Friday, June 14, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: Libeled Lady (1936)

As I watched "Libeled Lady" I could not stop thinking of Will Smith and how he claimed to have turned down the title role of Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" specifically because the role was not, to use his words, the lead. A theory that gets posited an awful lot is that the movie star - and all that glorious term contains - is "dead." That really is not true, however, partially because Hollywood is still so insistent on attempting to manufacture movie stars and, in turn, shove them down our throat.


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.

Tracy is Warren Haggerty, editor of The New York Evening Star, who, unbeknownst to him, has just splashed a scandalous headline involving socialite Connie Allenbury (Loy) on its front page. Thus, he is forced into the office to deal with accusations of libel made by Allenbury's father (Walter Connolly). This is made more problematic because to do so he neglects his marital ceremony scheduled for that day to Gladys Benton (Harlow) who, in a stone cold classic moment, storms into his office still in her bridal gown and, in that hard-charging but mellifluous Harlow voice, lets him have it.


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 fiancĂ© 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.

2 comments:

Lasso The Movies said...

You bring up some good points about billing that had previously escaped me. I hate watching actors argue over something as simple as who's name goes on top, and dearly miss the great "team effort" films from the good 'ol days.

This particular film is one that I revisit on a regular basis because of how easy it is to enjoy. They may be my favorite foursome in movie history.

Nick Prigge said...

"...dearly miss the great "team effort" films from the good 'ol days." A-MEN.

They just work together so effortlessly, don't they? And the movie itself flows from person to person and situation to situation so effortlessly, too. What a film. Can't believe I'd never seen it before and I already can't wait to revisit it.