DUELING DIVAS: “Libeled Lady” vs. “Easy to Wed”

This post is in conjunction with the 4th annual Dueling Divas Blogathon hosted by BACKLOTS, and I want to thank you Backlots for letting this “new blog on the block” participate.

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I’m entering a blogathon under my own steam this time around, having debuted my new blog CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch a week ago. The divas I present for this duel will be a little unusual because instead of it being two people, I’d like to present two classic M-G-M films: “Libeled Lady” ( 1936 ) and “Easy to Wed” ( 1946 ). Both films are perfectly cast with a quartet ( make that, octet ) of some of the brightest stars M-G-M has to offer.

I’d like to pit these two in a head-to-head duel, perhaps not as sworn enemies, but as friendly rivals with the buffer of ten years between them. There are differences between the remakes to be sure. I’ll compare and contrast the two. In this duel, no one gets hurt and everybody wins.

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“LIBELED LADY” ( directed by Jack Conway )

Connie Allenbury brings a $5 million dollar lawsuit for libel against a newspaper. An editor and head reporter conspire to put her in a compromising position so she will drop that lawsuit. The best laid plans…

LIBELED LADY ( III )

This is what I call, my “Martini” of a movie. It sparkles, fizzes, tickles and crackles. Its lines are a little cleaner. It’s an 8 x 10 glossy of a film with these points:

* The glorious shimmering gleam of black & white

* The search for Bill Chandler is done with a montage of different people

* Powell & Harlow marry to put the scheme in play

* Powell sails across the Atlantic to try and entrap Loy

* Powell lies about fly fishing

* No competition for Loy’s affections by other suitors

* No big musical numbers

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

“EASY TO WED” ( directed by Edward Buzzell )

EASY TO WED ( V )

* M-G-M’s crayon box of vibrant colors

* The search for Bill Chandler is done singly by Warren Haggerty using a telephone

* Wynn tricks Johnson and Ball and really marries them in the movie

* Johnson lies about duck hunting

* A half-hearted attempt at a rival for Esther Williams’ affections with that band leader. (Hey, if you really want to give Van Johnson some real competition throw in the swarthy, hot Latino charms of Montalban or Lamas. Hey wait…Johnson’s s’posed to WIN the girl! Nevermind.)

* Two big musical numbers as only M-G-M can do in the 40’s

“Libeled Lady” is as tight as a drum; a stream-lined laser beam of story telling from beginning to end. “Easy to Wed” is slightly bloated with those musical numbers. Please don’t get me wrong: I don’t mean bloated in a bad way, really. The numbers are there to show off both ladies to their gorgeous technicolor advantage. Williams is a magnificent specimen and Lucy, well she’s just made for color with that blazing red hair. I love Ethel Smith and her hepcat organ playing. It tickled me to see the charity ball number with the Mexican/South American theme. Ahhh, the good ol’ “Good Neighbor Policy” is in full swing in the 40’s. Whatever happened to that policy? Boy, how times have changed.

It’s crazy to make a head-to-head comparison of the cast, right?  The “Libeled Lady” cast can shade their performance, whereas the “Easy To Wed” cast plays it just a tad broader. I might be crazy to compare apples to oranges, Ali to Louis, DiMaggio to Jeter, Sinatra to Bing…or Dino…or Nat King Cole.  But awwwww what the heck…let’s go crazy:

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MYRNA LOY / ESTHER WILLIAMS – (( CONNIE ALLENBURY ))

LIBELED LADY ( XVI ) EASY TO WED ( II )

Whereas Gladdy just wants to get married, Connie Allenbury has a protective wall up. Connie trusts no man, thinking they’re all after her money. No one can be huffy and turn her nose up in the air like Myrna Loy. And a cute little nose it is. Loy and Esther Williams are the “straight man” in this comic fare.  Myrna is perfect. You can see she “gets” the joke. She looks divine and is properly haughty, you know, as heiressesess are. She’s frigid, no wait…frosty. Those almond-shaped eyes of hers could cut you to shreds. But out on the floating lanai, we see Loy’s warmth and friendliness. There’s no doubt of her elegance and bearing in this movie.

Esther Williams plays Connie not quite as frosty as Loy; maybe more on the stuck-up side. My friend Wendy says of Williams:

“Esther was always the big prey in her movies, cool and aloof, but ultimately caught by the hero.”

