Sunday, January 22, 2012

Tonight's Movie: Libeled Lady (1936) at UCLA

Tonight's focus at UCLA's Spencer Tracy festival was a pair of films from 1936. The evening led off with the dramatic SAN FRANCISCO, which netted Tracy an Oscar nomination as Best Actor. The second film of the evening was a complete change of pace, the lively screwball comedy LIBELED LADY, shown in a 16mm print from George Eastman House.

LIBELED LADY has been one of my favorite comedies since I first saw it as a teen at the Tiffany Theater in Los Angeles. LIBELED LADY is packed with star power, starring Tracy with Jean Harlow, William Powell, and Myrna Loy.

Tracy plays Warren Haggerty, a newspaper editor trying to fend off a libel suit from wealthy Connie Allenbury (Loy). He brings in old colleague Bill Chandler (Powell) to handle the situation. Bill ends up marrying Warren's long-suffering fiancee Gladys (Harlow) as part of a plot to catch Connie in a compromising situation and convince her to drop the lawsuit.

It's all kind of silly, as screwball comedies usually are, but it goes down extremely smoothly thanks to the fine cast and witty, fast-paced dialogue, which is mixed with some well-done slapstick moments.

Powell, in particular, is at the top of his game, whether he's shaking down Warren for money, dealing with his hysterical "wife" Gladys, or learning how to fly fish. He's so appealing that it's completely believable that Connie doesn't bat an eye when she ultimately learns the truth; in fact the complete lack of angst when Connie finds out the truth is one of the film's many positive attributes.

Loy is also charming as Connie, from her entrance bouncing a ball on a tennis racquet, and she's equally appealing flipping flapjacks or taking Powell on a late-evening swim. She's also got a wonderful wardrobe by Dolly Tree.

Harlow takes what could have been a shrewish, unappealing character and makes her very funny. I especially love the sight of her invading the newsroom dressed in her wedding gown. Film fans can also enjoy seeing her play the phony, very funny marriage scenes with the actor (Powell) who was her offscreen love. The "wedding" scene, where she baffles the justice of the peace with her prolonged kiss of the best man (Tracy), is hilarious, especially Powell's aside, "An old friend of the family," then as the kiss goes on and on, "A very old friend."

Tracy has the most thankless role in the film, as a man who isn't too sad to constantly leave his fiancee standing at the altar, but he pulls it off as well as anyone could, without making the audience hate him too much.

Walter Connolly, who had previous experience as an heiress's father in IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934), deserves special note as Connie's father. I especially like the scene where he and Connie go through the motions of meeting Bill for drinks to thank him for his help early on in the film, obviously wanting to do their social duty and then move on as quickly as possible. It's deftly played with just the right balance of "I'm so important" rudeness and politeness.

LIBELED LADY was directed by Jack Conway. It runs 96 minutes.

It was remade as EASY TO WED (1946) starring Van Johnson, Esther Williams, Keenan Wynn, and Lucille Ball.

LIBELED LADY has been released on DVD in the Classic Comedies Collection and the TCM Jean Harlow Legends Collection. It's also been released on VHS. (November 2020 Update: LIBELED LADY will be released on Blu-ray this month by the Warner Archive.  My December 2020 review of the Blu-ray is here.)

LIBELED LADY can also be seen on Turner Classic Movies. The trailer is available on the TCM website.

Related posts: Tonight's Movie: Inherit the Wind (1960) at UCLA; Tonight's Movie: Manhattan Melodrama (1934) at the Egyptian Theatre; The Black Maria Hosts Libeled Lady (1936) at the Silent Movie Theatre.


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