The Front Page
The opening credits of Libeled Lady are not your typical list of screen names, instead we get footage of the four main stars walking arm in arm very happily as their names come on screen one by one. Four heavyweights in roles which play to their strengths, giving some of the best dialogue the screwball comedy has to offer. Libeled Lady is my favourite newspaper comedy, a world in which journalistic ethics are nonexistent and people struggle to make relationships and careers in journalism mix. Warren Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) is so preoccupied with his job as the managing editor of a paper he has missed his own wedding several times, so no surprise Jean Harlow gives a very comically angry performance throughout most of the film.
William Powell’s Bill Chandler has such cool and confidence, he even draws his own contract which will bring him back to the paper he was sacked from as he knows Warren Haggerty will come looking for him following a scandal. Powell gets the chance to show the full range of his comic abilities, not only as a master of words but also gets showcase slapstick comedy similar in vain to Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin during the film’s fishing scene. The subplot of Bill Chandler learning to fish would be the basis of Howard Hawk’s comedy Mans’ Favorite Sport?. Despite how incredibly fast he picks up the ability to fish like an expert it doesn’t feel contrived.
A portion of the story is spent trying to find William Powell with telephone, telegraph, and radio as their means of communication. Outdated aspects like in old movies always intrigues me and makes me ponder if stories like this could be told today. With the internet and other modern communication devices, they could have been able to recall those newspapers at the start of the film. Likewise, publications today are no less obsessed with covering the escapades of socialites and people famous for being famous; but Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy) is not a typical socialite. She is down to Earth, has an image distorted by the media and can even outwit the paper. It’s appropriate this role would be played by Myrna Loy; the so-called only good girl in Hollywood.
Serving the Nuts
I believe every great actor should have at least one movie in which they get to go completely over the top and out of character (Barrymore in Twentieth Century, Leslie Howard in Its Love I’m After, Bogart in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Stewart in Vertigo). For William Powell, Love Crazy provided him with his opportunity in easily the most slapstick oriented comedy ether Powell or Myrna Loy ever done; from heads being stuck in elevator doors to characters slipping on the same rug several times throughout the film. It’s not John Barrymore levels of over the top but compared to William Powell’s usual soft-spoken persona it’s pretty over the top.
Love Crazy is the William Powell show all the way, showcasing the complete range of his abilities as a comedic actor in a plot which is like a tabloid newspaper story turned into a screwball comedy; a jokey representation of mental illness which wouldn’t be politically correct by today’s standards. All the more fun then! One of the scenes from any film Powell has appeared which I feel best demonstrates his comedic timing is when he is tasked with convincing a lunacy commission of his sanity by placing shaped blocks into their corresponding holes. It’s such a basic task yet with his overzealous confidence he still manages to convincingly screw it up; it works on so many levels. Yet as the film progresses, I end up feeling particularly sorry for his character due to losing a wife like Myrna Loy and having her despise you, all over one improbable misunderstanding.
But not to undo Myrna Loy with her stand out moment being a surprisingly erotic scene with Jack Carson in which both of them are bare-shouldered and she even utters the line, “It will smell like an orgy”. On top of that, I find myself in awe that there is a straight up dick joke in this movie (“He has to have his torso free when he shoots his bow and arrow”). Of all the sneaky jokes they got past the censors I’ve heard in screwball comedies, this is one of the most unsubtle. Likewise, Gail Patrick who plays Powell’s former girlfriend appears to be a bit of a nymphomaniac; badly wanting him shortly after meeting for the first time in years despite both of them now being married, not to mention it’s his anniversary night! Just listen as the seductively tells Powell “Stevie I’m bored!”. There’s quite a bit of setting up in Love Crazy but the payoffs are worth it. Love Crazy also gets a big boost from the apartment sets designed by Cedric Gibbons. The painted backdrops of skyscrapers high in the sky and the art deco shading, it’s beautiful.
I had the benefit of going into Love Crazy unaware of the screwball hijinks which occur during the third act. If it’s not too late for you, I recommend doing the same otherwise stop reading but yes, William Powell dresses up in drag as a tall, butch woman and convincingly at that. He even goes to the length of sacrificing his trademark moustache – now that’s commitment.