Our examination of Jean Harlow’s career continues today with a look at her 1936 comedy, Libeled Lady. The immediate Post-Code feature feels like a drastic departure from Harlow’s previous and highly structured studio established star persona. Harlow’s “Blonde Bombshell” feels toned down and pushed into the periphery of this ensemble comedy. Things were changing quickly around this period with the onset of the Production Code, and Harlow’s films ultimately feel most at home in the Pre-Code era. By this point, the young actress was also likely struggling with the health problems which would lead to her eventual death. How does Libeled Lady fit as an entry into Jean Harlow’s career?
Libeled Lady follows newspaperman Warren Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) as the man’s life is thrown into a tizzy thanks to a libel suit filed by socialite Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy). In an attempt to save his job and reputation, Haggerty’s fiancée (Jean Harlow) is pulled into a quickie marriage with fellow journalist Bill Chandler (William Powell) before Chandler sets his sights on seducing Allenbury. After all, the socialite can’t claim libel if she legitimately steals another woman’s husband. Jack Conway directed the movie from a script penned by Maurine Dallas Watkins, Howard Emmett Rogers and George Oppenheimer.
This time the draw of this movie is less about Jean Harlow. Instead, a large portion of the narrative places MGM golden couple William Powell and Myrna Loy into the spotlight. The film was released in 1936, just two years after the release of The Thin Man, which still stands as Powell and Loy’s most popular film. Libeled Lady hit theaters just three months before the series’ equally popular sequel, After The Thin Man. As the story plays out, the two show off their always spot-on chemistry, bringing out the best in each other. You can’t tear your eyes from Powell and Loy when they’re in a scene together.
Powell in particular is very good in this role. While he is his usual cad-ish self, he has some understated work as the actor explores the layers of his character. While Powell largely plays the same character throughout most of his films,
Meanwhile, this role sees Harlow in a noted departure from her typical star persona. She is billed first in the film; however, her part feels secondary to the narrative. Playing Haggerty’s oft-suffering fiancée, Harlow lacks the overt sexuality of her earlier roles. Her costuming is drastically different. Her hair is darker. Her wardrobe is almost prim, made up of large coats and blouses that fasten up around the neck. In her earlier films, Harlow plays the (sexually charged) girl-next-door. She’s relatable and likable. In this movie, Harlow’s personality is toned way, way down. In fact, Gladys feels like a grown-up take on Harlow’s earlier characters. This is what happens when characters like Mona and Eadie grow up and get married. Could this be a deliberate attempt to change Harlow’s star persona? Another contributing factor is likely The Production Code, which had more than taken effect by 1936. Cinema was shifting drastically during this period, and the changes are incredibly evident.
While the role is a departure for Harlow, it’s difficult to say that she doesn’t work as Gladys. The character doesn’t have the emotional depth of roles like Eadie in The Girl from Missouri or Mona from Reckless. However, Harlow is once again able to shine in the comedic material. She is a vibrant comedic actress and in this movie demonstrates not only a flair for dialogue, but also the physical comedy.
However, the film struggles with what to do with Haggerty (and as such Spencer Tracy). At the time, Tracy was relatively new to MGM, having started his career in the early 1930s in studios across town. In this role, he seems somewhat overshadowed by the A-listers surrounding him. His relationship with Harlow’s Gladys is never brought to fruition. While Powell had legendary chemistry with Loy, he was also linked romantically with Harlow at this time. As such, their chemistry is more than apparent onscreen. As such, the romantic pairing we’re supposed to be invested in never seems to quite work. How can it when all the ladies want William Powell?
As we drop into some of Jean Harlow’s later films, it will be interesting to see how the actress’ star persona evolves into this last handful of features. While Libeled Lady is most assuredly Harlow’s film on paper, as the movie plays out this doesn’t hold-up. The actress is good; however, she doesn’t have a lot to do. Libeled Lady is a very fun movie, but this is a Powell and Loy film, not a Harlow movie.
Libeled Lady is currently streaming on FilmStruck.