A Movie A Day: Quint on LIBELED LADY (1936)
She may be his wife, but she’s engaged to me!
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection or from my DVR and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
I went into this movie expecting a very different film. I don’t know why, but in my mind I had this pictured as a darker film, maybe a noir-ish melodrama or at the very least a heavy drama/thriller, but what I got instead was a wickedly funny, risky bit of business. It’s almost slapstick in some scenes, but the genius of the movie lies with the rapid-fire dialogue, sharp retorts, sexual innuendo and biting sarcasm.
We follow Spencer Tracy from yesterday’s IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD and LIBELED LADY seems to be the perfect follow-up, comedy to comedy with Tracy at radically different points in his life.
Here he plays a newspaperman who seems to be looking for any excuse not to marry his fiancée played by Jean Harlow, a petulant smart-ass, but with good reason. Tracy really is a dick towards her and she’s had enough, refusing to be stood up one more time, put on the backburner for the newspaper yet again.
But on the eve of his wedding, he is once again called away for an emergency. This time a batch of copies of the morning paper running a front page story that turns out to be false slips through and gives him the excuse he needs to ditch Harlow at the altar yet again.
It’s a pretty bad fuck-up, running a story that was unconfirmed from halfway across the globe about heiress Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy) acting out at a party. Turns out to be complete BS and they stop all but 50 copies from getting out, but those 50 are enough to get back to Loy and her powerful father (Walter Connolly).
Guilty of libel now, Tracy’s ass is on the line and it’s to him to make it right, stop Loy from filing suit, which is a major suit, a ridiculous sum of money that would bankrupt the paper, which Tracy and his boss suspect is the ulterior motive behind the suit. They don’t really underline it, but the implication is Connolly is a competator and definitely no fan of their rag.
Out of desperation, Tracy swallows his pride and reaches out to a womanizing sleazebag named Bill Chandler (William Powell). The two don’t have a good history, Tracy having fired Powell sometime before, but with the paper on the line, he has to do whatever he can to derail Loy’s suit by tarnishing her character. Enter Powell, to thrust himself into her life and orchestrate some scandals that will discredit the poor lady.
That reads like pretty typical romantic comedy fodder, doesn’t it? I guess what sets this apart the chemistry between Powell and Loy, co-stars already of the super-popular THIN MAN series and the witty writing of all the main leads.
It’s an odd movie. You’d expect Spencer Tracy to be the lead and for the first 15 minutes of the movie he is, then it’s solidly William Powell’s movie, only to be this bizarre amalgam of twisted point of view for the final act.
And they also really go above and beyond to tarnish this lady’s character… Tracy somehow even manages to convince his fiancée to marry Powell so there can be a bitter, well publicized divorce with Loy in the middle as the home-wrecker. This is a legal marriage. And they talk Jean Harlow into it. Unbelievable!
So while you have the A story-line being Powell ingratiating himself to the Allenbury family the B story-line is the time in-between Powell’s visits with Loy, where he has to keep up the appearance of a married couple with Harlow. The A and B storylines actually mirror each other. Both Loy and Harlow are cold to Powell at first, but soon his charms chip away at their exteriors until they’re both in love with him.
Imagine the complications this brings, especially when he genuinely falls for Loy and has to spend the second half of the movie trying to keep this shakey house of cards from falling down on his head.
The humor in this movie is definitely risky. Setting aside the blatant disregard for the sanctity of marriage, the script (by Maurine Dallas Watkins, Howard Emmett Rogers and George Oppenheimer) is filled to the brim with innuendo. Fishing plays a central part in this movie and hearing Loy talking about desiring to get a “rod” back in her grip… well, c’mon. They knew what they were doing.
Just the level of biting sarcasm from Jean Harlow alone pushes the envelope of the time and makes for a movie that’s still genuinely funny today.
That’s not to give Harlow a shitload of credit as an actress. I haven’t seen much of her work, so I won’t make a broad critique, but in this movie she’s not the best actress in the world. What she lacks in any sort of subtlety or range she makes up for in sheer personality. Harlow is a character. It’s in her eyes, body language, harsh delivery… it might not be acting I can admire, but I can definitely give her a lot of credit for making her own brand and making it accessible enough for the audience to buy into her character.
