Libeled Lady suffers from a few things, but it’s hard to pinpoint what doesn’t work about the film because there are so many things working well. There’s a great William Powell slapstick fishing scene in the film, there’s a great wedding scene where the husband gets a peck and the best man gets a passionate kiss, there’s even a nice courtship between Powell and Myrna Loy, except Powell’s married to Jean Harlow and Loy is suing Harlow’s boyfriend, played by Spencer Tracy. The problem stems from not knowing what to do with Harlow. Libeled Lady is a ninety-eight minute comedy with four major stars, it having focusing problems isn’t even in question….
The film opens with Harlow and Tracy and it stays with Tracy for a bit, introducing Powell in a great way, but up until that introduction (and even immediately following) Libeled Lady is a newspaper comedy. This genre has disappeared, but it was prevalent in the 1930s. I’ve read the early talkie screenwriters were newspaper reporters, explaining the newspaper office as a frequent setting and the reporter as a dedicated hero. But then it turns and becomes an odd Myrna Loy-William Powell comedy, one where you really miss W.S. Van Dyke behind the camera. When Tracy and Harlow return to the film, Harlow has become superfluous. It’s not a traditional comedy–there are different expectations and responsibilities. It’s a little more serious. The audience comes to like Loy (or Loy warms to Powell and the audience warms to Loy while Powell in conflict). But, Powell never reveals the full extent of his subterfuge to Loy when the audience gets to see (again turning the film’s focus to Harlow and Tracy). There isn’t a scene because it doesn’t work with that returning focus to Harlow’s side of the story.
It’s a lot of fun, and Tracy is really good in the opening. He and Powell have a good repartee going too, but we only get to see it once. Harlow and Powell were together at the time and the chemistry cares over to celluloid, but it’s also a Powell and Loy film, which causes a disconnect. I think it’s in Myrna Loy’s biography–when Loy had a cameo in The Senator Was Indiscreet as Powell’s long-unseen wife, it wasn’t even a question for audiences she would be the wife–it was expected. It doesn’t help the film perturbs Harlow’s character arc to fit that clean ending or makes Tracy so ineffectual in the second half–though the scene with him running across a foyer is delightful. It’s in an awkward part of the film, but Tracy’s fun translates well.
It’s good. It is. It’s just the problems are more visible then they should be….