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 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, where romance and love offered the perfect antidote to censorship. Here films would subtly incorporate sexual tension and risky humour to transcend the code’s restrictions. Some notable classics 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).
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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 wealthy heiress Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy). The reason for this is the publication of a story that claims Connie is responsible for breaking up a loving marriage through her seduction. However, when the paper is unable to pay, Haggerty comes up with an idea; why not frame Connie and place her into the same situation the newspaper initially reported. To achieve this, he hires Bill Chandler (William Powell), a notorious ladies’ man and a former reporter.
Like any famous screwball comedy plot, Libeled Lady centres around the main characters’ work and private lives, even if they seem unrelated at first. The side plot is Warren’s plan to marry his long-time fiancée Gladys (Jean Harlow), with Warren already having put the wedding off several times due to his busy work life. However, as Warren considers his plans, he quickly realises that Bill will need a wife for this to work. Therefore, he comes up with the ‘perfect’ idea, to have Gladys and Bill married in name only.
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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, Gladys receives a phone call from Warren stating she is to be married today; Gladys then excitedly tells her maid about it. However, the maid quickly replies, “What, again?”. Following this, when Gladys and Bill’s arranged union occurs, neither are excited by the other’s company. In fact, the most passionate embrace and kiss come from Warren when he congratulates Gladys, with Bill stating, “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. However, the resulting love triangle is only more difficult as Bill seeks his money for a job well done.
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Of course, Bill’s secret would suddenly be revealed if we were to follow the standard romantic comedy path – with the resulting fallout leading him to lose Connie’s trust. But instead, the script subverts expectations, with Connie and Bill coming clean about their deceit – the film’s finale, an absurd comedy of errors where all of our characters face off with each other. Here conversations highlight 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.
What makes Libeled Lady remarkable and unique is the multiple and diverse sources of humour it successfully uses. Here the plot uses the concept of fake marriage to ridicule the institution at the heart of the action. Meanwhile, each scene is surrounded by excellent dialogue and timing, from Bill, the outdoorsman almost drowning in knee-high water, to the use of ‘Mickey Mousing’ as each character moves in time with the musical score. The result is a screwball comedy of the highest order, reflecting a Hollywood system railing against a code that limited audience experience.
Director: Jack Conway