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Jean Harlow came into her own while making Libeled Lady (1936) in more ways than one. During filming, she officially changed her name from Harlean Carpenter McGrew Bern Rosson to Jean Harlow, the name that symbolized the dream of glamour and romance she had become at MGM. The film gave her an opportunity to live one of her own dreams when she played a wedding scene with off-screen love William Powell.
From a professional standpoint, Libeled Lady marked a return to the kind of brassy comic leads that had made her a star. Harlow had campaigned for more diverse roles, and was happy to play Spencer Tracy's working-class wife in Riffraff (1935), Clark Gable's faithful girl Friday in Wife vs. Secretary (1936) and a World War I singer involved with Cary Grant in Suzy (1936). But the last film was the only one to perform strongly at the box office. And though critics had liked her acting, particularly in Wife vs. Secretary, they were clamoring for the return of the old Harlow. So she gladly doffed her brassier and spit comic insults at co-stars Tracy and Powell in Libeled Lady, scoring one of the biggest hits of her career.
Harlow and her co-stars were helped a great deal by a solid script that took the usual screwball comedy formula and doubled it. Instead of one squabbling couple, the film presented two: Tracy and Harlow as a newspaper editor and his perennially jilted fiancee, and Powell and Myrna Loy as an out-of-work reporter and a society girl. The excuse for these frantic couplings and uncouplings is a lawsuit Loy files when Tracy's paper calls her a home wrecker. To get out of the suit, Tracy hires Powell to marry Harlow then lure Loy into an engagement.
In addition to getting a great film, Harlow got top billing in what the studio was advertising as their first all-star film since Dinner at Eight. In addition, just before production started, studio head Louis B. Mayer gave her a $5,000 bonus, primarily in recognition of the surprising profits on her previous film, Suzy, which had brought in three times its cost.
Shooting Libeled Lady was a breeze. The four stars were all friends, and Powell even gave up his old habit of hiding out in his dressing room between scenes so he could join in the fun with the rest of the cast. One of the biggest jokes was a running gag Tracy played on Loy, claiming that she had broken his heart with her recent marriage to producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr. He even set up an "I Hate Hornblow" table in the studio commissary, reserved for men who claimed to have been jilted by Loy.
Although Harlow was delighted to be working with off-screen love Powell, she didn't share much screen time with him. But she often visited the set when he was filming his scenes with Loy. One of those times, while she was waiting for Powell to finish a scene so they could go to dinner, director Jack Conway realized that he was one extra short for a big scene. Rather than let them postpone shooting - the casting office was already closed for the night - Harlow put on a black wig and joined the rest of the extras, a return to the work she had done when she first arrived in Hollywood.
Libeled Lady earned $2.7 million at the box office and landed an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. And it made Harlow a bigger star than ever. With Norma Shearer's career slowing down and Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford labeled box-office poison, she was on her way to becoming MGM's top female star. The studio had just arranged a profitable loan-out for her to star in In Old Chicago (1937) at 20th Century-Fox and had bought a story about a traveling chorus girl named Maisie for her. But she would only complete one more film at MGM - Personal Property - before her untimely death at the age of 26.
Producer: Lawrence Weingarten
Director: Jack Conway
Screenplay: Maurine Watkins, Howard Emmett Rogers, George Oppenheimer
Based on a story by Wallace Sullivan
Cinematography: Norbert Brodine
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, William A. Horning
Music: Dr. William Axt
Principal Cast: Jean Harlow (Gladys Benton), William Powell (Bill Chandler), Myrna Loy (Connie Allenbury), Spencer Tracy (Warren Haggerty), Walter Connolly (James B. Allenbury), Charley Grapewin (Hollis Bane), Cora Witherspoon (Mrs. Burns-Norvell), Hattie McDaniel (Maid in Hall).
BW-99m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Frank Miller