Libeled Lady (1936) is what used to be called a madcap comedy (I don’t know why we no longer use the term “madcap”), but it’s a particularly good one thanks to the chemistry of its four stars and a clever script. The idea is that socialite Myrna Loy has sued Spencer Tracy’s newspaper for libel, seeking $500,000 in return. Looking for a way out of this, Tracy contacts crafty former reporter William Powell to handle matters. Since this is a movie, Powell’s solution involves marrying (in name only) Tracy’s perennially left-at-the-altar fiancée (Jean Harlow), getting Loy into a compromising position and thereby proving that she really is the homewrecker the paper had claimed. Yes, I know — it’s a scheme that only crazy people or Hollywood screenwriters (there may by no difference) would come up with — let alone attempt. I’m sure you can guess what will go wrong with this plan fairly accurately, but that’s less the point than watching how it goes wrong — and seeing it do so with four appealing stars at their most appealing in control of the charmingly out of control nonsense. Powell and Loy, of course, had an established on-screen chemistry by 1936, but the surprise is the chemistry Harlow has with both Powell (with whom she was romantically involved in real life) and Tracy. In fact, it may be that Harlow comes off best here in what turns out to be one of her most nuanced performances. It’s a newspaper comedy, a romantic comedy and con-job comedy all rolled into one — with occasional outbursts of slapstick.
Overall, this is a typically slick, glossy MGM film with workmanlike direction from 100 percent studio man Jack Conway. Conway had no evident directorial style — apart from what might be called “Thalberg basic.” He followed the procedure laid down by MGM production manager Irving Thalberg, which generally left little room for personal creativity, merely professionalism. However, at least Conway’s movies actually moved — something that can rarely be said of other Thalberg adherents like Robert Z. Leonard, whose movies plodded — and he was an ideal director for fast-paced comedy. In essence, Conway kept things moving without getting in the way of the script or the actors — which in the case of this kind of film are often more important than the direction. That’s what we see in Libeled Lady, proving there’s something to be said for it.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Libeled Lady Tuesday, May 14 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.