A Review of Libeled Lady (1936): One of the great final performances of Jean Harlow

by Paul Batters

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Philadelphia Story (1940): One Of The Greatest Comedies Ever Made

by Paul Batters

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“The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.” Mike Connor

One of the great enjoyments of being a classic film fan is discovering films that you have either never seen or rediscovering films that had been previously dismissed or ignored (for one reason or another). Regardless of the reason, it means experiencing something new when finally viewed and something new is learned about the classic film era. For myself, it was a combination of both reasons when I finally watched The Philadelphia Story (1940). I was certainly not disappointed!

Released through MGM and directed by George Cukor, The Philadelphia Story (1940) is a classic screwball comedy. By the end of the 1930s, the market had seen a near surplus of screwball comedies of which are a number are easily forgotten. Yet The Philadelphia Story (1940) doesn’t fall to formula whilst still maintaining the deep, healthy irreverence in tone and style, which was a key convention of the genre. Additionally, it uses another oft-used plot device of the love triangle/re-married couple, which had in some form or another been a popular theme in films, particularly during the Production Code Era.

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The aim of this review is not to outline the plot but to look at the film’s strengths and offer some points of admiration from this review that may prompt the reader to engage with the aforementioned joy of discovering or re-discovering classic films!

In brief, the story revolves around Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) a wealthy previously divorced socialite who is about to re-marry Gordon Kittredge (John Howard), a rich individual who has made his fortune rather than inherited it. It is roughly two years since she divorced her first husband C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), which ended acrimoniously and their break-up is brilliantly depicted in the opening scene. It’s a testament to Cukor as director and the writer, Donald Ogden Stewart, who sum up the end of a marriage using slapstick humour, the loud silence of a couple not talking to each other and one of the best physical falls ever shown on film.

With the context established, the audience finds that Tracy and Gordon will marry the next day and as the activities of the rich make great fodder for the reporters, Spy Magazine sends two reports to cover the story – Mike Connor (Jimmy Stewart) and Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey). However, to get access to the Lord household, they need her former husband Dexter to assist.

To add a complication to matters, Dexter blackmails Tracy into allowing the reporters and him to stay as guests, by telling her that he will reveal the extra-marital affair her father had with a dancer. With her hands tied, Tracy has no choice but to let the stay for the wedding.

What follows is classic comedy, as Tracy will find herself torn between her former husband Dexter, her fiancé George and the reporter Mike. The lead-up to the wedding will see all characters caught up in all manner of situations with Tracy in particular asking questions of herself. The rest is for the reader to discover by watching the film!

So what makes The Philadelphia Story a bona fide classic?

The story initially sounds formulaic but it reaches far beyond what may be expected from such a plot. There’s a combination of factors, which allow for this to occur and the first port of call when discussing needs to be the script. Phillip Barry’s play (written for Hepburn) is perfectly transformed to the screen by Ogden Stewart, with pitch perfect pacing and dialogue that snaps with sharpness and sophistication. The script doesn’t just flow; it weaves. Ogden Stewart channels and interlocks moments of slapstick with pandemonium, romance and satire – and I have no doubt that the chaotic splendor of Paramount era Marx Bros has been thrown in for good measure. Note the brilliant rendition of Lydia The Tattooed Lady by Virginia Weidler as Dinah, Tracy’s younger teenaged sister. The dialogue fits the characters to a tee and Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian makes the astute point that ‘the fun and wit rise like champagne bubbles, but there is a deceptive strength in the writing and performances’. The ‘deceptive strength’ is ever-present in the moments we least expect, such as Dexter’s honest and devastating appraisal of Tracy delivered with a serrated sharpness that eviscerates Tracy with its’ truth. There’s nothing stilted or stiff in the dialogue and it never falls flat. Wendy Ide in The Times states that The Philadelphia Story possesses a ‘blue-chip screenplay…with fizz and spark’. It’s no mistake that Donald Ogden Stewart would win the Academy Award For Best Screenplay.

