Libeled Lady (1936, Jack Conway)
If you have read this blog for any period of time, or even if you came upon this particular entry by chance, I assume that I have no need to explain to you what a screwball comedy is — on the offchance you need a primer, I’ve covered the broad parameters of screwball, which essentially refers to fast-paced, verbose Hays Code-era sex comedies that usually hinge upon women in dogged pursuit of men and almost always involve class conflict, in this long examination of the major films of the 1930s, plus this one covering the ’40s. I have also written full reviews of the following major, canonical screwball titles: The Awful Truth; Bringing Up Baby; It Happened One Night; The Lady Eve; My Man Godfrey; The Philadelphia Story; and these somewhat more debatable, or at least less “pure,” entries: Here Comes Mr. Jordan; The Thin Man (particularly relevant to this current entry because it’s an MGM title that pairs William Powell and Myrna Loy); and You Can’t Take It with You.
It also seems safe to assume that after ten years of my prattling on you already know the general facts and accepted wisdom about the studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the most prestigious of the classic Hollywood era’s Big Five, and its traditional house style. The quintessential MGM star vehicle is probably 1932’s Grand Hotel; at the link you can read about the ways in which Metro doggedly pushed a strictly regimented image for its stars, in front of and beyond the camera, not to mention its very tightly controlled soundstage environments and lush but often claustrophobic production design (see The Great Ziegfeld and The Wizard of Oz for two enduringly popular examples of these aesthetic features). Taking this foreknowledge into account can be helpful in elaborating on why Libeled Lady, one of the best and funniest screwball comedies and one that happens to have been not just an MGM production but a slick and gushingly marketed MGM star vehicle, is apart from being a shot of confectionary pleasure an especially interesting and unusual picture for 1930s Hollywood. It’s not often that four stars of such caliber were blended into a truly democratic ensemble, especially not one that played so adroitly to the immense talents of all those involved.
There aren’t really any hard and fast rules of what a screwball comedy is, of course — “you know it when you see it,” as they say about another only slightly more lustful artform — but the image of unruly and unkempt loudness the genre’s name conjures up doesn’t seem outwardly compatible with MGM’s staid and tightly controlled reputation. However, MGM had been responsible for what’s sometimes regarded as a major pre-Code precedent to screwball, Bombshell starring Jean Harlow, and was the production origin of The Thin Man and its sequels, which carry through some of the key screwball tropes and certainly the inherent attitude of sexual liberation, at least in the first film, but is also a somewhat prestigious literary adaptation. Ditto The Philadelphia Story, a canon screwball that like Libeled Lady employs the services of multiple major movie stars but is much too stagy, cerebral and slow to hit the jugular in the manner of the likes of the similarly-pedigreed Holiday, for instance — in other words, it’s very much the spitting image of what a working knowledge of the studio era would suggest an MGM screwball comedy to be. It’s what we might call an “old movie.”
By contrast, Libeled Lady is stunningly vibrant and lively, adopting the same tone of fevered urgency as The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday — it is, in addition to being a romantic comedy, a newspaper movie — with a shade of emotional maturity and naturally good-natured goofiness that apparently is an accurate rendering of life on the set among its spate of celebrity costars, who actually got to go out on location to an outdoor set and hole up in cabins for a spell. The libeled lady of the title is Connie Allenbury, who sues a major New York paper for millions after a withdrawn early edition throws a specious allegation of adultery at her; the paper’s editor Warren Haggerty postpones his oft-postponed wedding to increasingly impatient girlfriend Gladys Benton in order to hire Bill Chandler, an ex-employee and lothario with a knack for digging up dirt, to do his stuff on Allenbury and thereby thwart the lawsuit. But complications arise. One source of them is Chandler’s methodology: faking a marriage to a reluctant Gladys in order to hit Connie with phony entrapment, a thorny enough business by itself. He then follows the Allenburys, Connie and her dad, onto a cruise ship where he talks a big talk about sharing the elder Allenbury’s passion for freshwater fishing, an image he then has to spend the rest of the film carefully upholding despite his total ignorance on the finer points of angling. Problems also arise when, this being a screwball comedy, everyone falls in love with everyone: Gladys with Bill, suddenly thrown by having a new “husband” who actually pays more attention to her than to a newspaper, Bill and Connie with each other out of sheer mutual attraction, easy intimacy and unstated urges.
But the lion’s share of conflict in Libeled Lady comes from who these people are, and what that entails, and it’s here that a fourth wall is quietly busted. If ever a case were to be made for the potential for artistic triumph even buried deep within the confines of a regulated star system and its attendant cults of personality, Libeled Lady is it. Chandler and Allenbury are William Powell and Myrna Loy respectively, by now an established team of immense cultural impact, box office popularity and undeniable romantic chemistry — this was their fifth pairing, joining movies as iconic as The Thin Man and Manhattan Melodrama — and they exhibit the same ease and believability as always in their supremely spontaneous-looking act of falling for one another. Individually, they also play up all of the most irresistible facets of their screen personas, which trade on what feel like intimacy with their audience: they seem familiar, you feel you know them, and this isn’t possible in a movie like The Great Ziegfeld (or even in My Man Godfrey, in which Powell plays starkly against type).
