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.

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Let me get this out of the way: Libeled Lady is without a doubt one of the most quintessential films ever made. It has a stellar cast, a script so clever you can't believe it, fast-paced direction, and plenty of other adjectives. It's simply a wonderful comedy, a movie that we will sadly never see the likes of again. So, why did MGM deign to try and repeat Libeled Lady's magic? Well, money, of course. But also because Hollywood doesn't really seem to care whether or not they're taking a favorite of yours and messing with it any which way they can. And that's why people appear to hate remakes as much as they do -- it feels like a personal affront. "What?! You're screwing up such-and-such?! How dare you!" I've been guilty of that a few times, but sometimes a remake will excite me. It's a chance to see a story you already like done differently, and if it's with a cast of
people you enjoy, all the better. A remake doesn't damage the original; it's just a variance. With or without Easy to Wed, we would still have Libeled Lady, so I can't complain. Plus, Easy to Wed stars Esther Williams, so I really won't complain. I just don't feel a need to put down one film in order to boost the other. Although they obviously share the same story, characters, and even sometimes dialogue, I look at Easy to Wed and Libeled Lady as two separate films because that's what they are. Two individually enjoyable films. And that's my plan for this post -- to show you the greatness of both of them. Will there be comparisons made? Sure, but they will not be in service of something malicious. You will never hear me say "Keenan Wynn's portrayal can't hold a candle to Spencer Tracy's!" Remember: two separate films, two separate performers. They all bring something different, thus creating something different. Anyway, enough of my preaching. Time for the good stuff.

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.

Let's start with Warren. He's really not the nicest guy -- he clearly wants to avoid commitment, so why he keeps stringing Gladys along is beyond me. He places the newspaper above everything throughout the whole movie, even to the very end. There's no change in Warren: he doesn't evolve or soften or learn a lesson. Now, none of this struck me when I watched Spencer Tracy play him. It goes without saying that Tracy does a superb job, adding great comedic timing and phrasing that elevates the material he's given. (Sorry, but in comparison to Bill Chandler, the role of Warren isn't quite as juicy.) And then there's Keenan Wynn. His Warren is actually a worse person than Tracy's, thanks to Dorothy Kingsley's revised script. Whereas in the original Gladys and Bill are aware that they really are getting married, in the 1946 version Warren lies that he'll make sure the preacher doesn't sign the certificate, which is the whole reason why Gladys agrees to go through with it.

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.

 Out of all the characters, Gladys is easily the most showy. She gets to be outraged, heartbroken, and deliriously happy, all while the men in her life manipulate her. She has more shades of fury than you can fathom, and when she lets loose her venom, you're so glad you're not on the receiving end. But Gladys is also vulnerable, a trait that gets preyed on by Warren and Bill. She wants to be a wife, but more than that, she wants to know that she's loved. Despite how Warren treats her, she remains loyal to him because she loves him -- she's willing to
give him everything, which Warren only appreciates when he can use it for his own advantage. 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. Easy to Wed does the same thing, but only to a certain degree. It lets Gladys become more of an airhead, or as Esther Williams said in her autobiography, a "trashy redhead." The second time we see her, she's doing her nightclub act where she does unsubtle pelvic thrusts in a somewhat skimpy outfit. Later she asks how to spell Schenectady, and she pronounces "subtle" incorrectly. Watching Lucille Ball play her, you can see the beginnings of her Lucy Ricardo persona, particularly when Bill gets her
drunk and when he's trying to learn about duck hunting to fool the Allenburys. She'll change her voice to say certain words, or her big blue eyes will go crazy, or she'll move her body around a specific way and you'll go "Whoa, it's Lucy!" Ball considered Easy to Wed one of her better films, especially since it gave her such a good role. She expected more good things after the wonderful notices she got, but it didn't really happen, causing her to take destiny into her own hands. She created the radio show My Favorite Husband, which would then evolve into I Love Lucy. I think we owe Easy to Wed a little bit of credit for Lucy. Did I mention how fabulous Gladys's clothes get to be? No? Well, here are some screenshots to prove it to you:









Our other female protagonist is the sure and steady Connie. What I like about this character is that she isn't exactly what you expect. When Bill sets out to trick her by beginning with a "heroic" act of punching out a paparazzo he paid to get too rough with Connie, he assumes her gratitude will be so overwhelming that she will throw herself at his feet. While he does get an invitation to dinner, Connie and her father largely ignore him and humorously keep calling him Mr. Chalmers. When he cons his way into spending the rest of the evening with
 them, Connie is wise enough to realize he's after something, although she thinks it's her money. 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? Because of this, we also don't see Connie's reaction. Was she upset, or did she suspect it? We'll never know, but when we meet back up with the couple, there isn't a trace of resentment or anger. Instead of doing the usual "I can't believe you, this is the worst thing ever," Connie seems to have accepted it, and I gotta give her props for it.