But the script doesn’t come alive without the sterling performances of the key players and the brilliance of the outstanding supporting cast. It’s well known and part of film lore that Hepburn needed the film to be a success after being declared ‘box-office poison’ and Holiday (1938) failing at the box office. Howard Hughes had helped with acquiring the rights to the play but Hepburn knew it would take exceptional talent to deliver the characters. Gable and Tracy were her desired actors but they were apparently tied up with other commitments. However, Cary Grant biographer Marc Eliot has stated that neither Gable nor Tracy wanted to work with her because of her status as box-office poison and Gable didn’t like the script at any rate. (Tracy had not met Hepburn at that point). Cary Grant’s previous work with Hepburn had chemistry and it culminated in their perfect partnership in The Philadelphia Story.

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Grant brings to the role of Dexter his exceptional comedic timing, charm and wit, as well as an exceptional and uncanny ability to physically react to his opposite number with both and subtle and overt expression. Hepburn shows incredible range and conveys the haughtiness, strong will and arrogance of the character whilst shaping the character arc with depth and perfectly balancing this against Tracy’s frailty and vulnerability. She gives all of herself to the role and this was recognized by John Mosher in his review at the time in The New Yorker, pointing out the film was a triumph for Hepburn. The third primary character (and love interest), Mike Connor, is a win for Jimmy Stewart, who had just come off his success in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939). Stewart is strong as the cynical reporter who regards the Lord household with contempt whilst falling for the statuesque Tracy. Stewart would not only win great reviews from critics such as Bosley Crowther but would also win the Academy Award for Best Actor.

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At the helm of the film’s direction, as already mentioned was one of MGM’s finest directors George Cukor, who had worked with Hepburn in four films. Cukor crafts a film, which leaves no dead air nor fills up time for the sake of it. There’s depth and meaning in moment and Cukor draws outstanding performances from the cast, and intertwining the complex relationships across a thematic climate of class war, truth to self and love. Demetrious Matheou describes the film as ‘an effervescent social satire that pokes fun at all sides in the class war. It’s wickedly witty, gloriously romantic, whip-smart and complex, even verging on the unsavory at times – all in all, something of a complete entertainment’. If so, it’s in great part due to the sensitivities of Cukor and his vision in shaping the film into the classic comedy that it would become.

The supporting cast is also a joy to behold on the silver screen, offering layers to the stars’ performances but more importantly helping to shape and create the world in which the film exists as well as buffering the relationships between the prime characters. As wonderful as they all are, for my money the two standouts are Mary Nash as Tracy’s mother Margaret and Virginia Weidler as Tracy’s sister Dinah. Their interactions on screen are hilarious and the dialogue shared is sidesplitting and rounded out with a naturalness borne of the talent of the actresses delivering their lines. The young Weidler never seems to be out of depth nor dazzled working closely with the primary stars of the film, and proves absolutely delightful on the screen. She steals the scene with her Groucho-inspired moment singing ‘Lydia The Tattooed Lady’ and what follows is hilarious interplay in near-flawless French with Hepburn.

The Philadelphia Story is far from your run-of-the-mill screwball comedy, with its’ satirical core still as fiery as it was in 1940 but avoiding clichés with dollops of farce in the story. But the near fantastical setting of the rich household of the Lords doesn’t mean that there are real life lessons missing in the story. The Lords may be rich but rather than snobbish, they appear as too far removed from the realities of life and they are far from being bad people. As Connor also discovers, the character of a person does not depend on the class they were born into. It becomes a learning curve for all the characters but especially for Tracy, who will finally be honest with herself about who she is, how she views the world and whom she truly loves.

Having a star cast, a top director and a brilliant script does not guarantee a hit film let alone a classic that stands the test of time. Yet The Philadelphia Story has transcended being a hit film and is without doubt a classic and deserves to be acknowledged as such. It would be a win for all concerned. For Hepburn it was a return to form and she was able to shed the ‘box-office poison’ tag attached to her. Cukor enjoyed a top hit after his unceremonious dumping from Gone With The Wind the year before. Stewart would win an Oscar, as would Ogden Stewart and the film would be a top hit for MGM.

But the real winners are classic film fans, who can enjoy the sparkle, wit and brilliance of one of the finest comedies ever made.

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This post is part of the 2018 Greatest Film I’ve Never Seen Blogathon hosted by Moon In Gemini.  Visit her page to see more great articles!

 

 

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.