Watching two stars as gifted and likeable as Willam Powell and Jean Harlow together is always a treat. Unfortunately, it’s a treat we only got to see twice, as Harlow died terribly young, at 26, and at the height of her career.
While Powell and Myrna Loy made a classic screen couple in no fewer than 14 films together, including six “Thin Man” outings, it was Harlow and Powell that were in love.
Looking Married in “Libeled Lady”
Their second film, “Libeled Lady” (1936), is a beloved screwball comedy, also starring Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy. Directed by studio stalwart Jack Conway, it’s full of the witty repartee and amorous confusion you’d expect. (There’s lots of fishy double-entendres in honor of one character’s love of fly-fishing.) Conway does a fine job, but one wonders what a director who had a particular gift for screwball, Billy Wilder or Howard Hawks, say, might have done with it.
The film both does and doesn’t pair Powell and Harlow. Though they spend the bulk of the plot married to each other, their characters, Bill and Gladys, aren’t meant to be together. The marriage is part of a con attempting to manipulate Myrna Loy’s heiress, Connie, into dropping the libel charges against Spencer Tracy’s newspaper. The newspaper has reported, inaccurately, that Connie is a husband-stealing home-wrecker. As former reporter Bill (Powell) tries to maneuver Connie into a compromising position, however, he falls in love with her. Meanwhile, Harlow is Tracy’s inexplicably long-suffering fiancee, Gladys.
The sham marriage between Gladys and Bill means that when Bill is alone with Connie, Gladys can burst in as the outraged wife, forcing Connie to drop the libel suit. Nobody throws an onscreen tantrum like Harlow, so casting her as Gladys was a smart choice. Nonetheless, it’s a shame she didn’t have the opportunity to play against type.
The relationship between Spencer Tracy’s Warren and Gladys is something of a mystery. Tracy and Harlow work well together, but at the beginning of the film, Warren stands Gladys up, not for the first time, and at the altar. He is continually putting her (and their marriage) off. It’s no wonder she eventually decides she’s in love with Bill, who will actually give her the time of day.
Because it’s a screwball comedy and Bill has to end up with Connie, Gladys is, according to the narrative logic, stuck with Warren. So at the end of the film, Harlow has to pull off making Gladys admit she still loves Warren. And she does it superbly, of course. But it’s bittersweet, given the way life turned out.
A great deal of Jean Harlow’s charm is her ability to be both a “blonde bombshell” and “one of the guys.” While her characters were often home-wrecking vamps, it’s impossible not to like her. As a star, Harlow was reputedly as popular with women as with men. Even Bill succumbs to that charm when he and Gladys are forced to cohabitate. Largely out of pique at Warren, she has acted as though she is disgusted by Bill. (Who could be disgusted by William Powell, though, seriously?) Once Warren is out of the way, she cools off a little, invites Bill to dinner and engages him in conversation—something one imagines would be impossible with Warren. Bill and Gladys have a delightful time together, and I spent a few minutes hoping that the screwball turn of events would be the two of them falling in love, and Warren would end up with Loy’s sensible heiress, who might also improve his behavior.
No such luck.
The First Time Around
It’s a shame, and something of a mystery, that Harlow and Powell’s first film, “Reckless” (1935), isn’t better. It’s got Harlow and Powell, obviously, it was directed by Victor Fleming, it’s got songs by Jerome Kern, and it’s got Rosalind Russell. And yet. Beyond the scenes with Harlow and Powell themselves, the film just never gels the way it should. At least, in “Reckless,” Harlow and Powell are meant to be together.
Harlow plays a Broadway star, Mona, and Powell’s Ned is like the older brother who looks out for her…except that he’s fallen in love with her. May Robson is delightful as Mona’s grandmother. She and Powell have some adorable scenes together.
What’s striking about the film, and about Harlow and Powell in it, is how natural they are together. It makes sense, given the narrative that Ned is an old friend of the family, but they seem genuinely relaxed and comfortable with each other. (So much so, that, in the film, Mona falls asleep before Ned gets to the proposal, the first time around.)
Part of what doesn’t work about the film is that Mona is a singer—and Harlow isn’t. The voice-over’s singing style is so dated, it’s hard to tell whether it really doesn’t suit Mona/Harlow. That’s certainly how it seems. It’s a very “plummy,” upper-crusty sort of singing that doesn’t make any sense with Harlow’s persona.
That unfortunate pairing mars the film’s final scene, which is otherwise extraordinarily sweet. After being falsely accused of murdering her jackass of a husband, played by Franchot Tone, Mona reclaims her career. She’s onstage in her comeback performance and has won over the audience—who were cruelly heckling her—by telling them to stuff it, and “have the decency” to let her finish. As she stands next to the curtain stage left, Ned stands on the off-stage side of the curtain and proposes again. “I think this is as good a time as any. You usually go to sleep when I propose.” The final shot is of them divided by the curtain but holding hands.
It’s a nice way to remember the two of them on film.