Eye For Film >> Movies >> Libeled Lady (1936) Film Review
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
1936: the Golden Age of Hollywood and an era when screwball comedy capers were at their best. They were also at their most prolific, with MGM focused on finding great pairings and presenting them in one overcomplicated romantic plot after another. In this case the choice was William Powell and Myrna Loy, but the complications went beyond the plot, with Powell's real life partner Jean Harlow also in the film and Loy allegedly involved with Spencer Tracy, who plays Warren, Harlow's love interest and the closest thing the film has to a bad guy. The chemistry at work here is noteworthy and is the main saving grace of a film that sometimes bites off more than it can chew.
In a plot that might seem acutely relevant today, Loy plays a rich heiress, Connie, who sues for libel after Warren's newspaper publishes the claim that she stole another woman's husband. In a desperate attempt to have the suit laughed out of court, Warren hires former reporter and notorious ladies' man Bill Chandler (Powell) to seduce her and blacken her reputation. In order for this to work properly, Chandler needs to be married, so Warren arranges a hasty ceremony with his own put-upon fiancee, Gladys (Loy). The human heart being what it is, however, nothing goes to plan. When Chandler falls for Connie, he becomes desperate to save her, whilst Gladys finds herself developing feelings for her new husband, the first man who has treated her with any kindness for a long time.
Hobbled by the Hayes Code and unable to talk directly about sex, even when it might prove an important plot point, Libeled Lady nevertheless contains some strong innuendo for its time. It also goes to some dark places; Chandler and Gladys, told to stop arguing, retort that they are, after all, supposed to be married; later Chandler takes a swipe at her and narrowly stays his hand, reminding us that other kinds of fighting in married life were widely accepted at the time. Harlow's evident jealousy (even though she and Loy were good friends) adds to the pithiness of these exchanges, and her physical fragility - she was already suffering the first of the string of illnesses that would lead to her death a year later - ensures that the audience still worries about her. Gladys is caught between mainstream society's concept of a virtuous woman and Hollywood's demonisation of it as a force curtailing male ambition. Warren's repeated mistreatment of her is destined to be redeemed by her love, just as his schemes concerning Connie are excused by his deep love of his newspaper and the assertion that the offending story would never have been published if he had been sure it wasn't true.
Despite the hype about the central pairing, theirs is perhaps the least believable of these complex relationships. It's east to see how Chandler falls for a woman who is beautiful, witty and often one step ahead of him (and rich, of course), but not so easy to see why she falls for him. Beyond her intelligence and a general likability, she's underdeveloped as a character and the warmth between the two never really starts to sizzle. Nonetheless, the playful plot carries the viewer along very well with just that minor suspension of disbelief. The tone remains upbeat despite all the dodgy dealings, making this a cheery and entertaining film throughout. Occasional zingers will have viewers laughing out loud and although it may not always be bubbly, it certainly has fizz.Reviewed on: 06 Feb 2016