Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Movie of the Day: Libeled Lady

Personally, I would have been just fine if every comedy of the 30s and 40s starred William Powell and Myrna Loy. They epitomize for me the suave, witty, droll attitudes I find so entertaining in many movies from that era. I love their manner of bickering, that can never mask the affection beneath, but also never becomes as trite and treacly as their more modern counterparts. Their constant boozing in the Thin Man series never strikes me as alcoholic in nature(which, if anyone tried to replicate it in real life, it most certainly would be), but is instead charming and lovable. And speaking of drinking, has there ever been a better on-screen drunk than William Powell? Possibly, but I can't think of any right now. He only has one scene in My Man Godfrey where he gets really drunk, but his glowering, sudden appearance as he comes home sloshed in that film makes me laugh just thinking about it. Counting the Thin Man series as one movie, William Powell and Myrna Loy made 9 movies together(counting the Thin Man series that number rises to 14!), and Libeled Lady was their 6th pairing.

The basic plot is anything but basic, so try to keep up: a newspaper prints a false story about rich socialite Connie Allenbury(Myrna Loy) breaking up a marriage. Connie then sues the paper for libel for 5 million dollars. The newspaper hires libel expert(and ladies man) Bill Chandler(William Powell) to find a way out of the suit. His solution; to marry Gladys Benton(Jean Harlow, William Powell's girlfriend at the time), the long suffering girlfriend of newspaperman Warren Haggerty(Spencer Tracy, and let's take a moment to admire this cast). After getting fake-married, Bill would ingratiate himself into Connie's favor, and find some way of getting into a compromising position with her just in time for his fake-wife to burst in. Then, the story would be true, and Connie would be a home-wrecker after all. Predictably, Connie and Bill fall in love, and Gladys falls for her fake husband Bill. Got it? Yes, the plot is horribly convoluted beyond any logical point, even for a screwball comedy. The producers here were hoping to complicate the original screwball template not by changing the formula, but by doubling it with two mismatched pairings.

I hate to borrow directly from another person's review of a movie I'm trying to write about, but in this case I just have to quote from Variety's original review from 1936: "Even though Libeled Lady goes overboard on plot and its pace snags badly in several spots, Metro has brought in a sockeroo of a comedy." I quote that mainly because I like the dated slang in the review, but also because it's surprisingly accurate. The plot eventually leads to all sorts of door slamming and racing this way and that, but getting there can be a bit of a slog. The pacing IS a bit weak, and a lot of the humor is distressingly broad, like in a scene where William Powell has to pretend to be a master fly-fisherman to impress Myrna Loy's father. The exaggerated pratfalls may be par for the course, but aren't exactly what I look for in these films.

Although the finale piles complication on top of complication, the solution is distressingly sudden and fades to black in less than a minute. Still, with those(actually fairly minor) problems aside, the film has plenty to recommend it. The rapport between Powell and Loy is as acidic and endearing as usual, and the fast-paced dialogue holds plenty of zingers.

Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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