Comedy Time: Libeled Lady (1936)

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14 years before he became the Father of the Bride, Spencer Tracy was the groom himself or, should I say, the “future” groom and the particular movie I’m thinking about is Libeled Lady (Jack Conway, 1936). This gifted actor hadn’t made any movies with Katharine Hepburn, yet, but that was about to come soon in 1942 with Woman of the Year which is, to this day, my favourite movie starring this legendary couple. No, in 1936, both Spencer and Katharine (we can call them by their first name only, can’t we? After all, I’m sure I am not the only one who feels that they are like old friends) were both leading a respectable career on their respective side. Respectable from the beginning until the end.

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I’m telling you all this because my friend Crystal from In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood had the bright idea to host a Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn Blogathon. It’s Halloween soon. So if you need to find an idea for an iconic couple costume, maybe a Tracy-Hepburn match could be an idea? ๐Ÿ˜‰ Anyway, with her blogathon, Crystal doesn’t only celebrate the films they made together, but also the ones they made separately. After all, they all deserve to be reviewed. And that’s why I introduced this article with a few words on Libeled Lady. In this situation, it is the blond Jean Harlow who is Spencer Tracy’s screen partner and they are joined by Myrna Loy and William Powell, whom, we know, always had an amazing on-screen chemistry. Even if Katharine wasn’t in the portrait in this 1936’s film, we can try to understand why she was interested in working with “the best movie actor there was” as she called him. After all, the man had many admirers in the movie business and Katharine Hepburn wasn’t the only one. Among them, we can also include Marlon Brando, Michael Caine, Joan Crawford and more.

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If you like to laugh and love comedies like me, then 1936 is a year for you. In the silent department, we had the delightful Chaplin’s Modern Times,ย but some talking pictures such as My Man Godfrey, Wife vs. Secretary, Cain & Mabel, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and, of course, Libeled Lady made us laugh too. After all, the 30s are the Golden Age of the screwball comedy (which happens to be my favourite movie genre).ย ย  Jack Conway’s film was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (but lost to The Great Ziegfield) which is a proof that, sometimes, the Academy can be interested in comedies and not only in heavy dramas or epic historical pictures.

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Libeled Lady is an opposition between high society and the world of journalism; those journalists who love gossip, but, sometimes, write stuff before thinking and then, have to face the consequences. Warren Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) is the managing editor of the New-York Evening Star newspaper. His wedding day has finally arrived, but he soon has to call his fiancee Gladys Benton (Jean Harlow) and postpone it because his business is in trouble: his journalists have falsely accused the rich Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy) of being a homewrecker. She and her father are suing the newspaper for the modest sum of 5 million dollars… Ouch! Warren decides to hire writer Bill Chandler (William Powell), who used to work for the Star before being fired by Warren himself, to take care of the problem. They develop one of those plans: Bill will get married and then manage to go to London and come back on the same boat as the Allenbury (who happen to be in the British city). His plan is to have a moment alone with Connie so she can be accused “for real” of being a homewrecker and, therefore, drop the case. Warren volunteers his own fiancee to become Bill’s wife, to what she objects firmly, but finally accepts in order to help. Bill does meet Connie on the boat and they do make acquaintance. However, things don’t go as expected.

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During the shooting of Libeled Lady, the four actors became friends. Jean Harlow and William Powell were even engaged. Unfortunately, Jean died prematurely at the age of 26, in 1937, before they had time to get married. Libeled Lady was one of her last films. It is rumoured that Spencer Tracy and Myrna Loy developed an affair during the shooting, but, of course, it is not a couple that would become as memorable as the Tracy-Hepburn one. ๐Ÿ˜‰

If I’m not mistaken, Libeled Lady is the “oldest” Spencer Tracy’s film I saw. I immediately loved it the first time I saw it. I think it’s a movie that I should watch with my mother one of these days because I suspect it is the kind of film she would like. Plus, she’s already a bit familiar with Spencer Tracy, Woman of the Year being one of our typical mother-daughter films. So, while analysing his acting in this film, I realized that what makes Spencer Tracy a great actor is the fact that he makes acting look like something very easy to do. Nothing seems to be forced. He is a natural. We have the tendency to say that actors and actresses in old films were a bit theatrical (especially in silent films as they had to use their whole body to express an idea), but I wouldn’t include Tracy in this category. His acting was simple but effective. There was something very modern about it and I feel he could have defied time and be comfortable making modern 21st-century movies. We can easily call him a timeless actor.

