Libeled Lady (1936)

Directed by Jack Conway

Convoluted plots are a common characteristic of screwball comedies. Often, the storylines are nonsensical, bearing little or no resemblance to reality, but that is rarely what matters. The likelihood of the stories is irrelevant. The only thing of importance is the characters and their relationship to reality.

The key element there is not the in-depth characterizations but the resemblance to types because the placing of types in opposition — you might even call them caricatures — is where the movie’s humour comes from. (See a movie like Double Wedding, for instance.)

In Libeled Lady we get a good example of this as we get not two but four types tossed together and we get to see those types interact and evolve.

William Powell as Bill Chandler and Myrna Loy as Connie Allenbury.

The story revolves around a libel suit that Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy) brings against a New York newspaper represented by its editor, Haggerty (Spencer Tracy). He has to kill the lawsuit or see the newspaper go under.

His plan is to get a juicy story on the icy, elitist Ms. Allenbury so she must drop the legal action.

To do this, he calls in an old colleague (and nemesis), Bill Chandler (William Powell). Both Haggerty and Chandler are scandal hounds who stop at nothing to get dirt for a good story. The difference between them is that where Haggerty is a gruff, bull-in-a-china-shop kind of man, Chandler is a devious conniver who smiles charmingly as he stabs you in the back for a story.

The fourth element is long-suffering, earthy Gladys, Haggerty’s fiance, who keeps waiting to marry but is always put in second place for Haggerty’s beloved newspaper. She has had as much as she can take and in her straight-talking manner insists the time is now.

Jean Harlow as Gladys Benton, a woman trying her darnedest to get her man, Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) to the altar.

As the movie opens, Haggerty and Gladys are finally headed to the altar — until the lawsuit breaks and he puts everything on hold yet again.

Haggerty then enlists Chandler’s aid to get the goods on Ms. Allenbury. Chandler devises a scheme and everything more or less goes as planned … until love gets in the way.

The love is between Connie Allenbury and Bill Chandler, two opposites (though they do have much in common).

Adding to the complications is the scheme which involves Haggerty getting his fiance Gladys to marry Chandler, for a few days at least, in order to trap Connie Allenbury — but love takes it sideways here, too, as Gladys falls for Chandler.

What we end up with is a kind of juggling act between characters that on the surface seem to be opposites (Loy and Powell) and couples that are opposites (Loy and Powell, Harlow and Tracy). The comedy comes from the disconnects.

Loy is masterful as an ice queen with both her looks and performance and as the ice queen who slowly warms up to someone more open. Powell is her equal with his performance as both debonair and conniving — and as one who changes as love takes hold.

Tracy’s role is more basic (as is the character) but he is very good as a single-focus, bearish editor who can’t see beyond what he has set himself to do.

Love bite: in real life, William Powell and Jean Harlow were a couple that were engaged at the time of her early death.

And then there is Jean Harlow who, in the final act, almost steals the movie as the ill-treated, taken-for-granted yet feisty Gladys who finally has had enough and puts everyone in their place.

She’s wonderful throughout as the no-nonsense girl who puts up with everything as she waits to get married. She is also the one element of sanity in the film provided the audience at least some kind of anchor to hold on to amid the chaos.

Libeled Lady is a great example of the wonderfully confused and madcap comedies of the 1930s. And it boasts four truly large stars: Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy.

Director Conway has the good sense to step aside and just let them do their stuff and that, together with taut editing, gives the movie a great, speedy pace.

This is movie is well worth seeing and, when you do, wait for the fishing scene. It is Powell at his comedic best.

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