Consider romantic comedies of today. They generally require a couple stars that get top billing and then a bunch of hangers-on for support who cannot, under any circumstances, be allowed equal footing of those stars. The art of the ensemble, in other words, often seems to be lacking. Even in a movie like "Ocean's Eleven" with a great many talents there is still a clear hierarchy - Clooney and then Pitt and then everyone else.
"Libeled Lady", director Jack Conway's delightfully rabble rousing screwball rom com from 1936, on the other hand, opens even before the opening credits with its quartet of high voltage stars - William Powell, Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy - dressed up and strolling arm-in-arm. That is telling.
I dare say that if a cinematic sabermetrician (God help us) was assigned to the case, he/she would deduce that William Powell was the principal of "Libeled Lady." Ah, but then look at the poster. Whose name comes first? Why, it's Harlow's, not Powell's. Granted, Powell and Harlow were married at the time and perhaps Powell, nobly, conceded top billing to his better half. But there have been legendary conflicts in Hollywood over top billing and, thus, I don't think this is should pass by unnoticed. Even so, Harlow, despite being Powell's real life better half, did not play his better half on the screen in order to capitalize on the "Thin Man" chemistry of Powell and Loy. Harlow is instead Tracy's better half even though she ends up feigning as Powell's better half while Powell is attempting to feign as Loy's better half.
Oh, but it's gonna get worse, dear Gladys, because Warren calls upon an ex-reporter, the wily Bill Chandler (Powell), to help him out of this jam. The scheme: Bill will sail home from England aboard the same vessel as Connie and her father, pretend to be married to Gladys, woo Connie with this William Powell-ness and then, at a delicate moment, have Gladys walk in on them. Voila! Libel begets Libel!
You can see where this is going. But can you? Well, sort of. Connie will fall for Bill, of course, but Loy, thankfully, was never one to play second fiddle to Powell - they played co-first fiddles - and so her title as "socialite" betrays her true nature as a thinking, feeling human being. She can see what Bill is up to and is only eventually drawn in for real at the same time that he is being drawn in for real. Gladys, meanwhile, is forced to deal with her dolt of a fiancé forcing her into a sham marriage to protect his own reputation. Harlow plays the part reluctantly but not as a pushover and, in time, falls for her pretend husband on account of his William Powell-ness.
The film is a dizzying array of ruses and double crosses and best laid plans, as good a time as the actors on the screen seem to be having simultaneously. It concludes with a lengthy, kicky scene in a hotel room between our quartet as the upper hand continually switches from person to person/couple to couple in the face of revelation upon revelation. In his review of "Before Midnight" the don't-call-me-a-contrarian Armond White wrote: "No doubt this talkathon appeals to indie geeks who haven’t realized that cinema is a visual medium." Oh, Armond, you perturbed bastard, I guess Jean & Will & Myrna & Spence were just a bunch of indie geeks then several decades before the term "indie" even came into being since this scene is nothing much more than a spectacular talkathon with a camera that just happens to be rolling.
It is such a perfect coda because it subtly refuses to shine the spotlight on any one person and lets it rest on all of them instead. Warren seems set to get the best of Bill & Connie until they seem set to get the best of Warren until Gladys seems set to get the best of all three of them until......on and on it goes. It ends with all four of them talking over each other at once.
The whole ensemble wins.