More intriguing for behind-the-scenes gossip than its rather familiar screwball comedy machinations, Libeled Lady pairs that debonair fast-talking duo from the Thin Man films (William Powell and Myrna Loy) so they can engage in what they do best: sly innuendo, sarcastic digs, and verbose lovemaking. Thrown into the mix as another romantic foil for the lucky Mr. Powell is blond sex symbol Jean Harlow. In real life, Powell and Loy were acting partners that sung each other’s praises in print through an entire run of increasingly lousy Thin Man films, and their on-screen chemistry passes as professional respect. Powell and Harlow were engaged, and much has been made of their pensive love affair until her surprise illness and death only one year later.
There are some curious reflections from real life in the otherwise goofy and convoluted plot of Libeled Lady. Nefarious newspaper editor Warren Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) lives for his job, even going so far as to stall his marriage to lovely Gladys (Harlow) because of his full-time pressures. When the paper is sued for $5 million by heiress Connie Allenbury (Loy) for having printed that she’s a runaway bride, Warren turns to sly old friend Bill Chandler (Powell) for help. He organizes a marriage between Bill and Gladys, intended to be unconsummated, then tries to hook up Bill and Connie. The goal: Connie is caught alone with a married man, and she’ll drop the lawsuit. The filmmakers march through the narrative with speed, efficiency, and the invisibility of hack craftsmanship.
It’s merely an excuse for Powell to spar lovingly with Loy, which audiences were well familiar with. They coast through the material effortlessly and charmingly, if completely unsurprisingly. But the Harlow-Powell scenes, where their fake marriage morphs into playing house, then friendship, then dare I say romance, gives Libeled Lady its much-needed suspense (and that bizarre real life parallel). Clearly hoping the dim-bulb but cutesy Harlow doesn’t end up with a piggish lout like Spencer Tracy, viewers are divided between rooting for Powell-Loy and Powell-Harlow. If the movie were really any good, the two women might give the unscathed, sweetly befuddled Powell a piece of their minds for stringing them along until the cows come home—but Libeled Lady is too lazy to follow through on its moral dilemma. The climax is rushed, so as to avoid the conflict that would’ve made it messy but interesting.
But it’s not so bad watching Powell, Loy, and Harlow coast along on roles they were well familiar with. Powell enjoyed many good parts in his career, and was a strong enough comic actor to liven up mundane films such as this one. He remains an actor who’s interesting to watch even as he leaves no lasting impression. Loy and Harlow lean on their diverse variations of sex appeal, with Harlow coming out ahead because she’s given more elaborate on-screen business. Spencer Tracy, as always, was a master craftsman but never particularly exciting. He’s well used here, though, as a dumb thug contrasted against Powell’s eloquence. It’s a laidback actor’s showcase where they remain kind of charming, kind of fun—even when the movie surrounding them is just kind of lukewarm.