Twice the laughs: Libeled Lady (1936) and Easy to Wed (1946)
This is one of two entries I'll be writing up for the fun They Remade What?! Blogathon, which looks at that popular Hollywood activity of remaking its own films. You can check out my other post tomorrow and here's the complete roster.
What's the Story, Morning Glory?
Warren Haggerty (Spencer Tracy, Keenan Wynn) is a newspaperman who is much more dedicated to his job than his gorgeous fiancee, Gladys (Jean Harlow, Lucille Ball) -- he's bailed on their wedding day more times than you can count, but that's not really much of a concern for Warren when his newspaper accidentally runs a story that heiress Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy, Esther Williams) is a husband stealer, causing Connie's father (Walter Connolly, Cecil Kellaway) to sue the paper for millions. Warren turns to Bill Chandler (William Powell, Van Johnson), a kind of Mr. Fix-It whose employment comes from turning false stories like Connie's into true ones. Ms. Allenbury is accused of breaking up a marriage? Alright, let's have her break up Bill's!
Except he's not married...but there is one dame who has been dying to get hitched... Gladys is furious that Warren would let her marry another man for the sake of his precious newspaper, but she reluctantly gives in. Now married, Bill sets about seducing Connie, only to find himself completely charmed by the Allenburys. He and Connie fall in love, putting a halt to his plans, but not his charades. Bill gently seduces Gladys to get her on his side, exasperating Warren who just wants to get the suit dropped. It all comes down to one doozy of a ending that has everyone clamoring over everyone else.
The Cast of Characters.
Here's where things get tricky. I don't want to play the comparison game here, but I do want to extol the virtues of each main player and what they bring to their specific film. Libeled Lady and Easy to Wed are very much ensemble pieces, meaning they wouldn't work nearly as well as they do if it weren't for the chemistry between its four stars.
What also differentiates Tracy and Wynn is their interaction with Gladys. With Tracy, you can understand why Harlow keeps hanging on. He's clever and he can be pretty adorable. Their scenes have a definite little crackle to them. Now, Wynn and Ball had that as well when they played lovebirds in the Tracy-Hepburn vehicle Without Love, but Wynn was also playing a more enjoyable guy. With the way Wynn plays Warren, he's kind of mean to Gladys, making it hard to see why she's stuck with him.
Maybe it's because the incredible Jean Harlow plays her, but Libeled Lady demonstrates how smart and sweet Gladys is. Yes, she buys Bill's bullshit, but you know it's because he's giving her the attention she deserves so in turn she develops faith in him. The fact that that faith is found out to be betrayed justifies Gladys's outburst at the end of the film when she refuses to divorce Bill because everyone but her would get a happy ending, and she's certainly worthy of her own happy ending.
She outmaneuvers Bill's every move while they're on the boat trip to New York, only cracking her cool facade when Bill accuses her of being "fragile" for suing the paper over a silly false story. She slaps him, which I'll admit seems harsh, but considering that she's being accused of doing something deemed unsavory just because of the newspaper's long prejudice against her father, it's not wholly uncalled for. We learn Connie's been burned before, so it's natural that she should be weary of this random man who has managed to wiggle his way into her life fairly quickly.
But once she thinks he's a good egg, you couldn't ask for a more warm and engaging person to be around. It helps that two of the most charming actresses put on screen were chosen to depict this. When Williams plays marbles with Johnson and Loy takes Powell for a moonlit swim, you want to join the fun too. At the end when Bill comes clean to Connie about everything, an interesting narrative choice is made to not show it. We don't see him confess, nor when he does -- was it before or after they were married?
Now for the best character: Bill Chandler. Let me start by saying this -- I love Van Johnson, and he does a fantastic job opposite Williams and Ball. (He co-starred with Esther four times, and he did one of my favorite episodes of I Love Lucy as himself in the fourth season. I highly recommend checking out all of this.
