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Libeled Lady (July 16, 2009)

Libeled Lady is similar to other screwball comedies we’ve seen. It has fast-paced crosstalk dialogue. It has class and gender confrontations. It has newspaper settings, something you often see in screwball comedies, though not always. It’s an MGM picture, and so, as you might expect from MGM, the richest of all the studios, it has four stars and not just two, as might appear in a Columbia, a Universal or an RKO production.

It was written by Maurine Watkins, Howard Emmett Rogers and George Oppenheimer. It was produced from July to September, 1936 and released the next month, October. Jack Conway, the director, did creditable work at MGM in the 30s and 40s, including vehicles for Clark Gable and Jean Harlow and two historical dramas: A Tale of Two Cities and Viva Villa! Unusually, this movie received a Best Picture Oscar nomination without receiving any other Oscar nominations. It lost to The Great Ziegfeld in 1937. Harlow and Powell were engaged at the time of the production. The engagement ended when Harlow died unexpectedly a year later.

In 1981 the New York Times movie critic Vincent Canby used Libeled Lady as the focus of an article called “How a 1936 Screwball Comedy Illuminates Movie History.” I'll summarize his points in the article.  He observed that the movie is not the work of a renowned writer or director. Even though the stars were among the best the studio had to offer, they were assigned to the project and had little creative voice in its structure. Actors worked a lot in those days. Loy made six films that year, Powell made five, Harlow and Tracy each made four. The film was the work of a studio system that had been designed to turn out such products. Like the other films of its year, it was made in the studio, aside from its brief trip to a trout stream. The studio-bound nature of these movies forced stylizations that the audience grasped fully without thinking about them. For instance, there is nothing characteristically New York about the New York scenes, because they were made in Culver City. Canby observed that in films of this era, little time was wasted showing people moving in cars from place to place. The audience assumed that if they had been in one place, and were now in another, they had moved there, somehow. Canby wrote “Such ellipses have much to do with the airy pace and the lightness of touch of films like Libeled Lady. These movies look different from today's because they are different.”

The pace, the light touch, and the humor of Libeled Lady are still apparent, even after seventy years, as I am sure you will see tonight.