Thursday, July 16, 2015

Libeled Lady

Libeled Lady (Jack Conway, 1936) This must be a favorite of some programmer at Turner Classic Movies, as it seems to show up on its schedule every single month without fail. It is an M-G-M confection, designed to be another pairing of William Powell and Myrna Loy (they made fifteen movies together in all), whose chemistry in "The Thin Man" series guaranteed box-office rewards.  

There was another woman in the mix, however. Powell's off-screen love, Jean Harlow, wanted to be in the film as well, and it is at this point, one should explain the plot, as slight as it is.

Heiress Connie Allenbury (Loy) is accused by the sensational headline-seeking newspaper, The New York Evening Star of being the home-wrecker in a prominent socialite divorce. She isn't and so sues the paper for libel to the tune of five million dollars. This will break the paper and so managing editor Warren Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) tries to convince Ms. Allenbury to call off the suit, which she refuses to do on principle and out of spite. There's no way the paper can produce evidence to the truth of the matter, and no way that they can defend themselves against the charge. So, just like they did with the original story, they have to manufacture the evidence.

Haggerty calls in associate Bill Chandler (Powell), former reporter, to produce the evidence by having him stalk Allenbury, harrass her and serial-seduce her so they can catch her in "the act" (well, of course, and I'm a little brutal in my description of the plan because it is the modern-day equivalent for what was considered a "screwball" situation in a 30's comedy—it actually shows what a creep Tracy's character is when you think of it like that). This necessitates Chandler getting married to Haggerty's fiancĂ©e Gladys Benton, so that there will be "another woman" wronged by any potential romance between Chandler and Allenbury. It's a gambit Gladys resists violently, then eventually favors because she's been engaged to Haggerty so long she thinks he may have forgotten where he kept the receipt for the ring, and maybe this might jar him into matrimony, and also pay more attention to her than the paper (Haggerty suffers from "Walter Burns Syndrome"). That's a lot to hang on a hair-brained scheme based on deceipt, but I suspect these people drink a little.
So Chandler goes off to try and woo the heiress, a team of photographers in tow to catch anything "in the act." But, Connie proves herself immune to his charms...especially when he's putting on airs, as he suspects is necessary with Connie. She rebuffs him. She finds him more attractive for his grace when he's exposed in his own flummery, like pretending to be a great "angler" and ending up fish-less, soaked to the bone and looking like a fool. As she's inclined to not give gold-diggers the time of day, this willingness to look like a total fool has some appeal. The plot wouldn't go anywhere if it didn't. 
And let's face it, it's William Powell. Even if she weren't married to him in an alternate movie series timeline, the pairing of Loy and Powell seems only natural. Her sophistication combined with a cynic's viewpoint (played charmingly, of course) was the perfect off-set to Powell's breezy charm (with a boy's sense of impropriety. Once established, Powell never gave a line reading that didn't seem to originate straight from his brain (something that can be said for Tracy, as well). Both actors could play variations on their themes, but only had to make minor tweaks in inflections and manner to make the part their own, once engaged.
The revelation here is Jean Harlow. She crackles in her role, with a natural gift for comedy. She had wanted to play the Loy part, the studio balked, and she compromised, taking the less romantic role (with less time with Powell), but more material to sink her teeth into. Her Gladys is a hoot, and her confrontation scene with Powell and Loy, where the two co-conspirators try to out-lie each other is screwball gold.
The cast was aided by one of M-G-M's more utilitarian directors, Jack Conway, who (according to Loy) usually had one direction: "faster." Conway doesn't do anything fancy, except make sure the material was optimized and the actors in focus. Conway was not an "auteur" with fancy camera moves and direction that called attention to itself.  But he was a stalwart, who brought things in on time and on-budget and that could cut reasonably well. The budget was up on the screen and that pleased his studio bosses—who liked to think they were in control of the movies and the bottom line. And he kept the actors happy, which may be the secret to good comedy in the first place.

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