William Powell and Myrna Loy made fourteen films together marking them as one of the most recognized and great screen team pairings. They first appeared together in 1934’s “Manhattan Melodrama” which was soon followed by “The Thin Man,” the first of six films they would make as Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles. They would go on to make eight more films with Powell always elegant and charming while Loy emoted style, wit and a flirtatious naughtiness. In 1936, they were teamed with two other of MGM’s grand stars, Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy, and made one of the most delightful and funny screwball comedies to grace the screen, “Libeled Lady.”
Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, “Libeled Lady” moves at a quick pace barely giving the viewer time to catch one’s breath. Directed by MGM house director, Jack Conway, Loy is Connie Allenbury, an heiress who is suing a local newspaper for five million dollars for printing false accusations about her stealing another woman’s husband. The paper’s editor is the scheming, crusty Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) who plans to obstruct the lawsuit by creating a scheme that will make Connie appear to be a real husband stealer. His plan is to enlist the services of Bill Chandler (William Powell), a former reporter for the paper, along with his own frustrated fiancé of two years, a reluctant Gladys (Jean Harlow). Haggerty convinces both Bill and Gladys to get married to each other, but only for appearances sake, and not certainly not to be consummated! Bill will then “seduce” Connie, who is unaware that he is a married man, into a romantic relationship only to have Gladys come barging in causing a public scandal with Tracy’s paper breaking the news, forcing Connie to drop the suit.
Filled with one hilarious scene after another, arguably the most hysterical is the wedding scene of Bill and Gladys. At the end of the ceremony, the justice of the peace tells the bride and groom they can now kiss. The two uncomfortably peck each other reluctantly on the lips. When Haggerty congratulates the new bride with a kiss, it is a long and passionate, shocking the justice of the peace. The new husband, Bill looking on informs the flustered justice of the peace not to worry, “they are old friends… very old friends!”
A fishing scene is also a highlight with Bill pretending to be an expert on trout fishing to impress Connie’s father, a delightful Walter Connelly. He unnervingly finds himself in the stream soak and wet, yet somehow managing to bag the largest catch of the day (This whole sequence reminded me of Howard Hawk’s 1964 comedy, “Man’s Favorite Sport” where Rock Hudson passes himself off as an expert on fishing but has actually never fished). As the film progresses, the plot becomes thicker and wilder, with Gladys beginning to believe she is really falling in love with Bill, while Bill actually falls in love with his supposed mark, Connie, and the two impetuously getting married. A jealous Gladys will accuse them of arson when she really means bigamy.
Marriage of convenience has been a common plot device in many comedies over the years, “Hired Wife,” “Come Live With Me,” “The Lady is Willing,” “Next Time I Marry,” and “The Doctor Takes a Wife” are a few films that have used the same theme. I actually watched the last of these film’s mentioned recently, a pleasant entertaining movie with Loretta Young and Ray Milland, though not in the same league as “Libeled Lady.” If “Libeled Lady” has a flaw it comes in the final minutes when all that is going on in the convoluted plot needs to be sorted out to ensure a happy ending, particularly the problem of Powell’s character who married Harlow during the course of the movie, but is in love with, and marries Loy, making Powell a bigamist. Well, we can’t have that, after all, this is 1936 and the production code is in effect, so as the film comes to its conclusion, Bill announces he looked into Gladys’ past and found that her Yucatan divorce from her first husband was illegal, subsequently, she was not free to have married him, making it legal for Bill to have married Connie. Only the put upon Gladys has her day, coming back with an unexpected topper, by announcing to everyone she followed the fiasco Yucantan divorce with a legal Reno divorce, freeing her to have married Bill! Unfortunately, both of these plot points come out of nowhere, like a mystery writer who injects a totally unexpected twist, an unseen and contrived idea into the storyline in the last chapter, with no previous hint earlier in the story, to surprise the reader. The entire scene is too manufactured and feels forced in order to resolve Bill’s double marriage dilemma.
That said, this is a not to be missed fun filled farce with a spectacular MGM cast. Myrna Loy who can express witty and naughty looks by just the raise of an eyebrow is matched flawlessly against her ideal screen partner, William Powell. Jean Harlow is a comedic gem with the right touches of cunning and naiveté, and Spencer Tracy is perfect as the calculating newspaper editor who puts the paper above all else.