by Paul Batters
You can’t build a life on hate, or a marriage on spite. Marriage is too important. Mine only lasted an hour, but… I know.. Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy)
There are legends of cinema who became stars in the heavens as well as on the silver screen way before their time. They are forever remembered young, vital and beautiful; lives tragically cut short through illness or accident such as Rudolph Valentino, Carole Lombard and of course Marilyn Monroe. But with all due respect to the latter, it was an earlier star who first embodied the concept of the ‘blonde bombshell’. Jean Harlow was a star who combined sexiness with sass, quick-fire delivery with a devastating sexual slow-burn and was electric on the silver screen. Her chemistry with her co-stars saw her as one of the premier stars of MGM and her death would shock the Hollywood film community.
Yet her performances on screen remain timeless and a testimony to her long-lasting legendary status.
Libeled Lady was one of her final performances and such was her status that she received top billing over William Powell (her fiancé), Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy. Despite signing on for the key role of Connie Allenbury, MGM ‘s Louis B. Mayer wanted Powell paired with Loy to capitalise on the pair’s prior successes. Settling for the role of Gladys, Harlow still gives a spirited performance in a film that is fun, fast-paced and enjoyable. By all reports, Harlow was not bitter and ended up enjoying the role and the film overall. Additionally, this great screwball comedy is a showcase of MGM’s top talent, something that few studios could boast and a characteristic that was commonplace on the MGM lot. On the surface, it’s easy to suggest that Libeled Lady was a vehicle for Loy and Powell, and as already mentioned Mayer wanted the two together. However, Harlow (and for that matter Spencer Tracy) were far more than supporting actors and the fact that Harlow received top billing suggests that as well.
The story, set around newspaper reporting, drew on a context popular and topical at the time, with numerous studios producing films with newspaper/reporting themes. Aside from radio and the newsreel, people got their news from newspapers (printed at least twice a day) so the ‘chase for the story’, journalists on the hunt etc were very familiar. However, in an era when newspapers were the kings of media, getting it wrong and being sued was a serious matter! As a result, the context allowed for all kinds of gags and quick-fire dialogue that were an integral part of screwball comedy and would suit Jean Harlow down to a tea. It certainly shows in her fine performance.
The plot revolves around Connie as a wealthy woman accused of breaking up a marriage and the fictitious New York Evening Star newspaper, run by Warren Hagerty (Spencer Tracy) is being sued by Connie for an incredible $5,000,000 for running the false story. Despite the occupational headache this had created for Hagerty, on a personal level it means his marriage to fiancée Gladys Benton (Jean Harlow) is now on hold till he cleans up the mess.
Gladys: You can’t do this to me, Warren Haggerty. Not to me. First, it was a fire at sea. Then it was a kidnapping. What’s the gag this time?
Warren Haggerty: Darling, there’s no gag. The newspaper’s made a mistake.
Gladys: Yeah, well so has little Gladys – engaged to a newspaperman.
In desperation, Hagerty calls on a former star journalist of the newspaper (and apparent womaniser) Bill Chandler (William Powell) who is an ‘expert on libel cases’ and is manipulated into accepting big money to help Hagerty. The crazy plan is for Chandler to marry Gladys (in name only) and masquerade as a married couple. The suave Chandler is then supposed to pursue and seduce Connie, only to be ‘discovered’ by a suitably distraught Gladys and use this as leverage to force Connie to drop the lawsuit. This mad scheme is only agreed to by Gladys, as Hagerty promises to marry her after the plan succeeds.
So how will this all end up? This reviewer will offer up no revelations and you will have to find out for yourself.
If you’re reading this and thinking that the plot sounds absolutely ridiculous, you would be absolutely correct. Under a weak director with second rate actors and poor production values, Libeled Lady becomes a forgotten film and deservedly so. Yet what follows is classic screwball with a healthy dose of farce. What keeps it all together is tight pacing and a very-well written and cohesive script, with crackling dialogue that is right up there with the best screwball comedies of the era. The best of MGM production values are in place and most important of all, you have four of the best and brightest stars of the 1930s. Their chemistry is top shelf and the work off each other with crispness and a complete understanding of what makes farce work – accepting the absurdity of the plot yet making it enjoyable and believable to the audience, even when we know it’s ridiculous.
With the Breen Code in full force, the sexual escapades that could be easily exploited (especially by today’s standards) are deftly dealt with and allow for plenty of laughs, with subtle as well as clever innuendo on the nature of marriage and relationships. However, some of the thematic commentary on marriage becomes an ugly revelation of the ‘norms’ of the time i.e. how couples ‘fought’. There’s also a very cynical view of marriage that is exhibited:
Hagerty: “You mustn’t fight.”
Chandler: “Why not, we’re married.”
Yet there are also some fascinating insights into society’s views on the role of women and reviewer Jennie Kermode makes a valid point; “Gladys is caught between mainstream society’s concept of a virtuous woman and Hollywood’s demonization of it as a force curtailing male ambition”. If there was one star who in real life epitomised and suffered this paradox, it was certainly Jean Harlow.
Partnering Loy and Powell was not just MGM looking to capitalise on their previous pairings for big box office bucks. The two had wonderful chemistry and could work off each other, the way Rogers and Astaire did on a dance-floor. The rest of the cast are also strong, with Spencer Tracy perfect as the fast-talking and hard-boiled newspaper editor.
There’s plenty of style and sophistication in this classic MGM production, and the chemistry between Loy and Powell is a delight to enjoy. Make no mistake, however, Harlow is far from over-shadowed and her screen presence and real-life relationship with Powell adds a fascinating dimension to their own screen performances. Indeed, Harlow steals many scenes, simply through her presence and charisma, despite her personal health being not at its’ best and terrible tragedy was only around the corner. By all reports, the cast were very close and got along well, which meant an enjoyable shoot for all concerned and the great relationships they shared certainly transfer onto the silver screen. According to Frank Miller at TCM, there were all kinds of gags and off-screen fun which lightened the mood, added to the good atmosphere and even drew Powell out of his dressing room to join in on the amusement.
The film does build on some already well-established plot devices. As already mentioned, the newspaper angle had already been utilised in films such as It Happened One Night and Platinum Blonde, with far more originality than Libeled Lady. Not to mention the character of the ‘young rich girl’ living a leisurely lifestyle, which had been visited numerous times and would be re-visited numerous times in the future to the point of exhaustion. But you could pull Libeled Lady apart a little too much and miss the fun in the process. As Dennis Schwartz points out, “It’s harmless fun and not worth thinking about it too much. I would recommend just sitting back and going with the lively romp and lavishly costumed production”.
Case in point – the ‘fishing scene’ is hilarious, utilising the talents of Powell with that wonderful actor Walter Connolly, who is always a delight. Of course it’s a little silly but it also has charm mixed in with the laughs and it’s moments like this that make Libeled Lady so much fun.
Despite Powell and Harlow being an off-screen couple, the two did not get to spend a great deal of on-screen time together. However, by all reports Harlow would visit on the set during Powell’s scenes and when the two share screen time, it’s not hard to see Harlow’s real life love for her man.
Kermode correctly states, Libeled Lady ‘was made in an era when screwball comedy capers were at their best. They were also at their most prolific, with MGM focused on finding great pairings..’. This is not strictly a Jean Harlow film but one which displays the best of MGM. Audiences thought so too, as the film did very well at the box office and firmly established Harlow’s place at the top of MGM’s star roster.
However, with respect to the many great actresses of the era, put someone else in the role and it would not be the same film. Gladys’ lines have that sass and sizzle that only Jean Harlow could have delivered – and makes the film a delight to watch.
Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.