Libeled Lady, 1936, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, William Powell, Spencer Tracy. Directed by Jack Conway. B&W, 98 minutes.
When a reporter’s mistake leads to a calamitous lawsuit, the newspaper’s editor has no qualms about marrying off his jilted bride to an unscrupulous ladies’ man so he, in turn, can entrap a snooty heiress.
One of the top screwball comedies of the era, Libeled Lady takes the standard war of the sexes and doubles it with two couples facing farcical situations on the road to true love.
Gladys Benton (Jean Harlow) is set to marry Warren Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) when he discovers his tell-all front page story about a socialite, Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy), is false and she’s set to sue the newspaper for the astronomical amount of $5 million dollars (remember, this is 1936).
Figuring the best way out of the situation is to turn the heiress into the homewrecker the paper reported her to be, Haggerty hires Bill Chandler (William Powell) to lure her into a compromising situation with a married man.
First, however, he has to marry Chandler off to his bride-to-be to make him the married man in question. Of course, nothing goes as it’s supposed to (how could it?), and there’s a smart and sassy ending that isn’t really an ending at all.
This film was a return to the brassier, outlandish characters Harlow was known and loved for in her earlier roles. Her most recent work had taken a different direction, one she’s said to have wanted, but it wasn’t as well received by audiences. Luckily, they loved her in Libeled Lady, as did critics, and the studio took note, planning more similar roles for the future.
In real life, William Powell and Jean Harlow were dating, and many expected them to be married. That never happened, in part, it was rumored, because Powell was reluctant, perhaps because Harlow had already been married three times at such a young age, or perhaps because of the failure of his own marriage to another young blonde comedienne, Carole Lombard. Sadly, Harlow died of kidney failure just eight months after the release of Libeled Lady. She was 26.
The availability of all four stars for this film was a result of the studio system, a benefit of that controversial and convoluted method of managing actors and actresses. The studio in particular had been looking for yet another successful Powell/Loy pairing; by this time the two were well-established as onscreen gold.
Libeled Lady was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, but lost to another Powell/Loy vehicle, The Great Ziegfield. Powell was also nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role that year for My Man Godfrey.
This is a movie any fan of screwball comedies will enjoy, with a top-notch cast playing at the height of their careers. Well worth the watch.