It’s amusing to think that the most elegant and sophisticated couple in film history met in the back seat of a car. Myrna Loy and William Powell were making Manhattan Melodrama, a movie as formulaic and dull as it sounds, and the director W.S. Van Dyke was in a hurry as usual. “My instructions were to run out of a building, through a crowd, and into a strange car,” Loy wrote 50 years later. “When Woody called, ‘Action,’ I opened the car door, jumped in, and landed smack on William Powell’s lap. He looked up nonchalantly. ‘Miss Loy, I presume?’ I said ‘Mr. Powell?’ And that’s how I met the man who would be my partner in 14 films.”
The key word in that anecdote is “nonchalantly.” That was the style Powell and Loy developed in the mid-’30s—cool, dry, and airy despite whatever melodrama, Manhattan or otherwise, happened to be unfolding around them. In fact, the more dramatic the situation (for example, a wife catching her husband with another woman, or someone waving a gun around) the more distant and amused they became. Trapped, like all the other actors of their generation, in clichéd plots and by-the-numbers scenes, they looked at each other skeptically — he with lips pursed, watching to see how she would react; she with narrowed, suspicious eyes as if he had arranged it all in a transparent, failed attempt to please her.
Their impact was so strong that their detached superiority itself became a cliché — dozens of actors from Dean Martin to Maggie Smith to Bill Murray have used it over the years to signal cynical disbelief at the movies they’ve been stuck in. What Powell and Loy had that nobody ever quite duplicated was a deep mutual understanding and respect. They were peerlessly adult and worldly (they were never called by their first names, like Fred and Ginger — that “Miss Loy” and “Mr. Powell” is very telling). But they weren’t stuffy about it. They may have treated the plots and characters around them as a private joke, but they locked in on each other with tremendous focus. After their first film, Van Dyke paired them in The Thin Man, which made them a world-famous team and bonded them forever in the public’s mind. But it’s their fifth film, Libeled Lady, in which their romantic chemistry is at its most potent and moving. It’s probably their best movie.
One measure of how wonderful Powell and Loy are in Libeled Lady is that they turn the other actors into run-of-the-mill supporting players. When your co-stars are Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy, that’s saying something. Harlow and Tracy play the contrasting couple — the floozy and the tough mug who go toe-to-toe with the two urbane sophisticates. They’re good, but in this case they’re not in Powell and Loy’s class. The movie was made a couple of years after the enforcement of the Production Code, when MGM was trying to fashion a new persona for Harlow. She had become famous playing trollops, poured into skin tight satin gowns, her unworldly platinum hair and hard, angled face shining in the key light. Once the Code was in force, they began to tone her down, and here she has evolved into a fairly standard movie tart: loud and ungrammatical, but with a slightly dinged heart of gold. Harlow gets top billing in Libeled Lady, and she’s capable and likable, but she’s also a bit tiresome as she stomps her feet and launches into yet another tirade.
I don’t know what to say about Tracy. Katharine Hepburn once compared him to a potato (she meant it as a compliment), and that’s pretty apt. He’s solid and meaty. He’s there. But he’s not very exciting. There’s a case to be made for Tracy as the most overrated actor of his generation; he’s still considered some sort of giant, but it’s more residual reputation than actual achievement. He never could play comedy, or more accurately, he wasn’t personally funny aside from whatever business or line they gave him. In comedies, he tended to act like an overgrown puppy, putting his head down, looking up with his big brown eyes, shuffling and stumbling, raising his voice to bark at the other actors. In Libeled Lady, he plays a standard ’30s part—the ruthless, manipulative, anything-for-a-story newspaper editor. Cary Grant made the same character charismatic and hilarious in His Girl Friday, but the best Tracy can manage is to be a good sport.
Here’s the plot: Loy is the richest girl in the world, who is suing Tracy’s paper for libel over a false story about a romantic entanglement. The suit would ruin the paper, so Tracy hires Powell to seduce Loy and put her in a compromising position; in order to make Loy look like a homewrecker, he convinces his own fiancée Harlow to marry Powell… platonically. It’s a tightly woven farce plot, none of it very original even at the time, but it serves to keep the four stars at cross-purposes so they can bicker and double cross each other. It’s like the ancestor of a sitcom. The director was Jack Conway, an anonymous MGM hack whose chief virtue was that he knew how to keep things moving briskly. Libeled Lady is almost a perfect catalog of ’30s movie comedy situations and devices — people bite each other, elegant gowns are kicked away impatiently, insults are hurled and then topped. As written by Maureen Watkins, the author of Chicago, some of the wisecracks are pretty good — for example when Harlow complains that someone talked to her like a house detective. “How do you know what a house detective sounds like?” Tracy demands and she fires back: “Doncha think I read?”
What makes Libeled Lady memorable is the delicacy and heart of Powell and Loy’s playing. At first, of course, they’re adversaries. Hired to make love to her, he begins by trying to ingratiate himself with her on a trip on an ocean liner: isolating himself with her, subtly arranging for physical contact, telling her what beautiful eyes she has. As he comes up with one sleazy strategy after another, she regards him with infinite and increasingly open shades of distaste. Her father (Walter Connolly, the perennial sputtering father of screwball comedy) is an avid fisherman, so Powell works that one, pretending to be a fishing expert. When Connolly excitedly tells Loy that Powell is an angler, she replies that yes, he seems like quite an angler. This leads to an extended scene in which the three go trout fishing in a raging river, and Powell takes a series of pratfalls and spills while trying to appear like a world-class fisherman — he has a very wet instruction book in his creel basket, though he can’t hang onto it for long. One of the great comic sequences of the decade, it led to Howard Hawks making an entire movie around the same premise called Man’s Favorite Sport? (unfortunately, Rock Hudson was no William Powell).
Eventually, Powell’s pursuit of Loy leads to them falling genuinely in love, and at that point something wonderful happens. With all the mechanical farce conventions ticking away around them, you expect him to be exposed, and he is. You’re ready for the inevitable confrontation, hurt feelings, and breakup that lasts up through the final explanation and forgiveness, but it never comes. She instantly understands what’s happened, and there are no recriminations…even though he’s still technically married to Harlow. Powell and Loy are too mature, too wise, too grown up for tedious spats. Audiences loved The Thin Man movies, and still do, for their portrait of a witty, companionable marriage full of teasing and wisecracks. Libeled Lady shows the courtship phase of that same relationship, and it’s as satisfying as you always hoped it would be.
First published on Edward Copeland on Film.