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Vacation in July: Libeled Lady (1936)

V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N in the summer sun! It's July, the time when many people go somewhere on vacation, whether it be to a warmer climate, a remote cabin in the forest, or another country altogether. This month we are escaping the summer heat by watching movies about vacations from the air-conditioned comfort of our couches.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: Libeled Lady tells the story of Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy) a socialite fed up with the false news stories being printed about her. After the New York Evening Star prints a story about her breaking up a marriage, she decides to sue for five million dollars, even though the newspaper was recalled and only a few copies made it into circulation. Warren Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) the managing editor, is feeling the heat from the paper’s owner to do something about this expensive and embarrassing error, so in desperation he calls up Bill Chandler (William Powell). Seems that Bill is having some financial trouble himself and agrees to help resolve the issue for a healthy payday of his own.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: Because somehow Chandler always manipulates his targets into doing what he wants.

RB: This is where things get a little complicated in terms of plot, in the best screwball way. Seems that Haggerty is engaged to Gladys Benton (Jean Harlow) who has been plenty long suffering when it comes to countless broken wedding engagements with Haggerty. She (unbelievably) agrees to hold off on marrying her fiancé so that she can instead marry Bill Chandler. Bill intends to meet cute with Connie on a cruise ship to London, string her along, and then have proof that she actually does break up marriages. Naturally, as you can imagine, Bill and Connie hit it off and things don’t go exactly as planned. There are lots of twists and turns and a few surprises along the way that I definitely don’t want to give up.

SG: This is a pretty elaborate and ridiculous solution to the problem, and it would make more sense if Chandler and Haggerty came off as bigger buffoons than they do, but they don't because this is a slick MGM film with one of the studio's suavest stars playing head idiot.

The Allenburys make use of their endless supply of cash by taking cruises, going on wilderness adventures and avoiding dinners with pesky fringe members of the elite.

RB: Does the plot of this screwball comedy make any sense? Not really. Does it matter that it doesn’t make sense? Absolutely not. Nobody is watching this for the plot. Instead they’re watching it for the absolutely fantastic dialogue and irresistible chemistry between the stars. William Powell and Jean Harlow were a real life couple at this point, and there are unsubstantiated rumors that Powell and Myrna Loy also were romantically connected during this time (a claim that Loy herself denied). No matter, the well known and beloved chemistry between Loy and Powell is well known even among the most casual of classic movie fans, and they’re nearly always great fun together. Powell and Harlow have some real life chemistry of course, that translates well to the screen. The film is capably directed by Jack Conway, who was known for having no discernable style of film direction at all, from what I’ve read. That seems to make sense to me, and certainly would fit in with a director that Irving Thallberg would approve of.

SG: Conway worked with Harlow previously on Red-Headed Woman. She was the top-billed star in Libeled Lady and received a $5000 bonus for making it. During the shooting, she legally adopted the name Jean Harlow rather than her given name Harlean Carpenter.

RB: The film was a total success, earning well over two million dollars on its initial release. After poring over trade papers for a couple of hours, I’ve come to the conclusion that there were simply no negative reviews of this film. It was a total success.

Here are a few glowing snippets from "What the Pictures Did For Me":

  • “The stars will draw at the box office and the story and direction will hold the picture up” – JE Palmer; State Theater; Presque Isle, Maine

  • “A real picture and every foot entertainment” – MW Mattecheck; Lark Theater; Mcminnville, OR

SG: I saw this film for the first time when I was in high school or possibly early college, and I wasn't thrilled by it. I had discovered Jean Harlow and was trying to watch every one of her movies. Although she is top-billed, Loy and Powell are the real stars of the show, so I was underwhelmed in that way. It also took me a long time to warm up to this powerhouse movie team, and that was another strike against it. However, it was always the first thing I thought of when I heard the word libel in my journalism classes, and every reference to fly fishing I ever came across conjured images of Powell struggling in the water. This scene, where Chandler attempts to make good on his big talk about being a world-class fly fisherman and fails so miserably he succeeds, is the best part. The way he walks in the water, slightly disgusted at being so intimately submerged in nature, and reliant upon an instruction manual hidden in his wicker basket perfectly illustrates his imposter character. He may be charming, but charm can only take him so far.

Anyway after my indifferent first encounter with Libeled Lady, I gave it another shot after reading Eve Golden's Platinum Girl, which gave me a new appreciation for Harlow's comic abilities. It was even better seeing it again this time. Sometimes when all we see are major classics, the skill level involved in each one begins to seem routine and less valuable. When I first saw this movie, it was bookended by lots of high quality, historically significant films, some of which stood out more to me. This time I noticed the craft of the scenes, the talent of each of the actors and their chemistry together. This is a fast-paced, opulent, fun and memorable movie.

RB: The film was later remade a decade later as Easy to Wed, a film that I’ve not seen and no disrespect intended to Van Johnson (whom I know is one of your favorites, Samantha) and Lucille Ball but I can’t imagine it being anywhere as good as this film is.

SG: That one is forgettable, one of several mediocre remakes Van did during his career. I'd watch it again to see him only.

RB: I completely loved this. I heartily and happily give this four stars. Easily one of the best vintage films I’ve seen in recent months.

SG: Four stars for the four stars! Seeing this movie inspired me to buy Myrna Loy's memoir, and who knows? Maybe this time I'll go down the Loy rabbit hole and start binging her filmography.

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