Four Star Fun: LIBELED LADY (MGM 1936)

Jean Harlow ! Spencer Tracy ! William Powell ! Myrna Loy ! Four top stars at the top of their game shining bright in LIBELED LADY, a screwball comedy directed by Jack Conway with that trademark MGM gloss. Despite the zany improbability of the script by Maurine Watkins, Howard Emmett Rogers, and George Oppenheimer, the crackling, witty dialog gives all four stars (and supporting actor Walter Connolly) plenty of good material.

Here’s the plot: rich heiress Connie Allenbury (Loy) is suing the New York Evening Star for printing a story about her being a husband stealer. Her price: five million! Editor Warren Haggerty (Tracy), after once again blowing off his nuptials to long-time flame Gladys Benton (Harlow), recruits ex-reporter and frenemy Bill Chandler (Powell) in a crazy scheme involving marrying him off to Gladys (and is she pissed!), hop an ocean liner to London, and return with Connie, using his “charms” to set her up on an alienation of affections rap. Bill angles his way in with the Allenburys by pretending to be a fishing expert (even though he’s no outdoorsman) and getting in Dad Allenbury’s (Connolly) good graces. Things go haywire from there as Bill and Connie fall for each other for real, then Gladys falls for Bill for real, and Warren tries to straighten the whole mess out without losing his newspaper!

Powell and Loy were riding high at the time due to the success of THE THIN MAN, and MGM wanted to keep them in the spotlight. The pair are always a joy to watch working together, and seeing the dandy Powell try to master trout fishing is a comic highlight. Powell also works well with Harlow, whom he was dating at the time, and she’s great in her role as the pawn in boyfriend Tracy’s plan. Tracy gets to show off his comedy chops too, and more than holds his own. A great bit comes when Tracy, after learning Powell and Loy have gotten hitched, tells them Harlow is wife #1, to which Jean replies “That’s arson!”.

Director Conway was a jack-of-all-genres, making everything from comedies to drama to actioners to Tarzan flicks with equal aplomb. Among his many credits are THE UNHOLY THREE , RED HEADED WOMAN, VIVA VILLA!, A TALE OF TWO CITIES, BOOM TOWN, THE HUCKSTERS, and DESIRE ME. Familiar Faces abound, including Billy Benedict (as Tracy’s office boy), E.E. Clive, George Chandler, Charley Grapewin, Selmer Jackson, Hattie McDaniel, and Cora Witherspoon. LIBELED LADY was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, but lost to another Powell/Loy vehicle, THE GREAT ZIEGFELD. It’s fast and funny and the kind of movie they don’t make anymore, but should. Then again, who could possibly fill the shoes of Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy, William Powell, and Myrna Loy?

That Old, Familiar Song: MANHATTAN MELODRAMA (MGM 1934)

The plot of MANHATTAN MELODRAMA will certainly be familiar to movie lovers: there’s two kids, one rambunctious, the other studious. Rambunctious grows up to be on the shady side of the law, while Studious represents law’n’order. There’s Girl in the Middle, who loves Rambunctious but always winds up with Studious. Rambunctious perpetuates some evil deed, and Studious must now bring his old pal to justice. Girl in the Middle is torn between the two. In the end, justice prevails, and Rambunctious pays for his crimes, but not before making peace with Studious.

Sound familiar? Sure it does, having been rehashed umpteen times in countless westerns, gangster sagas, wartime dramas, and other genres. But MANHATTAN MELODRAMA was the first, even winning an Oscar for Arthur Caesar’s Best Original Story. Too bad Caesar didn’t copyright the idea; he’d have been a very rich man! The film also has that MGM shine going for it, with a stellar cast toplined by Clark Gable , William Powell , and Myrna Loy as Rambunctious, Studious, and Girl in the Middle, respectively. This was the first teaming of Powell and Loy, by the way, the beginning of a beautiful screen relationship that saw them paired in six THIN MAN movies and seven others.

Gable, Loy, & Powell

Gable’s quite the charmer as “rambunctious” Blackie Gallagher, the gangland gambler who’s never played by anyone’s rules but his own. He’s a likeable hoodlum, even though he’s also a stone-cold killer who commits murder not once, but twice during the course of the film. Powell’s “studious” Jim Wade is likeable, too… after all, how can you not like William Powell? He gets to strut his stuff in the courtroom scene that sends Blackie to the electric chair, getting himself elected governor in the process. Myrna Loy as socialite Eleanor Packer is simply divine, as always, and it’s not hard to see what attracts both men to her. The film runs along smoothly, but bogged down towards the end for me when the “melodrama” part kicked in and things got a little too sudsy. Still, I thought it was a great entry in the 30’s gangster cycle.

Nat Pendleton, Muriel Evans, & Isabel Jewell

I also loved the supporting cast, with Nat Pendleton as Blackie’s dimwitted right-hand man Spud and Isabel Jewell as his ditzy girlfriend Annabelle. Leo Carrillo plays Father Joe, who saved the two boys from drowning so they could grow up to be Gable and Powell. Speaking of which, young Mickey Rooney got a big break here playing young Blackie in the early scenes; not long after this picture, he became one of MGM’s top stars. And there are loads of Familiar Faces popping up in smaller roles: Oscar Apfel, Stanley Blystone, Muriel Evans, Donald Haines, Samuel S. Hinds , Leonid Kinskey , Noel Madison, Sam McDaniel, and Edward Van Sloan among them.