Powell and Loy come off much better, but by this point they had already at least one THIN MAN movie, the second of which came out the same year as LIBELED LADY, so there was a built in comfort with one another and an ease to their back and forths. I haven’t seen any of the THIN MAN movies, much to my shame. I know they’ll be right up my alley and I have the Thin Man box set, the flicks are in the AMAD line-up and we will hit them… probably all in a row, like I did with THE PINK PANTHER movies… But after seeing Powell and Loy in this film, I’m more eager than ever to dig into the adventures of Nick and Nora.
Spencer Tracy is, as always, a consummate professional showing that he’s just as talented at comedy as he is at drama. Talk about subtle work, his comedy in this movie is almost all played low-key, under the skin almost. But once you start seeing it, you read it into everything he does and suddenly his character becomes one of the funnier people in the movie.
Final Thoughts: It’s movies like LIBELED LADY that keep my fire going for this column. It’s a flick I probably never would have picked up if I wasn’t hunting for potential AMAD titles and it turns out to be one of the finest examples of comedy I’ve seen from this era. It’s somehow slapstick without being stupid (the clutzy William Powell fishing scene in particular), it’s a romantic comedy without being too sappy and it’s a character comedy that is both complex and easy to follow. The humor is woven throughout the many threads and intertwining plots, sewing it all up nice and tidy and making it a gem of the era.
Here’s what we have lined up for the next week:
Saturday, November 8th: UP THE RIVER (1930)
Sunday, November 9th: DOCTOR BULL (1933)
Monday, November 10th: JUDGE PRIEST (1930)
Tuesday, November 11th: TEN LITTLE INDIANS (1965)
Wednesday, November 12th: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974)
Thursday, November 13th: DANIEL (1983)
Friday, November 14th: EL DORADO (1967)
One of my early AMADs was RIO BRAVO, a film that I loved… and when I reviewed it, I was unaware of a quasi-(or not so quasi-)remake from all the creative team involved, including John Wayne, Howard Hawks and screenwriter Leigh Brackett called EL DORADO. I picked it up and looky-looky what’s on the list in a week. Should be interesting to compare and contrast the two.
But tomorrow we keep the golden age of Hollywood going strong, following Spencer Tracy yet again to John Ford’s 1930 comedy UP THE RIVER co-starring one Humphrey Bogart. See you folks tomorrow for that one!
June 2nd: Harper
June 3rd: The Drowning Pool
June 4th: Papillon
June 5th: Gun Crazy
June 6th: Never So Few
June 7th: A Hole In The Head
June 8th: Some Came Running
June 9th: Rio Bravo
June 10th: Point Blank
June 11th: Pocket Money
June 12th: Cool Hand Luke
June 13th: The Asphalt Jungle
June 14th: Clash By Night
June 15th: Scarlet Street
June 16th: Killer Bait (aka Too Late For Tears)
June 17th: Robinson Crusoe On Mars
June 18th: City For Conquest
June 19th: San Quentin
June 20th: 42nd Street
June 21st: Dames
June 22nd: Gold Diggers of 1935
June 23rd: Murder, My Sweet
June 24th: Born To Kill
June 25th: The Sound of Music
June 26th: Torn Curtain
June 27th: The Left Handed Gun
June 28th: Caligula
June 29th: The Elephant Man
June 30th: The Good Father
July 1st: Shock Treatment
July 2nd: Flashback
July 3rd: Klute
July 4th: On Golden Pond
July 5th: The Cowboys
July 6th: The Alamo
July 7th: Sands of Iwo Jima
July 8th: Wake of the Red Witch
July 9th: D.O.A.