‘The big prey.’ I like the sound of that. Esther always seemed to be the cold one in her films, chased and eventually warmed up and won over. And yes, by film’s end both Loy and Williams get warmed by their charming leading men. I love Esther and her rounded ways in this; she’s not as cheddar-sharp as Myrna. She’s at ease in her acting, very natural. There’s a regular girl underneath that shell of theirs. They both don’t really have much to do ( the Gladys role is the pivotal one, ) but they sure look great doing it. Believable. And dressed to the nines in the bargain. I have to chuckle at how M-G-M worked Esther into the water.

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WILLIAM POWELL / VAN JOHNSON – (( BILL CHANDLER ))

LIBELED LADY ( X )   EASY TO WED ( IV )

Both actors are good as the character: Bill Chandler. Powell was born to wear white tie and tails, and Johnson fills out his tuxedo very nicely. He’s a big guy. ( I swoon over white or cream-colored tux jackets men used to wear. Sigh!! ) They both handle light comedy well. Powell’s pitch is sophistication. He sounds upper crust. Johnson sounds a bit of a wise-ass and definitely all-American. I’ve no doubt both are ladies men. One could dabble with any society heiress or one of the 400, and the other brings it down a notch to simple American pleasures like dancing and ball games, and be more regular, down-to-earth. In both films, the duck hunting/fly fishing scene goes on much too long and is not funny to me at all but for an initial chuckle. This is like a commercial break for me. But I was happy to see Powell all loosey-goosey in the water, as limber as a fish.

Sometimes I think Powell is too stiff and stuffed a shirt. He might be too polite and mannered to get a girl in the clinches real quick. But I might have to eat those words; recently seeing Powell do a lot more of his thing in the early 30’s, I’d have to say his arm was always wrapped around some girl. Van Johnson seems more easy breezy. He’s boyish, makes jokes, is the butt of jokes. Don’t ask me why I crack up when Lucille Ball hurls insults at him ( “baboon” “ape” ) and Johnson says: “An ape can do anything a man…can…do. And let’s leave personalities out of this.”

LIBELED LADY ( XIII )   LIBELED LADY ( XIV )

I loved the maturity of Powell and Loy talking in the cabin; their real getting-to-know-each-other scene. I also loved the playfulness of Johnson and Williams playing marbles; gosh they’re so pretty together, aren’t they? Powell and Tracy have great chemistry with each other and THAT is the real find of “Libeled Lady” for me. But Johnson also knows how to handle his pal ( Keenan Wynn ) very well. They’ve got beautiful rhythm as well.

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SPENCER TRACY / KEENAN WYNN – (( WARREN HAGGERTY ))

LIBELED LADY ( IX )  EASY TO WED ( III )

The next time I say “Spencer Tracy is an un-sexy, boxy and granite-like man with little sense of humor,” would you just say to me: “D’uhhhh…’Libeled Lady’.” Thanks. See, the big takeaway I took away from “Libeled Lady” is the teamwork between Tracy and Powell. Why had I not notice that before? ( There are none so blind…  ) They are both so natural, speaking their lines as though they emanated from their own thoughts. They fluidly work off each other…Powell having the slightly upper hand since he’s got Tracy over a barrel in this plan. Their comic timing is impeccable. In fact, I like Tracy and Powell better than Tracy and Gable, and that’s sayin’ sumthin’. Powell and Tracy seem to be on the same plateau whereas working opposite Gable…well, he’s so alpha that it’s just off the hook in matching him. Tracy can dial up the infuriation or the somewhat hen-peckedness he is with Harlow while he also throws her under the bus. He plays more notes than Keenan Wynn.

And that’s not a bad thing; Tracy’s an actor and Wynn’s a comic.  With Wynn, you know what you’re getting: a RAT! And you smell a rat as soon as you see him coming. His “Warren” is more bombastic than Spencer Tracy and plays just one note: conniving, under-handed, double-crossing. Tracy is slightly subtler. But he’s just as devious and underhanded. Yeah, Tracy is the better actor, but Keenan is the better rat. I loved watching him navigate through this plot. Gladys is very clear: “If you don’t want to marry me just say so!” Both Warren Haggertys are willing to pimp Gladdy out at the drop of a newspaper headline. I liked both actors as Haggerty, but Wynn edges out Tracy because he’s so obvious. Wynn and Johnson have great chemistry together. ( “I’m bleeding. I’m bleeding. I AM bleeding!!” ) I’m not sure if either “Warren” really cared for Gladys or just didn’t want Bill to have her. But if you need a snake in the grass, I wouldn’t have Keenan Wynn any other way.

