Libeled Lady (1936)

September 14, 2006

Wow. Our house has been on fire with the movie selections lately. Not only did we see one of the best film noirs I’d seen in a while, The Big Heat, but we followed that effort up last night with libeled.jpgone of the best screwballs I’ve seen in quite some time – Libeled Lady, starring Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, William Powell, and Spencer Tracy. Newspaper editor Warren Haggerty (Tracy) fears an erroneous article about Connie Allenbury (Loy) will have him sued for libel. Desperate, he hatches an elaborate plot where he makes his own fiancee Gladys (Harlow) marry Bill Chandler (Powell). He then sends Bill on an amorous hunt after Connie, hoping to get the young socialite caught up in a scandal with a married man.

The script for this film is great – it keeps you interested and laughing throughout. But as you might expect from a cast like this, it’s the acting that really carries this film. Looking over the filmographies for the stars, I was shocked by how good a year 1936 was, particularly for Powell and Loy. Not only did they both also co-star in The Great Ziegfeld and After the Thin Man that year, but Loy also starred in Wife Versus Secretary (which also featured Harlow) and Powell starred in My Man Godfrey. Tracy, too, was in some quality films that year, including Fury and San Francisco. Clearly, this film is one of those classics of the mid-30s, when studios were simply cranking out one quality production on top of another. But what’s really great about it is that it brings together so many top-flight actors at the top of their games. Furthermore, even though MGM clearly focused its advertising for the film on the stars themselves, this isn’t a case where the studio just blindly put together as many recognizable names as possible. Rather, the chemistry among all four of the stars really works. As a result, one can come to this single film and find a sampling of fine acting by four of the 30s biggest box-office draws.

With all its role reversing, mistaken identity, and reluctant romance, this film has many of the classic screwball elements and would make an entertaining introduction for somebody new to the genre. It was made at a time when screwball comedy was really beginning to find its form, as were the stars, directors, and studios charged with bringing the films to life.

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wifevs.jpgFor date night this past weekend, me and the Mrs. decided to check out Wife Versus Secretary, a smart, stylish classic that seemed appropriate for the occasion. The film has three of the 1930s’ biggest stars in their heyday – Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, and Jean Harlow – and also features a young Jimmy Stewart in one of his first roles. The plot basically revolves around Van Stanhope (Gable), a successful businessman who is happily married to Linda (Loy). In business, Van relies heavily upon his beautiful secretary Whitey Wilson (Harlow), who happens to be engaged to Dave (Stewart). When a proposed purchase of a rival company necessitates Van and Whitey to start working long hours in private, their significant others begin to get suspicious, and jealousy runs rampant.

This was one of those nice little surprises where we really hadn’t heard much about it beforehand, but it turned out to be a rather good film. The sets are some of those great, lavish affairs of the 30s that make you feel nostalgic. The script is good, as is the directing. It’s the acting, though, that steals the show. The cast is as good as advertised, and the chemistry between the stars works well. After so long associating Myrna Loy with William Powell, I was surprised by how well the Gable/Loy combination worked (which probably explains why they made eight movies together). Of course, there was also the noted great chemistry between Gable and Harlow, who collaborated on six movies together before her death at 26. You can also recognize the talent of Jimmy Stewart, and it’s easy to see why he wasn’t given such small roles for long. It really is the acting, in my opinion, that makes this film work. (On a side note, I’m cautiously optimistic that I’m slowly ridding my wife of her anti-Gable bias by convincing her he’s so much more than just Rhett Butler.)

Although technically, this film fits the general definition of a screwball comedy, it deviates significantly from the quintessential examples of the genre (much like the screwball comedy that supposedly marks the starting point of the genre – It Happened One Night, also starring Gable). It is much more serious in nature than most screwballs, and it lacks some of that zaniness that tends to make the genre so fun.  In fact, despite the overall brevity of the film, there are one or two stretches where the film moves slowly and is not overly engaging. For that reason, I would be somewhat reluctant to recommend this film to someone who is new to classics (I’ve found the pacing of these old films to be the most common turn-off to contemporary sensibilities). To those lucky ones already indoctrinated into the world of black and white, however, this showcase of some legendary 30s talents is one of those often overlooked films that you might be happy to discover. It’s not perfect, but it’s still very good.