Libeled Lady is a romantic screwball dazzler that has everything working for it: a delectably wisecracking script (by George Oppenheimer, Maurine Watkins and Howard Emmett Rogers) from a devilishly clever story (by Wallace Sullivan), two side-splittingly funny slapstick passages, otherwise, breezy semi-sophistication crackling with wit, the warmth of one woman’s falling in love and the touching vulnerability of another’s starvation for attention and affection, amiable direction by Jack Conway, wonderful acting by bona fide stars Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy, and expert editing (by Fredrick Y. Smith). All hands involved in this huge hit, which garnered a best picture Oscar nomination, are deft.
The plot is ingenious. A society girl sues a newspaper for $5 million when it erroneously prints she is having an affair with a married man; postponing his own wedding, without considering his fiancée’s feelings, the paper’s editor-in-chief hires a writer to marry this fiancée right before wooing the rich girl, thus compromising her by making the untrue news story “true” and pressuring her into dropping her suit. Meanwhile, the hired man and the rich girl really fall in love with each other, and the writer’s wife/editor’s fiancée at least thinks she has fallen in love with the writer, who leads her on while trying to arrange the undoing of the plot against the woman he loves.
Both Powell and Tracy received best actor Oscar nominations for that year—for their roles in other films (Powell, My Man Godfrey; Tracy, San Francisco); but each is actually better here. Harlow, whose performing can be irritatingly unnuanced, is at her most appealing and sensitively modulated. And Loy, whose Connie Allenbury is the titular “libeled lady,” is the slyest yet, also, the most humane and realistically complex of M-G-M’s spectacular quartet.
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