Or rather, Libelled Lady. The fifth screen pairing of William Powell and Mryna Loy – the sixth, After the Thin Man, opened just a couple of months after this – was greeted sufficiently warmly that it earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination. The Great Ziegfeld, also starring Powell and Loy, won. If you liked the pair, you were quids in that year! Libeled Lady is frequently effective in its screwball antics, but perhaps not quite as proficient as their very best collaborations. There’s a sense of strain in the plotting, of marrying/ juggling too many elements in what is, after all, a comedy with four leads (the other two being Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow).
At the outset, it looks as if this is going to be about Tracy’s New York Evening Star newspaper managing editor Warren Haggerty looking for excuses to avoid marrying Harlow’s Gladys Benton, and none could be bigger – on the day of their arranged nuptials – than Connie Allenbury (Loy) suing the paper for $5m libel (more than $105m today; Bill has a hotel bill for $743.60, $15,656 today). Actually, marriage under false pretences might be (Jean was a hermaphrodite, although you’d have been forgiven for assuming she was all man). Desperate Haggerty calls in Bill Chandler (Powell), a troubleshooter who, it turns out, has been expecting the call for 24 hours. Chandler’s plan is to arrange a compromising situation for Connie, using it to blackmail her to drop the suit. He will be the compromiser – naturally, he’s William Powell – but all he needs to broker the full effect is a wife who can exert a sufficient threat of scandal. Step forward, extremely reluctantly, Gladys.
It isn’t hugely tidy, is it? Loy only enters-proper around the half-hour mark; once Bill is attempting to “woo” her, he discovers she’s no easy catch (her father, Walter Connolly’s James Allenbury, a trout fanatic, is much easier to butter up). Inevitably, though, cynicism thaws, and Bill begins to look for an alternative solution for his mission, one that is all together less louselike. The only problem is, in the course of his plan, he instils affection in Gladys.
While you’re never in any doubt that Bill and Connie will end up together (it’s Powell and Loy!), the other side of the equation is considerably less of a sure thing. Right up until the last couple of minutes, there’s zero reason to believe that Haggerty is less than unscrupulous and pragmatic, so the idea that Gladys should run to him after he receives a sock on the jaw is suspect in the extreme.
Powell is on good form, obviously, and there’s some amusing for-the-cameras/press interplay with Harlow (“I’ll miss my little fuzzy face”). A trout fishing expedition, during which Bill lands a whopper, is protracted but amusing. The picture ends with some divorcing still in the path of true bliss – invalid marriages were evidently a full-blown comedy trope at this point, such that it’s inverted this time – so Warren can doubtless weasel his way out if he likes; Tracy was only on the rise at the time, so there was no need for him to protect any kind of star image (he’d win an Oscar the following year). This was Eddie Izzard-lookalike Harlow’s pre-penultimate picture (Powell was engaged to her when she died, and she’d reportedly been angling for the Loy part).
Pauline Kael thought Libeled Lady so-so, suggesting it was “constructed like a 70s sit-com” (really?) “and it has the same kind of forced atmosphere of hilarity; it looks and sounds factory-made”. I’ll admit there is a flavour of her second point to the proceedings. It could have probably done with being streamlined, ditching dual romances and concentrating on the main dish. She observed that Jack Conway – who’d reteam with Powell, notably on Love Crazy, another divorce/not romcom – “keeps up the fast pace by a lot of shouting and busywork”, but that’s true of many a screwball, even some of the best.
Libeled Lady’s solitary Oscar nom was for Best Picture. Somewhat unusual, but then, this was the original 10 contenders era, so then, as now, at minimum two or three were fillers.