Sometimes, knowing what you’re doing is overrated.
Who doesn’t love that adrenaline rush of panic and disbelief when you’re caught, unprepared, in a frantic situation beyond your control? That’s when you know you’re alive.
Libeled Lady is a very funny movie with this cast: Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy and Myrna Loy. It has a smart script, gorgeous Cedric Gibbons‘ set designs and an enviable wardrobe by Dolly Tree. Here is a movie that cannot go wrong.
Briefly, the plot: Tracy plays the managing editor of a newspaper that prints a story accusing a socialite (Loy) of being a home wrecker. Loy, who is vacationing in Europe, threatens to sue the paper upon her return to the United States. Tracy, fearing the $5 million lawsuit will bankrupt his newspaper, plans a “sting” operation: He will ask his girlfriend (Harlow) to temporarily marry Powell (in name only), then arrange a compromising situation between Powell and Loy. This will make the Loy homewrecking story actually true, the lawsuit will be dropped, and everyone can just move along. Nothing to see here.
As part of his scheme to seduce Loy, Powell decides to go through her father (Walter Connolly), a rich industrialist and an avid trout fisherman. Powell devours fly fishing books, and even arranges for a fly-fishing tutor to visit him at his hotel where he’s staging a fake honeymoon with the agitated Harlow.
(Digression: It’s a treat to see the Powell-and-Harlow scenes, since they were a real-life couple. Powell’s character is polite and courteous towards Harlow, while she becomes increasingly irritated with distracted boyfriend Tracy and starts falling for Powell.)
After he travels to London, Powell immediately finds Loy and Connolly on the ship leaving for America. Powell starts in with the fishing yarns, but Loy is suspicious.
Connolly (to Powell): “So, you’ve fished Gluckman’s Point. Well, you’re an angler all right.”
Loy: “I should say Mr. Chandler’s quite an angler.”
We know the movie is building towards an epic Man-Versus-Trout battle and we are not disappointed. Once they are landed in the U.S., Connolly invites Powell on a fishing trip with Loy and himself. Powell arrives, decked out in shiny new fishing gear and a copy of The Anglers’ Hand-Book for Beginners tucked in his creel (basket). While Connolly and Loy are expertly casting their lines – and catching fish – Powell ends up in the drink, only to discover his precious Hand-Book cheerfully floating downstream.
This is precisely one of the things that we, the audience, have paid for. The William Powell of the 1930s is a study in scrupulous grooming; he practically gleams with studio polish. As much as we adore him, we want to see him floundering down a stream in a wet, floppy hat, desperately clinging to a fishing rod as though it were useful. It makes the urbane Powell less of a movie star and more like one of us – and we love him all the more for it.
Libeled Lady is a movie that isn’t as popular as it deserves to be. The entire movie is a delight, but the scenes of Powell’s attempts at fly fishing are pure movie magic.
Libeled Lady: starring Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy. Directed by Jack Conway. Written by Maurine Watkins, Howard Emmett Rogers, George Oppenheimer. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp., 1936, B&W, 98 mins.