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If Spencer Tracy had a twin, an easy way to recognize him would be with that typical felt hat he often wears on the side of his head. Like this:

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That is sooo him. And in, Libeled Lady, he doesn’t make an exception to this style. That’s how we like him. It is almost like Chaplin and his bowler hat or Buster Keaton and his boater.

If Katharine Hepburn wasn’t Spencer’s love interest in this film, he still forms an interesting couple with Jean Harlow. Of course, the chemistry isn’t as strong as the one he had with Kate, but it remains an interesting pair. I’ve noticed that Spencer Tracy often plays the role of a guy who gets opposed to his lady (Woman of the Year and Adam’s Rib would be good examples), but whom, in the end, truly loves her. Oh yes, we can say that Warren Haggerty doesn’t treat his wife super properly, sort spoiling what is supposed to be the happiest day of her life (her wedding) and involving her in his business problems. We, the public, can simply have compassion for Glady and admire her “patience”. Well, she doesn’t really “behave” patiently, but, in the end, she always accepts to make compromises.

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The only problem with this Tracy-Harlow couple is the fact that they could be a bit overshadowed by Myrna Loy and William Powell. After all, those two formed one of the most appreciated on-screen couples of the 30s especially thanks to The Thin Man. Before I saw this film, I had heard that their chemistry in it was incredible, but I couldn’t believe it could be THAT incredible, but it was. And it still is in Libeled Lady. So, of course, they steal a bit the show… as a couple. If we look at them as separate individuals, they each mark their place brilliantly.

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I love Libeled Lady, not only for its incomparable casting, but also for its comedic side. This one is, of course, embodied by the actors (William Powell is the funniest one in my opinion), but also by a screenplay truffled with hilarious quotes. William Powell saying “C’est un cheval!” (“It is a horse” in French) is perhaps my favourite thing about this film. It’s nothing very extraordinary to say, but I just love his voice tone when he says it. And of course, we have to be put in context:

Connie [worried because Bill doesn’t want to go to her bazar]: Bill, what is it?

Bill [looking at the horse]: What is it? It is a horse. C’est un cheval!

And here are a few of my other favourite quotes:

1- Warren Haggerty: Would I ask you to do this thing for me if I didn’t consider you practically my wife?

Gladys: Would you ask your wife to hook up with that ape?

Bill Chandler: The ape objects.

 

2- Warren Haggerty [about Gladys]: She may be his wife, but she’s engaged to me

3- Gladys: The things I do for that newspaper!

4- Gladys [to the maid] : Today is my wedding day!

Maid: What, again Mrs. Gladys?

5- Warren Haggerty: [introducing Gladys] Mr. Bane, my future wife.

Mr. Bane: Nonsense! I’ll be in my office. Get rid of this woman!

Poor Gladys!

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Libeled Lady can also be praised for its beautiful on-location shooting in the californian wilderness where Bill goes fishing with Connie and her father. This is also where you’ll see one of the most hilarious scenes of the film. They invited Bill to go fishing because he pretends he knows everything about this sport, but really, he doesn’t.

And how dreamy is that little cabin in the middle of the lake where we witness a short, but beautiful scene between Myrna Loy and William Powell.

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If you’re in for a fun time and you haven’t seen Libeled Lady yet, you should definitely put it on your to-see list. After all, Katharine Hepburn did say of it that it was the funniest thing she ever saw. ๐Ÿ˜‰ (Wikipedia)

I want to thank Crystal for hosting this blogathon! Please click on the following link to read the other entries:

The Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn Blogathon

You might have noticed that I hadn’t published any review for a long time. It was good to be back!

See you!

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The Barrymore Brothers Are Having a Dinner At Eight

Thanks to my friend Crystal from In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, The Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon is back for a third consecutive year! This is the occasion for us to celebrate this notorious family of actors who developed its talent on more than one generation.

