Screwball comedies are known for their fast-paced dialogue and farcical ‘battle of the sexes’ conflict. But, Jack Conway’s Libeled Lady (1936) is one of the rare examples within the genre of a film that prioritises plot over witty one-liners.
Screwball comedy reflects the period of its birth more than many other sub-genres, with its mix of romantic comedy and satirical humour shining through the Great Depression. With the films housed in its comedic path peaking in the early 1940s. Its peculiar name comes from a baseball term, which describes a fast, unpredictable pitch from the pitcher to confuse the batter. The word ‘screwball’ became widely used as “eccentric” and “insane” after Carole Lombard’s character in My Man Godfrey (1936).
The demand for new comedy found even greater impetus with the introduction of the Hays Code. Its satire of romance and love the perfect antidote to censorship. With its films subtly, incorporating sexual tension and risky humour that transcended the code’s restrictions. Some of the most notable classic screwball comedies from this era include It Happened One Night (1934), My Man Godfrey (1936), Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1940), The Philadelphia Story (1940) and The Lady Eve (1941).
However, Libeled Lady rarely finds mention alongside these classics, despite its brilliant ensemble cast, twisted script and witty dialogue. Not to mention its acutely relevant plot that could take place even today. Our film starts with newspaper editor Warren Haggerty’s (Spencer Tracy) rag sued for five million dollars by rich heiress Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy). The reason for this a front-page story that claims Connie is responsible for breaking up a loving marriage through seduction. However, when the paper is unable to pay, Haggerty comes up with an idea; framing Connie and placing her into the same situation the newspaper reported. To achieve this, he hires Bill Chandler (William Powell), a notorious ladies’ man and a former reporter; his mission to seduce Connie at any cost.
Just like any popular plot in screwball comedy, Libeled Lady entwines, the main characters work with their private lives, even if they seem unrelated at first. The side plot centring on Warren’s plan to marry his long-time fiancée Gladys (Jean Harlow). However, it turns out Warren has put the wedding off several times due to his busy work life. And it’s fair to say Gladys’ patience is wearing thinner by the day. But as Warren thinks through the libel suit by Connie, he quickly realises that Bill will need a wife for his plan to work. And so he comes up with the ‘perfect’ idea, to have Gladys and Bill married in name only.
At this point, it is interesting to look back on the production code and the values it stood for, one being ‘the sanctity of marriage’. Despite this, Conway’s movie doesn’t even try to hide its glee at circumnavigating the code. For example, when Gladys receives a phone call from Warren stating ‘she’ is to be married today, Gladys excitedly tells her maid about it. However, the maid is quick to reply “What, again?”. And at the city hall on the day of Gladys and Bill’s arranged union, neither are excited by each others company. The most passionate embrace and kiss coming from Warren when he congratulates Gladys. Of course, Bill tries saving the situation by saying “he is an old friend of the family….A very old friend.”
The comedy at the heart of Conway’s film only grows more situational as Connie falls for Bill. While at the same time, Bill tries to juggle a growing love for Connie with his false marriage to Gladys; a woman Connie knows nothing about. The resulting triangle even more difficult as he seeks to ensure Warren pays him for a job well done.
Of course, if we were to follow the standard romantic comedy path, Bill’s secret would suddenly be revealed. With the resulting fallout leading him to lose Connie’s trust; his only way back some grand gesture of love. But, instead, the script subverts expectations, with Connie and Bill coming clean about their deceit. With the film’s finale culminating in an absurd, comedy of errors where our characters face off with each other. The resulting conversations highlighting that Gladys and Bill’s marriage was never legal. While at the same time the women console each other, as the men engage in a “fake” fistfight over them. But, it all ends in happiness, although not before a round of slaps have been handed out.
What makes Libeled Lady both remarkable and unique are the multiple and diverse sources of humour it successfully uses. With the plot using the concept of fake marriage to ridicule the institution at the heart of the action. Meanwhile, each scene glows with great dialogue and timing. And whether it be Bill, the real outdoor man, almost drowning in knee-high water. Or the use of ‘Mickey Mousing’ as each character moves in time with the musical score. Libeled Lady is a screwball comedy of the highest order, reflecting a Hollywood system railing against a code that limited audience experience.
Director: Jack Conway