Libeled Lady: True Wit
by Susan Doll
With this post, I launch a column called “Star Gazing,” which will focus on the movie stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood. The star system as practiced by the major studios was about more than casting larger-than-life movie stars in now-classic films, it was an ingenious storytelling system. The studios constructed images for their stars, which not only became the basis for casting films but also the reason audiences flocked to the theaters. A star system still exists in today’s Hollywood, but during the Golden Age it was the fuel that drove the industry. “Star Gazing” will explore all facets of the star system—from casting strategies to behind-the-scenes anecdotes to forgotten stars to casting mistakes. In doing so, I want to return the legends of the silver screen to the spotlight. They’ve been gone too long.
Hitchcock liked to declare that once his film was cast, half his work was done. He was referring to the way that the stars’ preexisting images helped to construct the characters. In the case of the screwball comedy Libeled Lady, the casting did all the work. William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy, and Jean Harlow were cast according to their star images, and the four played into those images perfectly. The plot revolves around Powell’s efforts to get something on socialite Loy for his newspaper, but the real joy of this film is the chemistry and interaction of the stars.
Stars adopted images that were variations on archetypal characters popular at the time. William Powell’s star image was a version of the sophisticated gentleman. Well-dressed, well spoken, and well groomed, Powell looked dapper in his pinstriped suits, trim mustache, and perfectly combed hair. Even when his character had no money, he could hold his own with the wealthy set, because he was cultured and sophisticated. Myrna Loy, who costarred in 14 films with Powell, matched him in class and sophistication. During the silent era, Loy had played exotic vamps and femme fatales, likely because of her almond-shaped eyes. But, when she signed with MGM in the early talkie era, the studio constructed a more distinguished image for her. Loy specialized in wealthy, cultured characters with a fashionable, refined wardrobe. Adept at verbal sparring, Loy, who played Connie Allenberry in Libeled Lady, made a good foil for Powell, who costarred as libel reporter Bill Chandler.
Often called an actor’s actor, Spencer Tracy enjoyed a less specific star image than most stars of the era, which afforded him the opportunity to play a variety of characters. Despite his broad range, he tended to play the working stiff. Sometimes, he was strictly blue collar; at other times, he played lower middle class professionals associated with the big city. A bit gruff and gritty, Tracy costarred in Libeled Lady as Warren Haggerty, the frantic editor who would sacrifice anything for his newspaper. Most often sacrificed was his relationship with Gladys, whom Haggerty left at the altar more than once. Jean Harlow steals the film as the ill-treated Gladys. During the pre-Code era, Harlow had been the blonde bombshell who represented raw sexuality and sexual temptation. However, after the Code was enforced in 1934, MGM knew they had to tone down Harlow’s image if she were to retain her stardom. The studio continued to promote her sexuality, but they cast her in comedies, which helped soften her image, making it less obvious. Though less sexual, the bombshell was still a fireball onscreen, playing highly charged working class women with energy and vitality.
Films that were showcases for major stars habitually included references to or reminders of specific attributes associated with those stars. Attributes could be anything from costumes to gestures to hairstyles to facial expressions or body features. Audiences enjoyed these moments, which heightened the experience of seeing their favorite stars onscreen. In Libeled Lady, Jean Harlow’s entrance served as a reminder of her bombshell status, though her character Gladys was a comedic turn with little of the sexuality of Harlow’s pre–Code films. In Harlow’s opening scene, Gladys has just been jilted at the altar, and she arrives at the newspaper office to give Haggerty a piece of her mind. Gladys enters the frame from the background, marching through the middle-ground and then stomping into the foreground. Her wedding gown is made of a silky, clingy material, and it is clear Harlow is not wearing a brassiere—a notorious practice from her pre-Code days. The blocking of the character as she bounces across the screen reminded the audience of Harlow’s assets and her star image.
The other actors were also given an entrance, which befits their status as major stars, though none were as memorable as Harlow’s. The first scene with Tracy features Haggerty with his pants down, a metaphor for the way his character is always caught in hair-brained schemes that go awry. Loy is introduced with her back to the audience, bouncing a ball on a tennis racquet, which shows us Connie Allenberry’s (and Loy’s) wit and sense of fun. Powell ‘s introduction is less physical: His opening scene reveals that his character owes a huge hotel bill, setting us up for the way he manipulates Haggerty into paying him a small fortune for his services as a libel reporter.
Other scenes were devised to depict the characters in situations that were the opposite of the stars’ images. In the famous fly-fishing sequence, Chandler, who doesn’t know how to fish, goes tumbling through the rapids in a river, chasing after a fish. While the physical comedy is amusing, the scene is funnier to those familiar with William Powell, because it deflates his image as the debonair gent—an intentional tweaking of his image by the scriptwriters.
The combination of stars and the interaction of their images was another factor in the success of Libeled Lady. The four stars can be paired in different ways, sometimes complementing each other, sometimes opposing each other. Powell and Loy made an obvious pair based on their star images of class and taste, while Harlow and Tracy seemed a good match because their characters were from similar working-class, streetwise backgrounds. The plot calls for Powell and Harlow to pretend to be married, with Gladys falling temporarily for Bill Chandler. But because of Harlow’s and Powell’s opposing star images, audiences knew their characters would not end up with each other—ironic since Powell and Harlow were romantically involved at the time. The opposing styles and temperaments of Powell and Tracy made their characters’ relationship funnier and more contentious. The chemistry among the four actors was calculated and based on this casting strategy of pairing like couples while pitting opposite personalities against each other.
During the Golden Age, scriptwriters, producers, directors, and studio heads became experts at using the star system to create memorable onscreen pairings of the era’s biggest stars. Next month, when TCM airs Libeled Lady, pay close attention to the interaction of Powell, Loy, Tracy, and Harlow to see a shining example of the star system at work.
A graduate of Northwestern University’s film program, Susan has been an instructor of film studies at several universities and colleges. She currently teaches at Ringling College of Art and Design. Parallel with her teaching career, she has worked as a researcher and writer in pop culture-related topics for Encyclopedia Britannica, Publications International, Facets Multi-Media, Field Museum of Chicago, and Turner Classic Movies. She is the author of Elvis for Dummies, Understanding Elvis, The Films of Elvis Presley, Marilyn: Her Life and Legend, an interactive children’s book titled I Love Lucy, and Films in Florida (co-authored).