Libeled Lady (1936)
Release Date: October 9th, 1936 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Jack Conway Actors: Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy, Walter Connolly, Charley Grapewin, Cora Witherspoon, E.E. Clive, Lauri Beatty
n the bustling press room of the New York Evening Star, a major gossip story from London – accusing Constance “Connie” Allenbury (Myrna Loy) of being a husband stealer – is hectically quashed when it’s discovered to be fictitious. Devoted managing editor Warren Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) is called away from his noon wedding with Gladys Benton (Jean Harlow) to review the matter, and he’s glad for the reprieve from his nagging fiancée. It’s one of several times he’s managed to stall the marriage, though for some unexplained reason, he still wishes to preserve the relationship. When Haggerty is called to boss Mr. Hollis Bane’s (Charley Grapewin) office, it’s revealed that the company is being sued for an outrageous $5 million in a libel case by financier J.B. Allenbury (Walter Connolly), one of the richest men in the world.
Plotting to turn the phony story into a real one, Warren tracks down former employee Bill Chandler (William Powell), a conceited heel, but the most skilled man for the job. From Sydney to Shanghai to Singapore, the sleuthing uncovers Chandler at the local Grand Plaza. After extorting a $50,000 payment from the Star, Bill arranges to head to England to sail back to the States on the S.S. Queen Anne with the Allenburys, intending to seduce Connie and have a hired wife make a scene (complete with photographers), thus turning the international playgirl into a genuine husband thief. The only tricky part is to locate a woman willing to briefly marry Chandler for business purposes alone – until Haggerty realizes he already has someone itching to be hitched!
Tracy and Powell trade sensationally witty jabs, Powell and Loy spar with innuendo before one romantically wears down the other, and Harlow does her best to be grating and unpleasant before warming up to her situation to exhibit alluringly sarcastic affection. It’s a battle of the sexes between two couples coupled to the wrong partners. Powell brandishes his trademark nonchalant, whimsical demeanor, paired with focused charm and casual confidence, while Loy effortlessly exudes flirtatious suspicion (or expertise with angling men) and elegantly seductive playfulness. It’s a testament to the scripting that Chandler can be the right guy for both drastically disparate ladies.
From a hilariously uneasy wedlock and making a show of it to random staff, to Chandler’s studying up on his target and his lack of success with handling the constantly distracted elites, to physically funny blunders while fishing, “Libeled Lady” is romantic comedy at its best. Assuming the identity of an outdoorsman – far from the actuality of Chandler’s office job – leads to hilariously contrasting scenarios, while the gradually shifting dispositions on fakery and guilty consciences spark creatively spontaneous excuses to abandon unenviable positions. But with virtuoso manipulations, the story tends to border on too emotionally disastrous of a climax, with a near blow-up at a charity bazaar and the inevitable, incensed revealing of matrimonial statuses noticeably ignoring the underlying notions of betrayal and moral corruption that unforgivably initiated the entire premise. When examining the complicated nature of love (involving underhanded newspapermen and excessive wealth), misdirection is frequently used to avoid calamitous hints at more tragic realism. Then again, as Connie assures, “This is love, not liquor”; therefore, perplexing marital arrangements neatly unknot themselves into satisfactory, insinuated agreements.
– Mike Massie