Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 17, 2020)
If you want a snapshot of mid-1930s movie stardom, 1936’s Libeled Lady offers a good place to start. With four of the era’s biggest icons, it offers one-stop shopping in that regard.
The editor of a major New York newspaper, Warren Hagerty (Spencer Tracy) persistently delays his marriage to Gladys Benson (Jean Harlow). His work remains his focus, and issues on the job prompt him to postpone the nuptials again and again.
Another crisis arises when wealthy society woman Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy) sues Warren’s paper for libel, as that publication inaccurately accused her of breaking up a relationship. To settle this, Warren concocts a complicated plan in he uses womanizing former reporter Bill Chandler (William Powell) – and a very reluctant Gladys – to entrap Connie and force her to drop the suit.
Hilarity ensues? To a decent degree, I’d say. While Lady doesn’t become a comedy classic, it mostly entertains.
Not that one should expect a particularly creative story. Though Lady lays on one complication after another, it really acts as a fairly straightforward rom-com most of the time.
Much of the film pursues the potential relationship between Connie and Bill. It shouldn’t take much to recognize that their initial antagonism will eventually manifest into love, and these elements can seem predictable.
The side of the film with the Warren/Gladys romance takes a backseat, and the movie does surprisingly little with the phony Bill/Gladys affair. It brings us occasional beats related to that awkward coupling, but most of the movie goes after the Connie/Bill connection.
That seems like a good choice, mainly because Loy and Powell demonstrate such strong chemistry. Already a successful onscreen couple via 1934’s The Thin Man, Loy and Powell would also star together in another 1936 flick, the Best Picture winning Great Ziegfeld.
That shared experience comes through in Lady, as their easy energy adds to the film. Tracy and Harlow feel like a less natural pair, but they still bring charm to their parts.
Though it lost to Ziegfeld, Lady enjoyed an Oscar Best Picture nomination, which comes as a surprise. Granted, 1936’s other picks weren’t eternal classics in their own right, and with 10 nominees, the Academy needed to fill a lot of slots.
Still, Lady seems pretty insubstantial for a Best Picture choice. Light and frothy, it doesn’t come across like Oscar material.
That doesn’t make it a bad film, though, and Lady packs pretty good rom-com entertainment into its 98 minutes. While few seem likely to view it as a classic, Lady keeps us engaged.