Powell says goodbye to old pal Gable

MANHATTAN MELODRAMA is historic on several other levels beside the plot and the first Powell/Loy teaming. It’s the only film to costar Gable and Powell, both of whom were married at one point to Carole Lombard. A scene set in The Cotton Club features Shirley Ross singing a Rogers & Hart composition “The Bad in Every Man”; after the film was released, Hart rewrote the lyrics and the song became the standard “Blue Moon”. And of course, the movie has become a part of American folk-lore as the film Public Enemy #1 John Dillinger watched before he was gunned down by the FBI outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater on 7/22/34. I wonder if he liked the film as much as I did?

“Other than that, Mr. Dillinger, how did you enjoy the movie?”

Navy Blue & Gold: MISTER ROBERTS (Warner Brothers 1955)

I grew up a “Navy brat”, often accompanying my dad to bases in Newport, RI. and Bethesda, MD. I’d hang out at the Enlisted Men’s Club he ran, watching Bugs Bunny and Road Runner cartoons with the sailors while dad did the books. I remember going aboard ship plenty of times, and saw one of my first movies with the crew on Family Night (the Cary Grant/Doris Day flick THAT TOUCH OF MINK). So naturally, I have a soft spot for nautical tales, and one of my favorites has always been MISTER ROBERTS.

The film marked Henry Fonda’s return to the screen after an eight year absence. Fonda had starred in the original Broadway production to great acclaim, and his performance is imbued with his own experiences during WWII. Douglas Roberts is a lieutenant (j.g.) assigned to the cargo ship Reluctant in the South Pacific, run by the vain, tyrannical Captain Morton (James Cagney ). The crew loves Roberts, who always sticks up for them against the martinet Morton. But Roberts longs to see combat, and despite his weekly letters asking for a transfer, he’s always shot down by Morton, who needs Roberts’s expertise to further his own career.

Roberts’s best friends are Doc (William Powell), a wise old soul whom he confides in, and Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon), a callow braggart who looks up to Roberts (but is scared to death of Captain Morton!). The men of the Reluctant haven’t had liberty in a long while, and tensions are rising. Roberts bribes an old pal with a bottle of Scotch to get them to a port where they can blow off steam, but Morton, learning of the ruse, refuses to let them go ashore.. that is, unless Roberts agrees to stop writing his letters and carrying out his orders to a tee. Roberts, knowing how much it means to the men, accedes to the captain’s wishes, with orders not to tell the crew about their little bargain.

Having sown some wild oats on the island (and getting the Reluctant thrown out of port in the process!), the men notice a change in Roberts’ attitude, and peg him as just another officer bucking for promotion. They begin to give him the cold shoulder, until a radio broadcast announces the war in Europe has ended. Roberts finds a way to celebrate by tossing the Captain’s beloved palm tree overboard, incurring his wrath, and the two have a heated shouting match, which unbeknownst to both is being broadcast over the loudspeaker. The men realize Roberts is one of them after all, and forge documents to get Mr. Roberts that transfer he’s longed for. After awarding him a handmade “Order of the Palm” for his valor, Roberts finally gets to see combat. Later, a letter sent to Pulver reveals the final fate of Mister Roberts…

Fonda, who won a Tony for the role in 1948, wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar, but Jack Lemmon was, winning for his comic performance as Ensign Pulver. It was Lemmon’s breakthrough role, and he makes the lazy, incompetent Pulver into a likeable character, an all-talk-no-action goofus who redeems himself at film’s end. Cagney, as the villain of the piece, gets to show a bit of his comic side as well… you’ll laugh hysterically when Morton learns his palm tree is gone! Powell, in his last film, balances out things well as the cynical realist Doc.

The rest of the cast includes many Familiar Faces. Young Betsy Palmer (FRIDAY THE 13TH’s Mrs. Voorhees) is quite a hottie as a nurse Pulver tries to put the make on, without success. The crew features actors like Nick Adams , Frank Aletter, Tige Andrews (of TV’s THE MOD SQUAD), Philip Carey , James Flavin, Martin Milner , Gregory Walcott , and John Ford Stock Company players Ward Bond, Danny Borzage, Harry Carey Jr, Ken Curtis, Jack Pennick, and baby-faced Patrick Wayne.

Ford started the film, but a disagreement with Fonda led to an argument in which the volatile director punched his star in the face. The contrite Ford, who’d been friends with Ford since the 1930’s, began to drink heavily on the set, but it was a gall bladder attack that took him off the picture. Veteran Mervyn LeRoy took over, filming close as possible in the Ford style, and Joshua Logan shot some retakes. Just who shot what has long been a basis for speculation among film fans, but we do know Ford was responsible for the casting of Lemmon, and his stock players. Fonda and Ford, who made a total of seven movies together, never spoke to or worked with each other again.

MISTER ROBERTS doesn’t get much acclaim these days, but due to my background I find it a very entertaining film. It’s fairly true to life aboard ship, and the four stars alone make it worth watching for film buffs. Anchors aweigh!

(This post is lovingly dedicated to my father, who served in the Korean War and was deployed during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He passed away at age 39,  just short of making twenty years in service to his country. He was a good ol’ boy from South Carolina, a Navy boxing champion, and loving husband and father. This one’s for you, Dad.) 

R.L. “Rocky” Loggins, Jr. (1930-1969) 

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