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My choice for this year’s edition is Dinner At Eight. As this film stars both Lionel and John Barrymore, we can proudly call it a “Barrymore movie”! But don’t be mistaken, however, John and Lionel don’t play brothers in this flick! The choice was also to my advantage, since, last year, I reviewed a movie with Ethel Barrymore (Portrait of Jennie) and the year before, a film with Drew Barrymore (Ever After). So, I was due to do something about John and/or Lionel. So, why not both?! Plus, Lionel Barrymore is my favourite actor in this family and, neither to say, the one I’m the most familiar with.

When I started watching it for the blogathon (only for the second time in my life), I had completely forgotten it was directed by the one and only George Cukor! Well, we do recognize his distinguished signature with a female cast brilliantly composed. We are introduced to the actors in the opening titles a bit in the same way as we are with 42nd Street or Gold Diggers of 1933. I guess that was fashionable in 1933!

Apart from the two Barrymore, Dinner at Eight also stars Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, Billie Burke,ย  Madge Evans, Lee Tracy, Edmund Lowe, Karen Morley, Phillips Holmes,ย Louise Closser Hale, Grant Mitchell, Hilda Vaughn and May Robson. Quite a gang.

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All these actors are all worth mentioning as they all have their respective importance in the film. You see, Dinner at Eight is one of these pictures having for major quality the composition of the characters.

What we see in this film is everything that happens before the famous dinner. Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke) is organizing a dinner for Lord and Lady Ferncliffe that she had met in England with her husband Oliver (Lionel Barrymore). Through the film, we discover the various guesses and their respective personal problems:

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Oliver himself isn’t feeling too well and we discover later that it might be more serious than he thinks.

Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler), a one-time great actress, is now broke and dealing with her downhill. Luckily, a great sense of humor keeps her alive.

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Mr. and Mrs. Jordan’s daughter, Paula (Madge Evans), is ready to put an end to her engagement with Ernest (Phillips Holmes) as she is now in love with the much older actor Larry Renault (John Barrymore).

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On his side, Larry Renault, just like Carlotta Vance, has to struggle with his lack of money and the fact that he is now a washed-up actor. More tragic than Carlotta tho, he finds refuge in alcohol.

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Businessman Dan Packard (Wallace Beery) and his wife Kitty (Jean Harlow) are constantly fighting. Kitty has a maid, Tina (Hilda Vaughn) who is the most patient person ever (and who looks like one of the extra-dancers in Hair by the way).

And Kitty is having an affair with Dr. Wayne Talbot (Edmund Lowe) who is quite lucky to have a wife (Karen Morley), who loves him (despite everything).

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Hattie (Louise Closser Hale) and Ed Loomis (Grant Mitchell) are last minute guesses so we don’t dig much into their life. However, Ed would prefer to be at the movies seeing the last Garbo picture.

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Finally, Millie has to deal with the obvious problems that come with the organization of such a dinner, and her cook, Mrs. Wendel (May Robson), is having trouble with the lion-shape aspic.

I think, with this kind of film, a presentation of the characters was in order. Apart from the fact that the two Barrymore don’t play brothers in this film, they are actually never seen in a scene together. I must admit, I was a bit disappointed by this aspect (because it would have been epic). They play, however, two very different types of characters.

On his side, Lionel is the wise and patient one who tries to see a positive point to life even in a critical situation. On his side, John is the tragical one, whose life became theatrical just like his profession. Both are great in their respective roles. Dinner at Eight confirms us Lionel Barrymore versatility as an actor as his character is quite different (and much more sympathetical) than Henry Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life for example. If I’m not mistaken, this is the earlier film of his I’ve seen. Actually, it would be Free & Easy, but he only has a cameo scene in this one so it doesn’t really count. Lionel Barrymore’s scenes with Marie Dressler are among the best things in this film. We feel an instant chemistry between those two veterans of the silver screen. Carlotta Vance and Oliver Jordan redefine the meaning of deep friendship. We also witness a very touching scene between him and Billie Burke toward the end of the film. Moral of the story: love is sometimes stronger than anything else.

