Libeled Lady (1936)

“The things I do for that newspaper…”

Synopsis:
A dedicated newspaper editor (Spencer Tracy) puts his wedding on hold when he learns about a potential libel suit involving an heiress (Myrna Loy) falsely accused of being a “husband stealer”. Tracy hires his former colleague (William Powell) to temporarily wed his own fiancee (Jean Harlow), then romantically pursue Loy in an attempt to prove she really is guilty of husband-stealing — but naturally, romantic entanglements prove this process much more difficult than originally conceived.

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Review:
Peary argues that the “fast pacing, funny wisecracks by the dozens, and the sexual chemistry between the characters… make you overlook the confusing plot” of this “classic screwball comedy with a powerhouse cast” — but I disagree that the film is confusing in any way. While there are plenty of twists and turns in the plot (and in motivations of the characters), each one is simply a delicious new development in what amounts to an immensely clever script (by Maurine Dallas Watkins, Howard Emmett Rogers, and George Oppenheimer, based on a story by Wallace Sullivan). Peary points out that “highlights include the wedding scene, in which Harlow weakly kisses husband Powell and gives a heartfelt smooch to best man Tracy” and “charlatan Powell [proving] he wasn’t lying when he told Loy and her father (Walter Connolly) that he is a fisherman”.

Peary accurately notes that the film “is a particularly strong showcase for Harlow, whose character is sometimes tough, sometimes sentimental, sometimes infuriated, sometimes a good sport, always sexy, always funny”. He writes that he loves “her angry pout and how she huffs and puffs through a room with shoulders and legs working in unison”. In his Alternate Oscars, Peary votes Harlow Best Actress of the Year for her role here as Gladys, noting that Harlow “has never gotten enough praise” as “one of the great movie discoveries of the thirties”, and further pointing out how ably she “exchang[es] wisecracks with Powell and Tracy”. I agree, but also find the lead performances by Powell and Loy to be spot-on, with Loy a particular treat to watch as she demonstrates unexpected layers of complexity to her seemingly ice-cold heiress; her initial rebuffs towards overly-confident “ladies man” Powell are especially humorous.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jean Harlow as Gladys
  • William Powell as Bill Chandler
  • Myrna Loy as Connie Allenbury

Must See?
Yes, as a delightful screwball comedy. Voted one of the Best Pictures of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars.

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One Response to “Libeled Lady (1936)”

  1. A Big Fat Must-See – yippee, a home run!

    A thoroughly charming, witty and (thank God) deliciously complicated (as opposed to confusing) script, beautifully directed by Jack Conway – which seems to be somewhat unsung among screwball comedies…perhaps because it’s not so obviously zany, but it sure is screwball!

    I’m glad the writers were mentioned by name because their names aren’t all that familiar to me but they sure do deserve mention – theirs is a wonderfully constructed knock-out of a screenplay, with the kinds of roles actors would – as they say – kill for. Even the best actors need a good script to work with or they’re sunk. Imagine how much harder they have to work when making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear (and often, no matter how hard they work, that purse just ain’t gonna turn to silk!).

    I’m sure the four leads didn’t worry for a second when they first read this winner. And every one of them is simply marvelous. Tracy effectively underplays for the most part and does so skillfully. As well, it’s refreshing watching Loy and Powell with non-‘Thin Man’ material for a change; it’s a nice stretch for them. And, yes, Harlow is simply stunning, proving that she really was a find! Under Conway’s sharp watch, these four clearly understand that, first and foremost, timing is everything – and, in that sense, they are all sharp as tacks. There is also a number of down-time mood shifts for all, which are gracefully handled as well.

    I particularly like the way the story builds to its slam-bang conclusion, which also contains surprising complication, right up to the way it all ‘ends’.

    I can’t praise this one enough, and it sure was a blast re-visiting it!

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