The first time I watched Libeled Lady (1936), in the midst of my stunned teenage discovery of Jean Harlow, was on a well-worn VHS I’d borrowed from the library. What a gigantic shift it was to see it on a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive; it looks and sounds so sharp and clean it feels like a different film.
I’ve always been fascinated by the contrasting personas of the cast in this lightly entertaining comedy. There’s the crisp and amusing William Powell and Myrna Loy, already comfortable playing off each other in a cool, but pleasant manner as they would in several films. Juxtaposed with this is the earthier appeal of Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow, who are less suited to each other, but similar in the way they always project an aura of honesty.
This is a film that rests on its star power. For the most part, with the notable exception of Walter Connolly, playing Loy’s exasperated father, these four carry Libeled Lady. Loy plays a carefree socialite who finds herself the victim of false reporting. Tracy is the guilty reporter who in his desperation to avoid litigation enlists Powell to trap Loy in a real scandal to negate the false one. He convinces his eternally frustrated fiancé Harlow to marry Powell, temporarily of course, as a part of his scheme.
Though her screen time is brief compared to her fellow stars, Harlow steals Libeled Lady. She’s effortlessly mesmerizing, playing big and loud one moment only to dial it down with subtle, sweet moments of silent acting, like a charming scene where she realizes Powell is more honorable than she thought. It’s heartbreaking to realize this was her last great role, with only Personal Property (1937) and a partially completed appearance in Saratoga (1937) to come before her death at age twenty-six. Here she appears ready to take her comedy chops to another level, a skilled comedienne who endured the brutal public scrutiny of learning onscreen only to become the best in the game.
As much as I love the ease of Powell and Loy together, I enjoyed the sizzling chemistry between real life lovers Powell and Harlow even more. Their emotional connection translated to the screen, much like Bogart and Bacall. There is a warmth and shared humor between them that comes through in their few scenes together, even when they’re supposed to be at odds with each other. It’s fascinating to imagine what kinds of movies more Powell and Harlow pairings could have produced.
Libeled Lady is solid entertainment with all the elements in place: a witty script by Maurine Watkins, Howard Rogers, and George Oppenheimer, smooth direction by Jack Conway, and a quartet of stars working at their peak. It was a pleasure to be able to see and hear it anew with such clarity.
Special features on the disc include the comedy short Keystone Hotel, an MGM short New Shoes, the cartoon Little Cheeser, audio for the Leo is on the Air radio promo, and a theatrical trailer
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.