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I’m less familiar with John Barrymore, having seen only two of his films, but I’ve noticed how he has such a strong on-screen presence. In a scene, he is the center of attention and he doesn’t need to do much to be so. Simply by standing there, he emits an incredible charisma. And that profile! I think we all agree, it’s one of the most famous profiles of cinema history. Of course, we never lose an occasion of seeing it. Just before his first scene, Billie Burke is talking about him withย  Louise Closser Hale and this one praises hisย  “most heavenly profile” and then, the next shot is one of him standing in a hotel room, his iconic profile to the camera. What is fascinating about John Barrymore in this film is to see the evolution of his character and how he chooses to act according to it. His performance is more and more intense as the film evolves. Remember this scene when he looks at himself in the mirror after his agent told us that his career is over? Mirror scenes are often a symbol of existential questions such as “what will become of me?” in movies.

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There’s no need to say that 1933 was a strong year in cinema with movies such as this one, but also Gold Diggers of 1933, 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Little Women or The Private Life of Henry VIII. Movies of the 30s had a sort of class that could never be topped and Dinner at Eight is one of the best examples. I love all the fancy high society set of the whole thing with dreamy designs and costumes to die for. I bet you won’t be surprised if I tell you that these were designed by Adrian! I think the most impressive gowns are Jean Harlow’s ones. By the way, her character in this film kind of makes me think of me for the reason that staying in bed all day while eating chocolate is totally my style (I’m lazy). But back to Adrian. What I love about his costumes, is how light they seem to be. He also manages to keep it simple, but yet, immensely divine. And boy! I have a friend whose favourite colour is white. That may seem weird, but when I see Adrian’s costumes that glorify this colour, I completely understand why!

The script of this film is interesting. It was based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. However, screenwriters Frances Marion and Herman J. Mankiewicz, and director George Cuckor managed to give it a cinematographic dimension by making it dynamic enough for a movie. I like how the scenes alternate telling us what’s becoming of each character. As a matter of fact, except at the end, we rarely see a scene with more than three characters or so. The film also contains some memorable lines such as:

1 -Kitty: [Final lines] I was reading a book the other day.

Carlotta: [Nearly trips] Reading a book?

2- Miss Copeland: You were wonderful!

Carlotta Vance: Yes, that was the last thing I did.

Miss Copeland: I remember it as plain as if it were yesterday.

Carlotta Vance: Hmm.

Miss Copeland: Though I was only a little girl at the time.

Carlotta Vance: How extraordinary!

Miss Copeland: Oh, it’s wonderful, seeing you like this.

Carlotta Vance: Yes, it ’tis. You know, we must have a long talk about the Civil War sometime. Just you and I. (Poor Mrs. Vance!)

3-Dan Packard: Remember what I told you last week?

Kitty Packard: I don’t remember what you told me a minute ago.

4- Larry Renault: Listen to me old-timer. I’m drunk, and I know I’m drunk but I know what I’m talking about.

5- Hattie Loomis: [responding to Millicent Jordans’ upset about a dinner guest cancelling] I never could understand why it has to be just even, male and female. They’re invited for dinner, not for mating.

6- Carlotta Vance: Remember? They named everything after me: cigars, racehorses, perfumes, battleships!

7- Dan Packard: That’s no elevator. That’s a birdcage!

8- Hattie Loomis: Ed hates anything that keeps him from going to the movies every night. I guess I’m what’s called a Garbo widow.

9-Dr. Wayne Talbot: Oh, she’s not really sick, you know, woman with a lot of time on her hands, I prescribed a sedative, but she doesn’t really need anything.

Mrs. Lucy Talbot: How about an apple a day?

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These are just a few examples. Of course, there’s all the fuss about the famous aspic too. Delightful.

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So, Dinner at Eight is one hell of an intriguing film, and if you like the Barrymore, I highly recommend you to see it (the rest of the cast is pretty swell too!).

Last August 15, we celebrated Ethel Barrymore’s birthday, so I’m wishing her a very happy heavenly birthday one more time! ๐Ÿ™‚ The Barrymore are legendary. Respect.

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A big thanks to Crystal for hosting this blogathon again!

Don’t forget to read the other entries of course. ๐Ÿ™‚

The Third Annual Barrymore Blogathon.

See you!

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