One of my first reviews gets a reprint due to Film Class Wednesdays. This review doesn’t do it justice, but my thoughts never wavered.
Libeled Lady is of my favorite movies in recent years, and cements my affection for William Powell. They don’t make screwball comedies like this, and I’m almost afraid to mention it because it’s got a premise that I know Hollywood today would love to screw up. The story of couple-swapping, an heiress, and a muckraker all come together in this sweet, romantic, story that is evocative of the 1930s and its brand of humor.
Heiress Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy) is suing a newspaper for libel after the paper calls her a husband-stealer. The editor of said paper, Warren Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) gets an idea to prove the headline true by enlisting the help of author Bill Chandler (Powell) to seduce Connie. Unfortunately, playing a husband-stealer requires Bill to be married, so Warren decides to make a fake marriage between Bill and Warren’s own marriage hungry girlfriend Gladys (Jean Harlow). With the two married, Bill starts to seduce Connie and falls in love with her, but sadly in being nice to Gladys, she falls in love with Bill too! With a love triangle blooming, Warren hopes that it will save him from losing five million dollars!
The various ins and outs of this movie are classic screwball and it’s one that could be unraveled with a few lines, but the movie keeps things tight. There are various reasons why Connie doesn’t figure out the scheme earlier and even so you’ll be wrapped up in the banter, the comedy, and the romance to ignore plot fallacies. The script is hilarious and the characters all ooze charm, mostly in the “I hate you, but I love you” category. William Powell is sufficiently dashing and charming with a side of snide sarcasm a la The Thin Man. His character is lusted after by two women, similar to his role in My Man Godfrey, but there’s a concrete reason for why the women love him in each movie. He’s destined to be with Connie and the chemistry which worked so well in The Thin Man movies is evident.
The true scene-stealer is Harlow as Gladys. Powell and Harlow had a tempestuous relationship that was up and down, but Powell was by Harlow’s side at her untimely death. The two are adorable and at times you wish more than anything the two would get together. Gladys pines after Warren, who is an idiot, and clings to Bill because he’s nice to her (she appears to ignore a comment he makes about her not knowing how to read). Tracy is a bit of a jerk as Haggerty. He doesn’t appreciate Gladys, then openly hands her to Bill as a fake wife. Even at the end Gladys doesn’t really win. She goes to Warren because of the plot conventions, and it seems like no one wants her, making her character even sadder.
This is a movie that really must be seen because I’m not doing it justice. If you’re a fan of screwball comedies, or just comedies that are actually funny, and a fantastic ensemble cast check out Libeled Lady.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.