In the mid-1930s, the screwball comedy was still a relatively new subgenre of film. Many critics label It Happened One Night, released in 1934, as the first “screwball” picture ever produced, and subsequent films such as Twentieth Century (also 1934) and Hands Across the Table (1935) built upon the elements that would become typical tropes of the screwball picture: daffy dames, class warfare, rapid-fire zingers, and a never-ending battle of the sexes.
But the genre really came into its own in 1936 with the release of Libeled Lady. Combining elements of farce, romance, social commentary, and slapstick, Lady is a veritable treasure trove of hilarity, delivered by one of the most talented comedic quartets to ever grace the screen.
Warren Haggerty (Spencer Tracy), the editor of the New York newspaper the Evening Star, mistakenly runs an unsubstantiated (and ultimately untrue) story accusing heiress Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy) of being a homewrecker. Connie and her father, J.B. (Walter Connolly), declare their intention to sue the paper for libel to the tune of five million dollars. Warren tracks down former employee Bill Chandler (William Powell) and convinces him to help force the Allenburys to drop the lawsuit. Bill’s plan is to marry a woman–in name only–and then trap Connie into “breaking up” the marriage so that she will have no choice but to forgo the lawsuit against the paper. Warren offers up his own fiancé, Gladys (Jean Harlow), who has grown increasingly tired of Warren’s repeated delays in marrying her. She agrees to the scheme on the promise that Warren will finally make Gladys his wife once it’s over. But Bill doesn’t count on actually falling in love with Connie … and no one counts on Gladys deciding that marriage to Bill is infinitely more enticing than marrying the reluctant Warren …
By all accounts, the making of this film was nothing less than sheer pleasure for its four main stars, who shared a great friendship and camaraderie that shines on and off the screen. Each actor plays off the others beautifully–it’s truly an ensemble, in the best sense of the word.
As the male leads, Tracy and Powell are dynamite, sparring with their female partners in an increasingly frenetic pas de deux. Loy matches them step for step, and Connolly gives a typically wonderful performance as Loy’s put-upon father. But if I had to name the true “star” of the film, it would be Jean Harlow, hands down. She certainly got some of the best quips in the film, at any rate:
Warren: “Gladys, do you want me to kill myself?”
Gladys: “Did you change your insurance?”
I think Libeled Lady is the film where Harlow’s comedic talents finally gelled into something damn near close to perfect. She had always exhibited an instinctive comic ability in her roles, even from the earliest days of her career, when she was a contract player at the Hal Roach Studios. After MGM acquired her contract from millionaire producer Howard Hughes in 1932, Harlow reached superstar status in the wake of sex-bomb roles in pre-Code potboilers like 1932’s Red-Headed Woman and Red Dust–characters that were equal parts smolder and smart-ass. These parts were followed by more mainstream comedic roles in films such as Dinner at Eight and Bombshell (both in 1933), movies that showcased, in part, the depths of her hilarity.
But Harlow, who often felt typecast in the role of a wisecracking sexpot, reportedly sought to cultivate a less sexualized air on-screen. She attempted to move in a more refined direction with some of her later films, including Suzy and Wife vs. Secretary (both 1936), which muted the brassier tones of her past shtick into something a bit more dignified (at least in comparison).
Libeled Lady represented a sort of “return to form” for Harlow, presenting the actress with a practically custom-made role that combined her innate sexiness with the kind of rapid-fire, quick-witted dialogue at which she excelled at delivering. And this did not go unnoticed by critics. New York Times film reviewer Frank S. Nugent, in his 1936 review of the movie, expressed his thanks to the studio for Harlow’s return to her forte, writing:
“[W]e are so pathetically grateful to Metro for restoring Miss Harlow to her proper metier that we could have forgiven even more serious lapses” than the “slackening of pace toward the picture’s conclusion.”
Indeed, throughout the movie Harlow shines brightest of all, and her performance as Gladys is the one that draws your eye every second she is on the screen, from the moment she storms into the newsroom–in full wedding regalia–to claim her absent groom …
… up through the film’s conclusion, when Gladys finally decides that Warren is the right man for her, despite his predilection for newsprint. In every scene, Harlow makes you laugh even while you marvel at her sexy swagger (and even when she’s undergoing the torture treatment known as a permanent, you can’t help but envy that gorgeous mug of hers).
Not for nothing is Jean Harlow still remembered as one of the most beautiful women to ever grace filmdom.
The movie marked a personal milestone in Harlow’s life–it was during the shooting of Libeled Lady that she formally changed her name from Harlean Carpenter to Jean Harlow. The film also gave Harlow the opportunity to work with her real-life love, William Powell, in the second of their two films together (after the previous year’s Reckless). Though she seems like a perfect fit for the role of Gladys, Harlow initially expressed interest in playing Connie because she wanted her character to end up with Powell’s in the end. The studio, however, wanted to cash in on the public’s love for the on-screen team of Powell and Loy, which had come to such great fruition two years earlier in the first Thin Man film. Still, as Gladys, Harlow got to play a wedding scene with her man, fulfilling (at least cinematically) her desire to become Mrs. William Powell. Sadly, that union never materialized in reality before Harlow’s untimely death the following year.
Jean Harlow was so beloved as a brash, sexy comedienne that, had she lived beyond the age of 26, she may very well have found herself typecast in those sorts of roles for the remainder of her career. But would that have been such a bad thing, in the end? Could she have made the transition from ingenue roles to more “adult” fare with aplomb, or would she have found it difficult to maintain her position as one of the brightest stars in the cinematic sky? It’s a futile exercise to play the “what if” game, but it’s nonetheless interesting to consider where Harlow’s career may have taken her if circumstances had been different.
Happy one hundredth birthday, Baby.
This post is our contribution to the Jean Harlow Blogathon, sponsored by the Kitty Packard Pictorial in honor of Harlow’s centenary. To see more entries in the blogathon, check out the Pictorial. And for more information about Harlow’s years in Hollywood, pick up a copy of the new biography Harlow in Hollywood: The Blonde Bombshell in the Glamour Capital, 1928-1937, by Darrell Rooney and Mark A. Vieira.