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Warner Home Video presents
Libeled Lady (1936)

Connie: Do you swim?
Bill: Almost as well as I dance.
Connie: Then you'll drown.

- Myrna Loy, William Powell

Review By: David Krauss   
Published: May 13, 2005

Stars: Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy
Other Stars: Walter Connolly, Cora Witherspoon, E.E. Clive
Director: Jack Conway

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:38m:08s
Release Date: March 01, 2005
UPC: 012569591929
Genre: comedy


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B+ BC+B C

DVD Review

From the mid-1930s through the end of the decade, screwball comedies reigned supreme at the box office, yet bafflingly, Hollywood's most prestigious studio could never quite master the genre. Maybe MGM considered itself too dignified to stoop to such inane, irreverent humor, despite the enticement of lucrative financial returns. After all, Leo the Lion put his stars up on pedestals; he didn't drag them through the mud or make them the butt of lowbrow jokes. Sophisticated, drawing room comedy was MGM's bag, and the studio flaunted its airs by adapting Broadway hits like Private Lives, Dinner at Eight, and The Women. Occasionally, Metro would take a stab at screwball, but the results were at best hit-and-miss.

Libeled Lady was one of the hits, and ranks in the top tier of original MGM comedies. Zany enough to qualify as a screwball exercise, yet possessing the proper degree of Metro gloss and refinement, this breezy farce features four megawatt stars—Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy, and Spencer Tracy—in a romantic mix-up filled with clever sparring, witty repartee, and some inspired physical comedy. None of it is particularly memorable, but the legendary quartet makes the film worth watching, and keeps its engine humming despite a few narrative hiccups.

The shenanigans begin when Warren Haggerty (Tracy), hard-boiled managing editor of the New York Evening Star, learns his paper has falsely accused pampered rich girl Connie Allenbury (Loy) of husband-stealing. Connie's outraged father (Walter Connolly) quickly files a $5 million libel suit, which threatens to bankrupt the Star and stop its presses forever—unless, of course, Warren can somehow prove "America's International Playgirl" is a sexual predator after all. Enter Bill Chandler (Powell), a libel specialist and former Star employee, who left the paper on poor terms. Warren desperately needs Bill's expertise, and woos him back at great expense to sabotage Connie's reputation.

As luck would have it, this dire legal crisis occurs on Warren's wedding day, forcing the gun shy newspaperman to postpone his nuptials for the umpteenth time, much to the outrage of his impatient fiancée, Gladys Benton (Harlow), who's sick of playing second fiddle to Warren's job. So imagine "Gladdie's" ire when Warren quickly insists she marries Bill—whom she's only just met—so Bill can then pursue Connie on a transatlantic cruise, trap her in a compromising position, and prove the Star's accusations weren't the least bit libelous at all. Warren and Bill manipulate Gladys into participating in their off-the-wall scheme, but Warren doesn't anticipate Gladys getting a crush on her new "husband," and Bill hasn't an inkling he might fall in love with the surprisingly charming Connie.

Complications and mishaps abound, yet despite several very funny exchanges and amusing situations, Libeled Lady doesn't snap, crackle, and pop like the best screwball films. The script (by Maurine Watkins, Howard Emmett Rogers, and George Oppenheimer) consistently sparkles, but Jack Conway's workmanlike direction lacks the finesse, flair, and energy of such master comedy craftsmen as Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges. As a result, the pacing of Libeled Lady occasionally lags, and it's up to the stars to pick up the slack. Luckily, their supreme talent saves the day.

All the actors shine (including the lovably irascible Connolly), but without question Harlow stands out. Though MGM often cast the blonde bombshell as a sexy siren, comedy was definitely her domain, and Libeled Lady showcases her effervescent personality, spot-on timing, and outrageous sense of fun. Had she not died of kidney failure the following year at age 26, Harlow undoubtedly would have become one of Hollywood's most deft light comediennes, and it's a shame she wasn't able to realize her potential. Harlow may not be the best actor in the film, but she's by far the most magnetic, and it's a kick to watch her dress down Tracy and masquerade as the devoted wife of Powell, her real-life love at the time.

Of course, cinematically speaking, Powell was eternally betrothed to Loy (the pair made a whopping 14 films together), and once again they create comfortable yet palpable chemistry. Though a tad too reserved for a madcap heiress (Carole Lombard or Claudette Colbert she most certainly is not), Loy still creates an engaging character whose frosty veneer shields a warm heart, while the normally debonair Powell displays a welcome slapstick streak during a riotous trout-fishing expedition. And not to be forgotten, Tracy embodies the fast-talking, fast-acting editor who's dedication to his profession and fear of commitment belies his deep love for Harlow. Tracy may be forever linked to Katharine Hepburn, but he and Harlow generate plenty of sparks, and their earthy rapport makes one rue the fact they only made two pictures together.

Can Libeled Lady compete with the likes of such screwball classics as Bringing Up Baby, Twentieth Century, My Man Godfrey, and The Palm Beach Story? Not quite. But this wacky farce often delivers the goods, and remains a noteworthy and appealing entry in the genre.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: Warner usually spoils us with top-notch transfers of Golden Age classics, but Libeled Lady is a rare disappointment. Although the image itself enjoys fine clarity, a maddeningly persistent veil of nicks and scratches, several white blotches, and even a few missing frames slightly hampers the viewing experience. Grain, however, is surprisingly light for a film of this vintage, yet contrast is spotty, and gray levels don't vary as much as one might like. Blacks remain solid and rich, but the transfer never quite captures MGM's trademark gloss, or the beauty of Harlow and Loy.

Image Transfer Grade: C+

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglishno


Audio Transfer Review: The mono track possesses all the hallmarks of a mid-1930s film, yet Warner technicians have managed to tone down the hiss, minimize pops and crackles, and slightly augment fidelity. A tinny harshness still lingers, but dialogue is always clear and understandable—and in a screwball comedy, little else matters.

Audio Transfer Grade: B

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 27 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 39m:23s

Extra Extras:
  1. Leo Is on the Air radio promo
Extras Review: In addition to the film's original theatrical trailer (which includes a surprising number of snippets from the movie's climax), the only extra offered is a 13-minute installment of Leo Is on the Air, a weekly radio program designed to promote MGM's newest releases. Audio clips lifted directly from the film's soundtrack—and threaded together by pompous narration—help set the premise and provide a taste of Libeled Lady's fast-talking lunacy.

Extras Grade: C

 

Final Comments

Though it pales when compared with Hollywood's best screwball comedies, Libeled Lady supplies plenty of laughs and a quartet of legendary stars in top form. Fans of the genre (and the actors) will certainly want to snatch up this rare title, but the disc's disappointing image quality and paucity of extras precludes a purchase for most viewers.

 


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