That same surprising amiability between real-life personage and performance is visible in Spencer Tracy’s rapid-fire, single-minded newspaper man and lackluster bridegroom Haggerty, who’s as engaging and cheerful as was ever evident in the most charming portions of his more serious performances. And Jean Harlow, Powell’s real-world paramour at the time, is given a rare chance to exhibit talents beyond the limits envisioned for her by the ill-fated svengali who’d initiated her career, Howard Hughes. As Gladys, Harlow gets to actually luxuriate in the complexities of a role that’s neither a traditional dumb-blonde sex object nor a tiresome romantic foil: she is funny, the audience empathizes with her frustration throughout the film, and she’s beautiful without being set up as an ornament. (The terrible postscript is that she died only a year later, buried in one of the gowns designed for her in this film.) Between Harlow, Loy and Powell it’s hard to decide which is the film’s strongest performance; it’s also somewhat pointless, as this is an ensemble piece of rare joie de vivre, and by actually having a good time with the stars’ public images and personalities and playing to their own strengths as both actors and celebrities, it becomes the rarest of gems — a glamorous 1930s hangout movie, in which the audience is giddily catered to and honored and made to feel like an actual participant. To this day, the fun of it all is incalculable.
Libeled Lady stands out from even the strongest of its screwball peers and antecedents first because it’s a comparatively adult story — the Five Star Final-like backdrop of newspaper scandal would also bleed into Hawks’ His Girl Friday, but that’s a more straightforwardly plotted comedy-of-remarriage that hinges on a more juvenile relationship dynamic. The couples and couples-to-be in Libeled Lady, in all their various permutations, act out hangups, conflicts and interpersonal dilemmas that are more universal, and their affect is calmer and kinder without approaching the boredom and decorum of a more conventional comedy of manners. Everyone seems like a grownup, even when they’re trying to undermine one another — there are never the traces of nastiness and disrespect you find in, say, certain silent Lubitsch or Hawks comedies — but everyone also seems alive. Secondly, Libeled Lady is also actually a well-plotted film whose script (by former journalists Maurine Dallas Watkins and George Oppenheimer plus two others) builds an intriguing and unpredictable set of conflicts that evade easy or obvious solution, and then fully justify one’s investment with a knockout conclusion; on top of the charm in the performances and the many searing one-liners (most of which don’t even make sense out of context, which is all the better), humor grows out of the classical discomfort and seemingly insoluble prickliness of the situations two foolish men cook up for themselves… which are finally only fully resolved through the supremely adult art of conversation. We are tantalizingly denied the big blowup we expect at the climax because, we learn, Bill and Connie have already talked it out — a startlingly mature plot turn for an American comedy of any vintage, although undermined slightly when Spencer Tracy and William Powell’s oblique marital debate then collapses into fisticuffs.
While the film touches on class with knowing wit and dexterity, it’s also with a certain casual superficiality that suggests screenwriters and audiences were both bored of the subject — this is frothier by a lot than My Man Godfrey in its politics, and almost uniquely among major screwballs makes no point of rendering fools out of the wealthy Allenburys, who exhibit some snobbishness early on but are generally amenable enough, with Walter Connolly a patient father of vocally simple pleasures and the pair even acquiring some audience identification through their running-gag avoidance of a couple of annoying acquaintances aboard the cruise ship. Plus, as soon as Powell and Loy are paired again, it’s only the most hardline cynic who could raise any objection, and Loy herself is too well-controlled, funny and effortlessly sexy for one to keep any philosophical opposition to her social class in mind. Actual commentary on “the press” is also relatively thin on the ground, with the screenwriters’ healthy shot of journalese mostly serving as credible background to a story about matters that are not, and do not claim to be, especially important. That is, if you discard the fact that who pairs off with whom and how their values match up is, in fact, pretty important — not to mention how Joseph Breen from the Hays office spent the run-up to Libeled Lady‘s release crowing about its threats to the institution of marriage!
In certain regards, Libeled Lady almost resembles Lubitsch’s sex farces more than the most manic of the screwball pictures; Powell takes part in some terrific fishing-related slapstick, but otherwise none of the performers edge anywhere close to the deliberate insanity or intensity of Carole Lombard in Godfrey, Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday or either of the leads in Bringing Up Baby. The script, Jack Conway’s flawless no-nonsense blocking and each individual performance all methodically contribute to a piece of well-sustained, tonally relaxed storytelling that nonetheless builds to the things that screwball comedy, and this film’s own out-of-chronology title sequence, always promised: a sense of unrestrained bliss, gigantic and unforced laughs through and through that still ring out eighty years downward, and the specious but galvanizing promise that we all eventually get to find “our people” somehow or another.