Thursday, January 22, 2009
Was there ever a screen couple with better chemistry & energy than William Powell & Myrna Loy? OK, I know there have been a lot of great film couples, & I do believe it’s impossible to pick any pairing as the all-time match up, but it would be difficult to say these two didn’t sparkle amongst the very best. While each was a talented actor in his/her own right, they were always superb together—not only in their great films, but even in lesser productions: for instance, in some of the later “Thin Man” films that don’t measure up to the classic original.
I wouldn’t classify the 1936 Libeled Lady as one of their “lesser” films, however. It’s a riot—spectacularly funny with a rollicking screwball plot & a great cast—Jean Harlow gets top billing over Powell, Loy & Spencer Tracy, & as always in these 30s films, there’s the standard array of wonderful character parts.
The plot is delightful in the onscreen execution, tho convoluted in summary—a young heiress, Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy), has been slandered by a newspaper & is suing to the tune of $5,000,000. Her tycoon father (Walter Connolly) has tangled with the paper & its editor Warren Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) before & is backing her efforts enthusiastically. Haggerty realizes his job is on the line, & he lines up a “libel buster” in the form of William Powell’s Bill Chandler, who will ingratiate himself into the heiress’ life & “compromise her.” An integral part of Tracy’s scheme involves Powell marrying Tracy’s own sadly neglected fiancée, Gladys (a very funny Jean Harlow—more comedienne than sex symbol in this role)—a marriage of convenience, so to speak, to better trap Connie in an impropriety that would doom her lawsuit. What ensues is a romantic tangle of almost Midsummer Night’s Dream proportions.
Powell is his usual suave self—when he isn’t taking some uproarious pratfall, either figuratively or literally. Speaking of the latter, the trout fishing scene in which city slicker Chandler tries to convince Connie & Allenbury père that he’s an outdoorsman is flat-out hilarious. Powell spends a good bit of time floundering in the stream, at one point trying to net his “Beginner’s Guide to Fishing Book” before it floats downstream to where the Allenburys are stationed. In a notable example of beginner’s luck, Chandler ends up hooking—& landing, with Connie’s help—the largest trout in the stream, “Old Walleye,” which Mr Allenbury has stalked for years. Speaking of fishing, an earlier scene in which E.E. Clive plays a rather dapper fishing instructor who’s out to teach Powell fly casting in his hotel room (with Clive posing as a tree & Harlow posing as a rock) is also not to be missed.
The two couples become enmeshed in an increasingly knotty situation, one from which it appears there’ll be no way to extricate themselves. Of course, this is a romantic comedy, so…. but I’ll leave that for you to experience as you watch the film. I will say that the ending is a big surprise, & really a perfect way for the story to fade off into the sunset.
But even allowing the story to remain fresh for prospective viewers, there’s plenty to examine in Libeled Lady. The question that occupies me most right now has to do with the comic synergy between Powell & Loy, & how each actor’s gifts amplify & enrich the other’s. I’ll admit I’m very far from an expert on the craft of acting—the only significant involvement I’ve had with theatrical productions has been as a musician who’s providing background music. But I am used to “ensemble creativity” from playing in bands; & I’m aware there are musicians one enjoys playing with more than others because they always seem to let you “play to your strengths”—& if the other musician is quite good, he/she even enables you to play a bit “beyond yourself” in relative comfort. This isn’t completely a question of talent or proficiency, tho these play a significant role. The most important factor is the fruitful give & take between performers. I assume something like this is what happens when actors have “chemistry.”
Powell & Loy are similar in that both exude an elegance that each is constantly willing to undercut. Powell’s persona in Libeled Lady is that of the debonair & clever schemer who constantly creates stories to inhabit, but who places himself constantly in a pickle as these stories clash with reality; Powell is a juggler who’s keeping his self-creation in the air, but who isn’t willing to “drop the ball” for comic effect. In general, his characters display a depth & dimensionality—you feel you know more about the character than is explicitly portrayed in the film.
Loy’s persona is similar in its multi-layered nature. Eberle made a comment I loved about Myrna Loy—she said that watching Myrna Loy act is like watching a baseball game, because you know at any moment there’s an array of possibilities that could happen. In the role of Connie Allenbury Loy’s cold & self-absorbed, she’s clever & suspicious, she’s warm & vulnerable & altruistic. These qualities are intrinsic to the role, but Loy makes them live, & makes them coherent. As with Powell, you believe in the character’s existence beyond her actual onscreen presence.
So these actors inhabit a comparably wide & deep imaginative space, & this also involves their ability to “play” within that space. They both can be self-referential in a way that’s not trite or belittling to their characters. Early in the film, Powell’s scheme is to compromise Loy on board an ocean liner making the crossing from England; he’ll “lure” her to his stateroom, where they’ll be discovered—thus creating a scandal that will undercut her lawsuit. Although Powell’s Bill Chandler character is full of sly self-assurance & readily fools Mr Allenbury, Connie is at first completely indifferent to him, & later as they dance lets Chandler know she considers him a fraud—exposing the charming schemer’s stories as fictions by refusing to participate in them. But later at the trout stream we see Connie herself quickly change her opinion of Chandler, even in the face of contradictory evidence; we see a willingness to believe that hadn’t been there during the ocean crossing.
Although Powell & Loy really sparkle in this one, they’re more than ably supported by Spencer Tracy as the blustery editor who can’t reveal his real emotions & by Harlow as the neglected girl friend who finally finds a man who seems attentive. The film is crisply paced under the direction of Jack Conway; it was nominated for “Best Picture,” but lost out to another Powell-Loy vehicle, The Great Ziegfield. That’s a nice flick, but I actually like this one even better. So do yourself a favor & watch the madcap & witty Libeled Lady. It’s already been shown on TCM this month, but it is a NetFlix selection, & also should be available at your fine neighborhood video rental shop.