Monday, September 19, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: LIBELED LADY (1936)

Hollywood has always loved newspaper stories, especially when there's scandal and salacious tabloid gossip involved, and Libeled Lady (1936) delivers all that and more. Directed by Jack Conway, Libeled Lady is a screwball comedy times two, with four big stars in its leading roles, although William Powell and Myrna Loy steal the picture from Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow with their perfect comic dialogue and irresistible romantic chemistry.

Tracy opens the film as newspaper man Warren Haggerty, who has landed his publication in a huge libel suit thanks to a scandalous report about wealthy socialite Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy). Haggerty hires smooth operator Bill Chandler (William Powell) to set Connie up in a compromising situation that will derail her lawsuit. As part of the plot, Haggerty even convinces his own impatient girlfriend, Gladys (Jean Harlow), to marry Bill and then pretend outrage when Bill is caught with the unsuspecting Connie. Bill, however, throws a wrench in the plan when he actually falls for Connie, while Gladys begins to behave as if she really were Bill's jealous wife.

For classic film fans, the quadruple leads are the real draw, with Tracy and Harlow playing a rougher, more robustly hilarious pair and Powell and Loy doing their distinctively witty take on romantic comedy. The action moves along at a brisk pace. Tracy and Harlow are both very entertaining, especially when they argue, but the fireworks really go off when Powell and Loy get together. There's just something about them that the camera - and the audience - can't resist. Powell also exercises his talent for physical comedy in an especially funny scene in which Bill tries to fish his way into the good graces of Connie and her father (Walter Connolly). Much of the story is strikingly modern in the sense that it plays some rather shocking ideas for laughs; films of the 1930s often reveal a very casual attitude toward divorce, but here we also get a sham marriage and the threat of bigamy, and neither of them seems like a very big deal.

Jean Harlow gets top billing for this picture, and it's worth noting that the Harlow films - though sadly few in number - do offer some really interesting ensembles of iconic stars. Libeled Lady sets her up with two different leading men - Tracy and Powell - and gives her Loy as a female foil. In the same year, Loy also acts as a counter to Harlow in Wife vs. Secretary (1936), which presents Clark Gable and James Stewart as Harlow's two romantic opportunities. Dinner at Eight (1933), a true ensemble picture, pairs Harlow with Wallace Beery, while Bombshell (1933) sets her between Lee Tracy and Franchot Tone. Her pictures always seem to feature casts that revel in contrast, whether between Harlow and her fellow actresses or between the different men who vie for her affections. Like most of the studios of that time, MGM played mix and match with its stable of performers, but the Harlow movies almost always seem like particularly good efforts at getting the right group into the right roles.

Libeled Lady earned a Best Picture nomination at the 1937 Academy Awards, although a different Powell and Loy picture, The Great Ziegfeld (1936), took home the prize. The elegant duo gained their greatest fame playing Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man (1934) and its numerous sequels, although Powell is also justly celebrated for his performance in My Man Godfrey (1936). For more of two time Oscar winner Spencer Tracy's work in the 1930s, see Fury (1936), San Francisco (1936), and Captains Courageous (1937). Tracy and Harlow also appeared together in another 1936 picture, Riffraff, but Libeled Lady is the happier story of the two. Jean Harlow's career ended tragically in 1937, when the actress died of kidney failure at just 26 years old. See more of her with frequent costar Clark Gable in Red Dust (1932), China Seas (1935) and her last film, Saratoga (1937).