"You can't build a life on hate or a marriage on spite. Marriage is too important. Mine only lasted an hour, but I know."
Connie (Myrna Loy)
Since I worked for newspapers for many years, I have a residual fondness for movies about newspapers and newspaper people — as long as the stories are reasonably plausible.
And the story in "Libeled Lady," which premiered on this day in 1936, was plausible. Reasonably so, anyway.
It is important to remember that it was a screwball comedy, a genre that was at its peak in the '30s and '40s. That raised the bar for the quality of the movie. And it didn't tell a true story, which freed it to tell wildly exaggerated jokes without having to be accountable to the harsh truths of the business. Screwball comedies existed to entertain, not enlighten.
It is also important to remember how serious the issue of libel is. At the larger newspapers, entire legal departments are maintained on the premises almost entirely to deal with the subject of libel, how to avoid it, what to do when faced with legal action and so on. When I was in college, nearly all of my journalism classes had sections devoted to the subject of libel. I can't claim to know what it is like in journalism classes at four–year schools these days, but I don't think it was possible to graduate with a degree in journalism when I was in school if one did not have at least some comprehension of the subject of libel.
Screwball comedies were like the forerunners to Saturday Night Live, I suppose. They could take something serious like libel and turn it into a joke that kept feeding on itself. The story of "Libeled Lady" really was ridiculous, silly, but it was built on a deadly serious theme.
The movie was good enough that it earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. It lost to "The Great Ziegfeld."
I believe it deserved the nomination, but what was it about the movie that merited a Best Picture nomination? Most of the time you can get an idea from the other nominations the movie received. Was it the acting? The directing? The film editing? The music? The story? What was it?
Well, you can't tell from the Oscar nominations because "Libeled Lady" received no other nominations. By modern standards, though, a Best Picture nomination for a comedy — especially a screwball comedy — is a considerable achievement by itself.
The Oscars tend to look down on comedies today even though the number of permissible Best Picture nominations has been 10 — the same as in the '30s — for several years. In the years when only five movies could be nominated for Best Picture, comedies were rarely among the nominees. These days stars tend to get pigeonholed as comedic or dramatic actors, and there is little crossover.
But in the '30s, everyone did screwball comedies — even (or perhaps that should be especially) if they also did dramatic movies. Screwball comedies were popular escapism in the Depression. They were money in the bank.
And "Libeled Lady" heavily promoted the fact that it had four bankable stars — William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow.
Harlow and Powell were a couple off the screen, and Harlow wanted a particular role so that she and Powell would end up together. But the studio wanted to pair Powell with Loy to capitalize on the popularity of their Thin Man movies, the second of which premiered on Christmas Day 1936, and several other movies they made together, including "The Great Ziegfeld." (It was probably a prudent decision. Powell and Loy made more than a dozen movies together.)
Even so, in the role she played, Harlow did get to play a wedding scene with Powell. Considering that Harlow died before she and Powell could marry in real life, that was probably a fitting consolation prize.
Screwball comedies often have elements of film noir, but they are frequently comparable to some of the great stage comedies of all time as well. Some people may see elements of "Lysistrata" or "The Importance of Being Earnest" when they watch a screwball comedy. I usually see elements of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" or "Much Ado About Nothing."
And, for me, "Libeled Lady" has always had a distinctly Shakespearean feeling to it.
Tracy played a newspaper editor whose newspaper had published a libelous story about an heiress (Loy), claiming that she broke up a marriage. The editor wanted to set her up so she would have to drop the lawsuit she had filed against him. He recruited a former reporter (Powell) to try to maneuver Loy into a situation where they were alone together and could be confronted by Powell's wife — and the press conveniently on hand to document it all. That would establish her track record as a home wrecker.
The problem was that Powell's character wasn't married.
No problem. Tracy volunteered his girlfriend (Harlow) to marry Powell — over her very vocal objections — and then play the aggrieved spouse.
Trouble was, Powell and Loy's characters really did fall in love. And Harlow came to conclude that she preferred being married to Powell to waiting for a newspaperman who had been stringing her along for years. When she confronted Powell and Loy, she really was aggrieved.
Powell and Loy persuaded Harlow that she was really in love with Tracy, so all was well that ended well.
To borrow a phrase.