Libeled Lady (1936): It’s So Funny When William Powell lies

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In Libeled Lady, William Powell plays Bill Chandler, a guy hired (or, actually, RE-hired) by newspaper editor Warren Haggerty (played by Spencer Tracy) to basically set up heiress Connie Allenbury (played by Myrna Loy) for a big fall, so that they can derail her libel suit against the newspaper. It is Chandler’s job, during a cross-Atlantic cruise, to ingratiate himself with the Allenbury’s, make Connie trust him, and hopefully fall in love with him so that he can then … but the plot is far too Byzantine and ridiculous to describe, and if you haven’t seen it, you really must, and Jean Harlow is involved, and she’s awesome, and what are you waiting for, but the point is:

Chandler (Powell) knows that in order to get to Connie he has to butter up her father first (played by the reliably awesome Walter Connolly). So he does a bit of research and finds out that Mr. Allenbury is a passionate trout-angler. Angling is his main love in life. Chandler crash-studies angling in his stateroom on the ship, and then pulls out all of the trivia and lingo when he meets Allenbury, and keeps trying to draw the conversation to fish. Powell blurts out, randomly, a propos of nothing: “MY favorite sport is fishing.”

Uhm, nobody asked you, bub. The confused glances given to him by Loy and Connolly make the situation even funnier.

It is so much fun to watch William Powell lie. And make things up. I could watch it all day. It borders on the absurd (borders?), and as he gets deeper into his lies (his character knows NOTHING about fishing), the more he continues to insist that he knows what he is talking about.

Naturally, this gets him into all sorts of trouble, the kind of “actor’s nightmare” well-known to creative people everywhere: the nightmare of suddenly being onstage, in the middle of a production, and you are the lead, and you have never had a rehearsal, do not know the lines, the blocking, you know NOTHING.

In Libeled Lady, this is what happens to William Powell.

Because once you tell an ardent fisherman, “I live to angle. As a matter of fact, I have fished for trout at Lake Taupo” (and you say this because you KNOW it will impress, even though you are not sure why, but the book you read seemed to think it was important, and you know that that will mean your angling listener will take you seriously) – you can’t go back. You can’t then soft-pedal it and say, “Oops, my bad, I don’t really love fishing”, or … “You must have misunderstood me. I actually have never held a fishing pole in my life.”

And that is where William Powell is so funny: when he is in a situation where there is finally no return (I just watched Love Crazy – my review here – and that movie is all about the point-of-no-return, poor guy). Powell is so funny when the screws are tightening and when he, a dignified gentleman, or someone who wants to be thought of that way, is put in the position of looking like a fool.

For example, the clip below. Mr. Allenbury, thrilled to finally meet someone who is as passionate a fisherman as he is, invites Mr. Chandler to come on a fishing outing. The book Powell is reading? “Trout Fishing For Beginners.”


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4 Responses to Libeled Lady (1936): It’s So Funny When William Powell lies

  1. george says:

    A wonderfully funny movie.

    Gladys (Jean Harlow): I don’t care who he is. Nobody talks to me like a house detective.
    Haggerty (Spencer Tracy): How do you know how a house detective talks?
    Gladys (Jean Harlow): Don’t you think I read?

    For some reason, every time I see that scene, I’m motivated to believe her – seriously.

  2. red says:

    She is so funny in this movie. Poor thing – just bossed around by everyone – no wonder she falls in love with Powell. I love when she calls the office and leaves a message “to apologize for something I said earlier that you may have misunderstood” – and Tracy overhears this – like: what the hell is going on between those two??

  3. red says:

    Also – that floating boathouse is like something out of a dream – it just looks like HEAVEN to me.

    So you swim out there, lounge around on the comfy couches, have a cocktail from the full bar, smoke, make out with your boyfriend, and then swim back to shore? All in the moonlight?

    Sounds like a perfect night to me.

  4. george says:

    That boathouse, no use hoping you’ll come across an heiress with one. Every guy ought to have his own – really; scrimp, save, cut back on the liquor and cigars but get yourself a boathouse.

    And do as I say, not as I’ve failed to do.

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