Comedy

Fly Fishing with William Powell

William Powell (right) is confident in his fake-fishing skills. Image: A Certain Cinema
William Powell (right) is confident in his fake fishing skills. Image: A Certain Cinema

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.

Many actors have beautifully demonstrated this type of unfortunate circumstance, and one of our favourites is William Powell in the 1936 screwball comedy Libeled Lady.

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.”

Powell believes in learning while doing. Image: Pinterest
Powell believes in learning while doing. Image: pinterest.com

 

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.

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21 thoughts on “Fly Fishing with William Powell

  1. One of my favorite movies evah!! Everyone in it is fabulous,and I think it’s Harlow’s best role. I love her flouncing around furiously in her wedding dress. Tracy: “Gladys, do you want me to kill myself!?!” Harlow: “Did you change your insurance?”

    And Walter Connelly was the best rich-girl’s-dad of all time. Really the perfect dad for any girl: patient, supportive, and accepting of every foible.

    UGH! Now I want to go watch this again! Thanks for a lovely write-up!!

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    1. Powell is perfect for this role – it’s as though it were written for him. (And maybe it was?? Must investigate.)

      The rest of the cast is a real treat, too, aren’t they? Jean Harlow, in particular, is soooo funny.

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  2. I just watched this again at lunchtime (working at home today) and was gonna add something but apparently my other comment didn’t even get approved (though one after me did?) so maybe I’ll just skip it… 🙂

    Take care,

    Janet

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    1. Ah, I was slow in approving comments today. Some comments need approval and some don’t… I don’t understand why this is.

      Anyway, thanks for stopping by and commenting twice! I like that you watched this film again today. Darn it! I need my own copy so I can do the same thing!

      Walter Connolly is a real teddy bear of a Dad, and Jean Harlow is so SO funny in this movie. I love her in the Beauty Parlour, with mud on her face and her hair in electric curlers. Priceless!

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  3. Oh that’s a relief, I thought I said something to offend you!! 🙂 Nobody does indignant like Jean Harlow. Something in her voice… it’s like you could wake her up at 3 AM and she could do “indignant” without missing a beat. This movie and “The More the Merrier” — I can’t even let myself think about them or read about them, because then I have to just drop whatever extremely responsible thing I’m doing and go watch them…

    I also love the part where Bill’s learning to fish in the living room of that fabulous apartment…

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    1. Oh yes – LOVE “The More the Merrier”! Dang it – I need my own copy of that too.

      And the fishing in the apartment is hilarious! Honestly, how he and Harlow could do that scene without splitting a gut is beyond me.

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  4. When you think about it, screwball might as well been invented for narratives like the ‘Man-Versus-Trout battle’. Sometimes I do find the genre a bit overwhelming, but Libeled Lady is practically perfect in every way, and I’ll never tire of watching it. Who knew Harlow could do funny?
    And my personal favourite line? ‘I thought that was rather clever of me.’ ‘Yes, I thought you thought so.’

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    1. Ha ha! That is a great line, from a practically perfect movie – like you said. It always feels fresh, doesn’t it, no matter how many times you’ve seen it.

      And Harlow! She is SO funny in this film!!

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  5. William Powell rarely gets credit for his skill for physical comedy, but this scene and those from the likes of “I Love You Again” and “Love Crazy” prove he was the equal of anyone in that category — even the sainted Cary Grant.

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    1. Just found this great post. When I saw your comment, I thought how right you are. I was recently shocked to find that in One Way Passage he actually did the jump from the ship. That was pretty impressive.

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  6. I loved reading about this movie. It sounds like a lot of fun. I will have to track it down, and get my husband to watch it with me. He went fly fishing for the first time this summer, and would probably appreciate the scenes where Powell is trying to learn how to do it. Thanks so much for letting us know about this movie, Ruth!

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    1. Oh that’s great about your husband & fly fishing. You’re right – he might be able to identify with William Powell’s attempts more than the rest of us. I hope you get the chance to see this screwball comedy. There are so many funny scenes.

      Like

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