July 10th: Shadow of A Doubt
July 11th: The Matchmaker
July 12th: The Black Hole
July 13th: Vengeance Is Mine
July 14th: Strange Invaders
July 15th: Sleuth
July 16th: Frenzy
July 17th: Kingdom of Heaven: The Director’s Cut
July 18th: Cadillac Man
July 19th: The Sure Thing
July 20th: Moving Violations
July 21st: Meatballs
July 22nd: Cast a Giant Shadow
July 23rd: Out of the Past
July 24th: The Big Steal
July 25th: Where Danger Lives
July 26th: Crossfire
July 27th: Ricco, The Mean Machine
July 28th: In Harm’s Way
July 29th: Firecreek
July 30th: The Cheyenne Social Club
July 31st: The Man Who Knew Too Much
August 1st: The Spirit of St. Louis
August 2nd: Von Ryan’s Express
August 3rd: Can-Can
August 4th: Desperate Characters
August 5th: The Possession of Joel Delaney
August 6th: Quackser Fortune Has A Cousin In The Bronx
August 7th: Start the Revolution Without Me
August 8th: Hell Is A City
August 9th: The Pied Piper
August 10th: Partners
August 11th: Barry Lyndon
August 12th: The Skull
August 13th: The Hellfire Club
August 14th: Blood of the Vampire
August 15th: Terror of the Tongs
August 16th: Pirates of Blood River
August 17th: The Devil-Ship Pirates
August 18th: Jess Franco’s Count Dracula
August 19th: Dracula A.D. 1972
August 20th: The Stranglers of Bombay
August 21st: Man, Woman & Child
August 22nd: The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane
August 23rd: The Young Philadelphians
August 24th: The Rack
August 25th: Until They Sail
August 26th: Somebody Up There Likes Me
August 27th: The Set-Up
August 28th: The Devil & Daniel Webster
August 29th: Cat People
August 30th: The Curse of the Cat People
August 31st: The 7th Victim
September 1st: The Ghost Ship
September 2nd: Isle of the Dead
September 3rd: Bedlam
September 4th: Black Sabbath
September 5th: Black Sunday
September 6th: Twitch of the Death Nerve
September 7th: Tragic Ceremony
September 8th: Lisa & The Devil
September 9th: Baron Blood
September 10th: A Shot In The Dark
September 11th: The Pink Panther
September 12th: The Return of the Pink Panther
September 13th: The Pink Panther Strikes Again
September 14th: Revenge of the Pink Panther
September 15th: Trail of the Pink Panther
September 16th: The Real Glory
September 17th: The Winning of Barbara Worth
September 18th: The Cowboy and the Lady
September 19th: Dakota
September 20th: Red River
September 21st: Terminal Station
September 22nd: The Search
September 23rd: Act of Violence
September 24th: Houdini
September 25th: Money From Home
September 26th: Papa’s Delicate Condition
September 27th: Dillinger
September 28th: Battle of the Bulge
September 29th: Daisy Kenyon
September 30th: Laura
October 1st: The Dunwich Horror
October 2nd: Experiment In Terror
October 3rd: The Devil’s Rain
October 4th: Race With The Devil
October 5th: Salo, Or The 120 Days of Sodom
October 6th: Bad Dreams
October 7th: The House Where Evil Dwells
October 8th: Memories of Murder
October 9th: The Hunger
October 10th: I Saw What You Did
October 11th: I Spit On Your Grave
October 12th: Naked You Die
October 13th: The Wraith
October 14th: Silent Night, Bloody Night
October 15th: I Bury The Living
October 16th: The Beast Must Die
October 17th: Hellgate
October 18th: He Knows You’re Alone
October 19th: The Thing From Another World
October 20th: The Fall of the House of Usher
October 21st: Audrey Rose
October 22nd: Who Slew Auntie Roo?
October 23rd: Wait Until Dark
October 24th: Dead & Buried
October 25th: A Bucket of Blood
October 26th: The Bloodstained Shadow
October 27th: I, Madman
October 28th: Return to Horror High
October 29th: Die, Monster, Die
October 30th: Epidemic
October 31st: Student Bodies
November 1st: Black Widow
November 2nd: The Ghost & Mrs. Muir
November 3rd: Flying Tigers
November 4th: Executive Action
November 5th: The Busy Body
November 6th: It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World
Readers Talkbackcomments powered by Disqus
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Nov. 8, 2008, 5:03 a.m. CST
The film about the internet before the internet?