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. Ball and husband Desi Arnaz were actually the ones who got a talent scout to check out Johnson before he returned to the New York stage, discouraged after an unsuccessful start in Hollywood. Thanks, Lucy and Desi!) The part of Bill
fits him like a glove, allowing him to be a romantic heartthrob and a smooth liar, things that Johnson excelled at in the movies. 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 little things, it really brings to life this character. 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.

 
In Easy to Wed, it's slightly different. Because this is an Esther Williams movie, a swimming scene was obviously a must. They try to do it as organically as possible, having Connie dive into her pool while Bill stays nice and dry on a little raft. As I mentioned in my review of 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/depictions on the other. That's the end of my public service announcement. Enjoy these screenshots -- there's a lot of them!











"He's an old friend of the family... very old friend."

And the charade for the hotel employees begins...


Connie's introduction to Bill... yeah, it's a little random.























 








No, Jean Harlow isn't being tortured. This is actually a beauty treatment.

"My, Grandma, what big muscles you have!" "All the better to sock you with, Grandpa!"







"This is love, not alcohol."









With love,
Michaela

Comments

  1. This is a beautifully written post and I love all the screenshots! I agree with your "preaching" at the beginning. I haven't seen "Easy to Wed" but plan on watching it the next time TCM shows it!

    One part of "Libeled Lady" I really liked was how Connie appears to accept Bill's explanation at the end. It's refreshing since most films always show the woman getting mad at the man and never giving him a chance to explain and then feeling foolish when they discover the truth.

    Thanks so much for participating! Looking forward to your second post!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I hope you enjoy Easy to Wed! It's great fun and deserves a better reputation. I enjoy the ending as well, where Connie doesn't freak out over Bill's indiscretions. So refreshing!

      Can't wait to share my next post! Thanks for hosting, and reading!

      Delete
  2. I've never seen Easy to Wed, but you've convinced me to give it a go. I adore Libelled Lady, and am looking forward to the remake.

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    Replies
    1. Good, I hope you like it! Libeled Lady could never be duplicated, but Easy to Wed is still a good one.

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  3. I'm not a big fan of re-makes in general, but this is one ( or is that two? ) that I enjoy very very much. The glossy re-make is so much fun and Lucy steals the movie ( as does Harlow ). In fact, I can see this movie being re-made in THIS day and age. Oh yeah. George Clooney, Charlize Theron...I got ideas! Enjoyed your write-up.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I like those ideas! It's curious that Hollywood hasn't tried to scoop up some of the oldies and remake them. Of course, I think they're too focused on blockbusters, but a good old-fashioned comedy never hurt anyone.

      I read your post on these two films not too long ago and you really hit the nail on the head! I had to keep telling myself to try and not repeat what you said, so I hope I was successful. Thanks for stopping by!

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    2. Maybe when they run out of superheros... haha

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  4. I lean toward "Libeled Lady", but when MGM decided to remake it they did not stint on the talent and that makes "Easy to Wed" easy to like. You didn't stint either on this excellent, informative and enthusiastic article.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, thank you! To be honest, I lean towards Libeled Lady too, but Easy to Wed isn't exactly a slouch. MGM clearly wanted to do a remake right.

      Delete
  5. A great job, as always. I really enjoyed Libeled Lady, and my favorite scene is when Bill and Myrna are fishing! I have not seen Easy to Wed, but I saw the Boneca de Pixe routine this past week, it's so cute!
    And I agree with you that Tracy makes his character very likable, despite always calling off with Jean.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Kisses!
    Le
    http://www.criticaretro.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks so much! Tracy was quite the guy -- his comedic skills were so good. Boneca de Pixe is pretty cute. I blame the ridiculous charm of Esther and Van. :)

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  6. I love Libeled Lady, but haven't seen this remake - however, you make it sound well worth a look so I will hope to do so. Enjoyed reading this!

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    Replies
    1. Thank you! Easy to Wed definitely has its own merits besides being a remake of a great comedy -- I think you'll enjoy it.

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    2. Michaela, just wanted to let you know that I'm co-hosting a blogathon for Sinatra's centennial - if you wanted to take part we'd love to have you. :)

      https://movieclassics.wordpress.com/2015/10/14/sinatra-centennial-blogathon/

      Delete
    3. Oh, fantastic! I'll check this out asap!

      Delete

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