Oscar Vault Monday – Libeled Lady, 1936 (dir. Jack Conway)

Libeled Lady is one of those films that was only nominated for one Academy Award, the big one: Best Picture. I don’t have the stats on how often this happened, but early on in the process and especially from 1931-1943 when they had more than five nominees (the 5th ceremony had eight nominated films and the 6th-16th ceremonies each had ten nominated films), this was more common than it is now. Regardless, it is a wonderful screwball comedy with an outstanding main cast: Jean Harlow, William Powell, Spencer Tracy and Myrna Loy. All four of them have amazing comic timing and chemistry to spare. The other films nominated that year were: Anthony Adverse, Dodsworth, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Romeo and Juliet, San Francisco, The Story of Louis Pasteur, A Tale of Two Cities, Three Smart Girls and winner The Great Ziegfeld.

This is just a fun film with a superb cast. Definitely one of my favorite screwball comedies. Here’s the basic plot: Socialite Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy), falsely accused of breaking up a marriage, sues the New York Evening Star for libel.  The newspaper’s editor-in-chief Warren Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) seeks help from former reporter and suave ladies’ man Bill Chandler (William Powell). Bill’s plan is to get Connie alone with him in a room and have his “wife” Gladys Benton (Jean Harlow),  who is actually Warren’s fiance, walk in on them. The resulting scandal should cause Connie to drop her suit. Hilarity ensues.

William Powell steals the film. I mean, he is always good, but in this film he is truly great. He’s a giant ball of energy, going from one zany scene after another. Coming off of a Best Actor nomination for 1934’s The Thin Man (which was also nominated for Best Picture that year), Powell was nominated for Best Actor in 1936 as well. Only not for Libeled Lady, rather for My Man Godfrey – a film that received six Oscar nominations: Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Screenplay and Best Director, but not Best Picture. Also of note, Powell was the star of the Best Picture winner of 1936, The Great Ziegfeld. Powell would later be nominated a third time, for 1947’s Life with Father. I have seen about 16 of Powell’s films and he is so amazingly charming and fun in all of them. It’s rather odd that he is now largely forgotten. He’ll always be remembered for The Thin Man and perhaps My Man Godfrey, but he’s by no means a legend the way Spencer Tracy is, and it’s just so not fair.

Jean Harlow got top billing for this film because she was the biggest star of the four at the time, but she’s got the least amount of screen time of the four leads. Well, she might have a little bit more screen time than Tracy, but not much. Regardless, she is simply fantastic in this film. She was on her way to becoming one of the great comediennes of her era. In March TCM featured Harlow as Star of the Month, so I watched all the films they showed of her (I’d already seen two). So I’ve now seen twenty-one of her films. Sadly, Harlow died of renal failure just a year after this film was released. Before she died she completed two more films: Personal Property (my favorite of all her films) and Saratoga.

Spencer Tracy is great at comedy. You can see that in his films with Katharine Hepburn and the Father of the Bride films. You can also see that here. He is so delightfully befuddled throughout the whole film. But as good as he is at comedy, he is out-shined constantly by William Powell. That’s why this is Powell’s film and Tracy is in the supporting role. This came out early in his career and he is clearly still learning, though he has a natural presence that cannot be learned. Tracy earned his first of nine Best Actor nominations this same year for his performance in San Francisco (also a Best Picture nominee) and would go on to win back-to-back Best Actor awards in 1937 and 1938 (for Captains Courageous and Boys Town, respectively)

Myrna Loy is a comic genius. But, like Harlow, she was never nominated for an Academy Award. It’s a shame because she had such great talent.  She received an Honorary Academy Award for her career (she appeared in over 130 film and television shows) in 1991. Loy made her feature film debut in the 1925 silent film What Price Beauty? Loy had made about four films with Powell at this point (including 1934 Best Picture nominee The Thin Man and 1936 Best Picture winner The Great Ziegfeld) and the two would go on to make a total of fourteen films together, placing them among some of the greatest screen pairings of all time. She and Powell have such great chemistry always, and it is no different in this film. I think my favorite scene with the two of them is when she’s gone fishing and accidentally catches Powell. You just have to see it for yourself, it is golden.

I just wanted to give you one last look at this marvelous cast. Just bask in their glory for a little while.

If you’re interested in purchasing this film, you can do so here.


About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on May 16, 2011, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I just stumbled across this article so long after it was posted, but as I was reading it, it shared my frustration on how unfair it is that William Powell isn’t better remembered. He was so great in his films. Reviews from his silent days were very impressive. You would think with his great movie career and his off screen story would have made him more remembered. I recently read some archived film magazines from back then and he was quite a character and seemingly very well respected and very well liked. He was a really class act. All his female co-stars listed him as one of their favorites to work with. Rosalind Russell was giving an interview about something and just went off track about William Powell and it was very touching how she spoke of him. Myrna Loy always spoke highly of him. I think he should have been awarded an honorary Oscar a long time ago. Just the year 1936 for him was remarkable enough to deserve it.

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