All individuals find themselves in precarious situations from time to time. These embarrassing events may be completely unexpected, but more often than not there were precipitating instances leading to this specific moment in time. One’s wit, pride, righteousness, as well as their negotiation skills and shrewdness with other players shapes further twists and turns in this scenario, especially the outcome and potential lessons learned. Screwball comedies embody this overall comedy of errors, and the 1936 screwball Libeled Lady directed by Jack Conway with an all-star cast does this splendidly.
Warren Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) is the managing editor of the New York Evening Star, a frenetic newspaper trying to obtain the latest scoop like all of the other competitors. Both he and his lovely fiancee Gladys Benton (Jean Harlow – my absolute favourite actress) are getting dressed for the wedding and are heading to the church. On that same day, a false story is posted about a wealthy socialite’s role in dissolving a marriage. Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy) becomes the “libeled lady”, suing the paper a whopping five million dollars for libel! At this moment, Haggerty makes a beeline to the newspaper, leaving Benton extremely angry and hurt over his decision yet again to prioritize his work over her needs.
So, Haggerty has made his decision to deal with the needs of the newspaper. He feels as if he has to quickly use his noggin to persuade Allenbury to drop the suit. His old colleague and foe, the ever so suave and single Bill Chandler (William Powell), becomes involved in this cantankerous scheme at the pleading of Haggerty. Chandler’s role is to convince Allenbury to fall in love with him but to be caught scandalously with her by his wife. Who becomes his wife, you ask? None other than Benton! She obliges at the cajoling of her beloved fiance so that he can save face. As Haggerty says, “she may be his wife but she’s engaged to me!” As you may guess, much humour and tomfoolery ensues!
This film has so many twists and turns throughout the plot’s plethora of deceptive arrangements, shifting attractions, and discontentments. It ensues to reach an emotionally intense yet hilarious finale. As with all screwballs, sharp repartee, a grand battle of the sexes, and memorable scenes (especially the greatest fishing scene in the history of cinema) are weaved throughout the film.
The electric cast and star power amplifies the film’s wit, storyline, and chemistry. All of the stars had contracts with Metro Goldwyn Mayer during the studio system era, and it was therefore much easier to create a vehicle with this star power fuelling the engine. It was Myrna Loy and William Powell’s fifth film together out of fourteen collaborations throughout their careers. While it was no secret that Powell and Harlow were a couple at the time, the studio pushed for another coupling of Loy and Powell secondary to their box office success. Either way, the winning screwball formula of this film created the impetus for a Best Picture nomination at the 1937 Academy Awards.
It is no doubt that screwball comedies are a true joy to inhabit and experience as a viewer. However, I feel as if this film and many other screwballs convey themes and messages that grapple with struggles at the core of humanity. Relationships are constantly tested in this genre of film, which is a fear yet reality of the human experience. As well, the division between social classes is a common theme. In this film, a man of the working class tries to undermine rich elitists. Variations of this plot device are present in many screwballs, which was quite reflective and contemporary to many in the Great Depression era. Therefore, I believe that great comedy can touch audience’s lives not just through humour but with a high degree of familiarity to our struggles and also our greatest delights.
I do not own any of the photos in this post. As well, this post is part of the “Addicted to Screwball Blogathon” hosted by Pfeiffer Pfilms and Meg Movies! Please check out the other posts over the next day related to other fabulous screwball comedies!