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JEAN HARLOW / LUCILLE BALL – (( GLADYS ))

LIBELED LADY ( VI ) EASY TO WED ( XIII )

I think Harlow and Lucy should kiss the hem of their agents’ trousers for getting them the role of Gladys. ( Alright…so maybe the standard 10% is thanks enough. ) Maybe I should be kissing their agents for getting these two gals such a great role. They really have the featured part of the movie. It all hinges on them putting the boys’ scheme into play and she’s got to play it two ways.

Whether she is blonde or redhead, HELL HATH NO FURY… What an entrance they both make, storming into the newsroom. ( When Lucy enters, papers fly. She is a hurricane. ) Harlow shines brightest in a showy role. She sinks her shimmery satin persona into you and doesn’t let go from the moment she bursts on the scene loaded for bear. And the bear is Spencer Tracy. I feel bad for Gladys. Doesn’t the movie try and make her seem like the bad guy by the end of this? Like she’s the fly in the ointment of love;  like she is the Shelley ( “A Place in the Sun” ) Winters albatross around Cupid’s neck? So SHE’s thwarting  Young Love? Oy vey! The girl just wants to get married.

LIBELED LADY ( II )

You need someone to toss a line better than anyone in the business, besides Eve Arden? Well you’ve got two of the best of them in these films, ( Harlow & Ball ) both proven masters. Harlow can dial it up or tone it down at will. She could pour on the purposely over-acting lovey dovey goo one minute, and then as soon as her ‘audience’ disappears, she’s slamming Powell the next. She  could be brassy, she could modulate her tone. I think of Tracy calling her up asking if she wants to get married. She’s in a satin cloud of a bed and answers: “What do you think?” I’m thinking that’s Harlow’s real voice. I love her good natured teasing when Powell has to learn fly fishing. ( “Remember, there’s a man on second.” ) I love when she “acts” the loving wife in front of others. In the car on the way to the Allenbury’s cabin, she practices the speech she’ll say when she busts up the joint between Bill and Connie as if she were Bernhardt. I liked her at the breakfast table when she just wants to talk to Bill during their ‘truce’ – see,  she’s developed some feelings for him. Poor girl, that’ll be her downfall.

EASY TO WED ( VI )

I love Lucy. Lucille Ball is fantastic as Gladys, too. We never knew what Harlow’s Gladys did for a living, but Lucy’s Gladys is a showgirl. She wears the hell out of those clothes. Her singing may be dubbed, but Lucy can still sell a dance number. ( I just love her umbrella toss at the end of the number when it doesn’t open! ) I love her yelling. But I love love love when she and Johnson goes back to Keenan Wynn’s office to say she’s not going through with the law suit. I crack up at her diction and love how she rolls her “R”s and enuciates: “Warren.” She’s gone high-brow. She’s good natured, but she’s a redhead. Her idle runs high, so don’t get her angry. Lucille Ball looks good, sounds good and sinks her teeth into this good role.

LIBELED LADY ( FURRED )    EASY TO WED ( I )

Faux bigamies, invalid divorces, the libel suit is dropped and everyone can live happily ever after. Except Gladys. Here is where it gets poignant when Gladys has to lose out. Bill, Connie and Warren have a good laugh at Gladys’ expense. And Gladys fighting back is sad. Lucy and Myrna handle that scene a little better than their counterparts. Lucy’s hurt puts a lump in my throat. But the lesson learned for all of them is you can’t steal love. Everyone winds up being with the right partner, and it all does end happily ever after in both films.

Again, my sincere thanks to BACKLOTS for letting my new blog play in the Dueling Divas sandbox with the big kids. If any one of you has not seen “Libeled Lady” or “Easy to Wed” you must put them in your dvd machine quick, fast and in a hurry. That is, if you like to laugh. They’re BOTH divas, and both gems in their own way.

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