However, Bill Chandler could not be more perfectly embodied than he is with William Powell. Powell was truly a magnificent actor, a comedic force who could blow everyone off the screen except he meshed so well with whoever he worked with. He does so many
And then there's the off-the-charts sparks between Powell and Loy and Powell and Harlow. Of course, he and Harlow were an item during this time, so it's a no-brainer that they would have chemistry. I love that their characters bicker at first, providing one of my all-time favorite film moments when Gladys and Bill's lovey-dovey act in front of hotel employees stops the second they're alone, affording Gladys the chance to bite Bill's hand. The howl Powell does is just the best.
My Favorite Scene.
The scene I adore the most from both films is when Bill tries to convince Connie to drop her lawsuit. He's still doing his job, but he's fallen for Connie so now he is going about it in a more humane way. In Libeled Lady, the scene begins with the couple going to see Connie's horse. Bill's hands are full, so he has to eat his hamburger out of her hand, a clever reversal of Bill feeding the horse. Powell and Loy give each other such an adorable look at the start of this, it just warms my heart. Anyway, Connie is trying to figure out why Bill avoids going out in public with her, saying "Come on, what is it?" "What is it? [points to horse] It's a horse. C'est un cheval..."
Kidding aside, he blames it on her lawsuit. If they were seen together, it would put more attention on Connie and might make things worse. Realizing Bill really does care for her, Connie is touched... but she's not so sure she'll drop the suit. Bill will just have to come to her public charity fundraiser to find out her answer. This sequence exemplifies the Powell-Loy team to a T: witty, sweet, humorous, and refreshing to even modern eyes. They honestly could do no wrong.
Thrill of a Romance, Johnson wasn't the best swimmer and had to be helped by Williams whenever they had to swim together. I think Easy to Wed is poking fun at this by keeping Johnson on the raft, his character getting made fun of by Williams for not joining her. They talk about everything I already said above, except it's more playful as Connie is trying to discreetly deflate the raft with her toe while they chat. She succeeds of course, and they smooch under the water. It's cute. You can see this scene here, which begins with some of Ball's drunk scene and then gives you what I'm talking about at 1:29.
The Musical Numbers.
Libeled Lady is definitely not a musical, but Easy to Wed sure is. It was actually the first film that Esther Williams would sing in, an eventuality that the star had been preparing for since she first got to MGM. (Studios groomed all of their actors, giving them lessons in acting, singing, and dancing until they hit the big time and their niche was found.) Although Esther had been training with Harriet Lee, the MGM voice coach, she wasn't expecting her foray into singing to be all in Portuguese.
As always, Esther pulled through and the song, "Acercate Más" ("Come Closer to Me"), is one of the clear highlights of the film. Wearing one of my favorite movie costumes ever, Esther's Connie openly flirts with Van's Bill as she sings and wiggles her hips. Slowly enticed into dancing with her, Bill realizes he's in real trouble -- Connie Allenbury will not be another fling. Unfortunately, this scene isn't on the Tube of You or TCM's website.
The second and last song Ms. Williams does is "Boneca de Pixe," a big production number that is in the grand tradition of MGM. Interestingly enough, this may be the only big musical routine Esther ever did -- sure, she would do huge swimming numbers, but singing interludes were much rarer for the mermaid and almost always pared down to their simplest form (see: Neptune's Daughter). Dressed in their Latin-themed refinery, Williams and Johnson sing in Portuguese while dozens of extras perform behind them.
On the enormous stage, they join organist Ethel Smith, who had a very small role in Esther's star-making 1944 film Bathing Beauty. I'm not going to lie, I don't really get Smith's appeal, but apparently she was popular enough to make it into at least two big-budget Hollywood films. You can watch "Boneca de Pixe" here. Fun fact: Smith was Ralph Bellamy's third wife. They were married from 1945 to 1947.
Hopefully by now you can see that it's quite silly to compare Libeled Lady and Easy to Wed (something about apples and oranges comes to mind). Both are worth your time, and if you happen to enjoy one over the other, that's your deal. There's always room in the film lover's heart for new favorites. Just remember to accept these movies on their own terms, don't try to place one's limitations, expectations, or depictions on the other. That's the end of my public service announcement. Enjoy these screenshots -- there's a lot of them!