll be able to watch almost two hours of this.

  2. This is a great movie and it’s nice that you were able to discover it as a surprise, though I have to say it would have been a great title for the Bette Davis melodrama you imagined it to be! Something along the lines of The Letter.

    Powell and Myrna Loy probably were each other’s best partners, though she was very simpatico with Cary Grant, and outside the original The Thin Man this might be their best film together.

    It’s great to see Tracy have a chance to cut loose since the majority of his films called for the gravitas he was so good at dispensing. Warren Haggerty is some piece of work and the twinkle in Tracy’s eye goes a long way to explaining how poor Gladys, who has the patience of Job, continues to put up with him.

    Speaking of Gladys this is Harlow’s best role and performance in her brief period as “the new Jean Harlow” that she and the studio started to work towards after China Seas. Previous to that film she had been the great platinum blonde of legend…bold, brassy and almost blindingly pale. But after Thalberg’s death, she was one of his discoveries, Mayer thought her image too cheap and set about refining her onscreen persona, with her consent, by going with a more realistic shade of blonde and more dignified roles like this one and Wife vs. Secretary. It made nary a dent in her success, her box office remained huge and had she survived it probably would have helped extend her career by keeping her from becoming trapped by her original image.

    If you haven’t seen any of her other films I’d recommend Red Dust, where she plays the very essence of her early screen self, Dinner at Eight and Bombshell-which while being a very enjoyable movie is also a strange experience since it blatantly painted an unflattering picture of her own personal life and her leeching relatives. There’s also her last picture Saratoga which is run of the mill stuff despite starring she and Clark Gable but which has its own weird fascination. She died during the making of it and her role was completed by two doubles-one body and one voice which are pretty easy to detect. MGM was going to shelve it but public demand was so great they rushed it out, that sounds like a cash grab but it was their top grossing film of the year so apparently true. It’s an unsettling watch and Jean looks unwell during most of her scenes.

    Sorry sort of got sidetracked, back to this film. As great as the quartet of players are you’re right about the script, it’s filled with gems. Quite surprising it didn’t rate a nomination.

    A couple of favs:
    Powell: I thought that was pretty clever of me.
    Loy: Yes, I thought you thought so.

    Harlow (in the back of a cab): Driver, can’t you go any faster?
    Driver: I can lady but the cab can’t.

    The four performers became great friends during the shot, Powell and Harlow were engaged but she died before they could marry, and I think that may be another factor in why the picture works so seamlessly, their camaraderie comes through in their performances.

    Just one more thing: I don’t quite get the reference you make to this being the first time Harlow was billed as Jean Harlow, to my knowledge she was never listed under her given name of Harlean Carpentier or any other but this.

    1. Ah--I get the "Jean Harlow" thing. It was an error on my part. This wasn't her first film as "Jean Harlow" but it was the film in which she had her name legally changed, So it was the first film in which she was Jean Harlow both on screen and off.

      I don't know how this didn't rate a nomination, because the dialogue is still really snappy. That's unusual for a film that's pushing 80 years old.
      What'll we use for a headline?
      Anything. "War Threatens Europe."
      Which country?
      Flip a nickel!

      Harlow's connection to Powell actually had her seeking the Myrna Loy role so that she could end up with Powell at the end of the film. She had to settle for the quickie marriage scene.

      As a side note, an acquaintance of mine runs a bookstore and does a solid business in autographs and manuscripts. At one point (and possibly still), he had one of the largest private collections of Jean Harlow memorabilia including a number of her first letters home from Hollywood.

    2. That's very cool about your acquaintance and all the Jean Harlow memorabilia, I have a few signed pictures of Linda Darnell-she being my favorite classic film actress and a few tidbits of other performers but nothing extensive.

      I'd read about Jean's desire for Myrna's part at first but the right decision was made, something she probably realized once filming started, and Gladys is the showier role anyway.

  3. I'm not sure if this speaks worse of the film or my appreciation of it, but I had completely forgotten this movie even though I saw it only a couple of years ago. I actually even wrote a two line "review" on Letterboxd to go along with the three stars I gave it. It wasn't until I was reading your paragraph about the quickie marriage that I finally twigged to what this movie was.

    1. It's worth another look if you get the chance. It's got a cracking screenplay at the very least, and Myrna Loy is as charming as she ever was.

  4. Off topic:

    SJ, I know you like horror movies, and you've probably noticed the Boris Karloff marathon on Monday morning. They're showing The Walking Dead. I very much suggest recording that one if you've never seen it. Aside from being an interesting mix of the horror and gangster genres, it's ... well, you'll have to see it for yourself.

    1. I've seen a lot of the classic Karloffs--Bedlam, Isle of the Dead and the like. I haven't seen The Walking Dead, though, so I may well record it.

    2. I think you'll love it. If you're on the fence, just take a look at the cast!

      And it's directed by Michael Curtiz!