Nov. 8, 2008, 5:25 a.m. CST
I'm exhausted just reading it!
Nov. 8, 2008, 7:36 a.m. CST
by Frank Reynolds
I'm trying to watch every Best Picture nominee ever. This was one of them, so I just saw it recently myself. Between this film, ARROWSMITH, and THE GREAT ZIEGFELD, I think I've fallen in love with Myrna Loy.
Nov. 8, 2008, 7:51 a.m. CST
by King Vulture
Check out LOVE CRAZY & I LOVE YOU AGAIN, they are both as good as Libeled Lady. DOUBLE WEDDING is probably the least of their films together.
Nov. 8, 2008, 8:01 a.m. CST
Myrna Loy was the high-class hottie of her era. Kind of a like a wittier (and, let's be honest, less buxom) Leelee Sobieski.
Nov. 8, 2008, 9:22 a.m. CST
I've only seen the first "Thin Man" film, and would like to hear Quint's take on it and its sequels. I'm now going to scour the earth for both "Love Crazy" and "I Love You Again", thanks King Vulture.
Nov. 8, 2008, 9:25 a.m. CST
"The Mask of Fu Manchu" as Karloff's daughter...she's the bees knees, I'm just sayin'.
Nov. 8, 2008, 10:54 a.m. CST
You'll certainly enjoy those classics. But, due to this column, I look forward to checking out Libeled Lady now. Thanks Quint!
Nov. 8, 2008, 11:34 a.m. CST
Back in college, a friend who knew that I liked the chemistry on the early seasons of MOONLIGHTING pushed some VHS tapes of the entire THIN MAN series into my hands and it was love at first sight for Loy and the films themselves. <br> By the way, the only bad Powell/Loy pairing is EVELYN PRENTICE which is a dour melodrama.
Nov. 8, 2008, 11:48 a.m. CST
Young or old, she was always hot, funny and a joy to watch. A great actress, especially opposite William Powell. Check out "The Best Years of Our Lives," one of her best films following WWII.
Nov. 8, 2008, 10:14 p.m. CST
by vroom socko
Quint, you are going to LOVE the Thin Man movies. Powell and Loy have the single greatest chemistry in the history of cinema. Until you get to those, I'm just going to have to look forward to two favorites of mine in the coming week: Orient Express, which is an ensamble dream, and El Dorado, which rocks. C'mon, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, AND James Caan? How can it not rock?
Nov. 9, 2008, 12:34 a.m. CST
i got you on 12 chairs...figured i would try another...god, the studio system was great wasnt it? made real movie stars...we dont have movie stars anymore...just actors...harlow and loy were fucking hot, because they were strong, intelligent women....
Nov. 9, 2008, 9:37 a.m. CST
I watched Libeled Lady about 6 months ago and loved it. You have to see the Thin Man series! it is amazing. I watched My Man Gofrey last night.. another good Powell movie. I think he is one of the greatest actors of that time. So much is made of Cary Grant and I love him but I think Powell is even more interesting. Why don't they make movies like these anymore? Can no one in Hollywood write witty scripts? Anyway..love this column.Yes it is the best on the site.
Nov. 9, 2008, 8:56 p.m. CST
by King Vulture
the fishing scene in Libeled Lady served as inspiration for the film "My Favorite Sport" which had great chemistry between it's two leads Rock Hudson and Paula Prentiss that was reminiscent of Powell and Loy. Hudson was more known for his pairings with Doris Day but this film is better than any of those. If you want to see some great classic romantic comedies, here's a list of films I haven't yet mentioned: 1. Teacher's Pet (Clark Gable and Doris Day) 2. Bringing up Baby (Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant) 3. Father Goose (Cary Grant and Leslie Caron) 4. Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer (Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, and a teenaged Shirley Temple) 5. Any Wednesday (Jane Fonda and Jason Robards) 6. Monkey Business (Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, Marilyn Monroe) Here's a couple of dramas you may not know about: 1. The Well (a 1950's film on race relations as powerful in it's own way as "To Kill a Mockingbird") 2. They Shoot Horses Don't They? (Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin)
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