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Black Maria Presents: Libeled Lady at the Silent Movie Theatre

February 2, 2015

Back in November 2014, the fine folks at Black Maria announced that they would be hosting their first ever classic film screening in Los Angeles on January 30, 2015. The movie: Libeled Lady (1936). The venue: The Silent Movie Theatre, aka The Cinefamily. 

What a beautiful marquee! (Picture courtesy Black Maria)

As explained on their website: "Revival houses across the world play a pivotal role in keeping the public aware of the films that are a part of our cultural heritage, and Black Maria wants to turn repertory cinema into a movable feast. Designed entirely to give back to local communities, Black Maria will open up creative spaces and embrace the local community by celebrating its own unique culture, while enriching it by providing access to lesser known films that can be experienced in the format they were made for."


In addition to the fantastic venue and film, which happens to be one of my favorite classic comedies and one that I rarely see being screened, the Black Maria staff put together a truly wonderful evening that began with the guests being greeted by website co-founders Carley Johnson at the door and Jill Blake at the entrance to the theater. They even made up snazzy programs for the evening, below, which was a nice touch.

The evening's program.

By the time I made it into the theater, the prized couch seats were sadly all taken. While scouting another place to sit, I spied Warner Archive’s Matt Patterson in the aisle, holding his ever-present (at events, at least) box-o-free-DVDs, which is always a treat. After a nice conversation and browsing, I walked away with a swell Loretta Young pre-code double feature: 1930’s Road to Paradise and 1932’s Week-End Marriage.


Before the film started, Carley, Jill, and Creative Director Wade Sheeler took the stage to thank everyone for coming and shared with the audience where they see their anticipated film series heading. Hopefully, they’ll be hosting more screenings around the country soon!


Carley, a fan of Harlow’s, explained that Libeled Lady was chosen as the first film partly for selfish reasons. (Another motive for choosing Libeled Lady: the film happens to be a sparkling example of classic screwball comedy). Just for the record, I’m all for this selfish reasoning, Carley. 


Carley then introduced Jean Harlow historian Darrell Rooney, co-author of Harlow in Hollywood: The Blonde Bombshell in the Glamour Capital, 1928-1937. Darrell came prepared: he carried with him an album with a signed cast photo (um, jealous) and read an excerpt from an on-set visitor’s memories of Jean Harlow during production.


As many know, Jean Harlow died the year after this film was completed, in 1937.  After years of being exploited as a platinum blonde bombshell, by this time Harlow was finally allowed to expand her acting horizons in fare like Libeled Lady. In fact, the studio even let her ditch the fake dye job; in this film, her hair is visibly darker, as she returned to her roots, literally.  


For a movie featuring a variety of marital mix-ups, it’s interesting to note that Harlow was in fact pining to marry the man she was technically hitched to in the picture, William Powell. By 1936, the couple had been together for two years. Though only 25 and already a three-time divorcee, Harlow was certain Powell was the one and desperately wanted to marry him. But Powell, who was apparently one of the few people who saw past her sexpot image, which she hated, did not want to marry again, especially to another blonde whose star was bigger than his (cough, former wife Carole Lombard, cough). Indeed, when he did settle down for a final time in the early 1940s, it was to contract player Diana Lewis, who he affectionately nicknamed “Mousy.”

Seriously, they liked each other, A LOT, in real life: William Powell and Jean Harlow as Bill and Gladys in Libeled Lady.

Besides being married (though not exactly happily) in the movie, the closest Harlow and Powell got to an altar was at the end of production on Libeled Lady, when they played Maid of Honor and Best Man at the wedding of Powell’s stand-in, Warren Dearborn.


After the movie ended, another delight awaited in the Cinefamily’s charming back patio: a set from Western swing/folk/jazz violinist Elana James, accompanied by quite an impressive band. I’ve been in that space before after a film premiere, but most people who have visited the theater don’t even know it exists, which is a shame, because it's absolutely adorable. Quite a lively crowd formed back there, and in the thick of the live musical set, I got to chat with some old friends, befriend a few new like-minded film fans, and finally meet some of my buddies from the interwebs, including Laura of Laura's Miscellaneous Musings. The music, the company, the food and drinks, and the intimate “backyard” space, complete with white string lights, was a perfect ending to a lovely evening. Oh, and to make it even better, there were fabulous prizes raffled off, including Elana James CDs, Darrell Rooney’s Jean Harlow book, and gorgeous gift baskets filled with goodies from TCM and Warner Archive. I won nothing because I didn’t have the chance to buy a raffle ticket. Sad face. Next time.

Elana James and band performing on the back patio (Picture courtesy Black Maria)

The Movie

Libeled Lady opens with Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy) suing the New York Evening Star for libel; they splashed her name across the headlines as the other woman and now she wants a nice little sum - $5 million - for the pain and suffering they put her through.  


Well, $5 million is a bit much for editor Warren Haggerty (Spencer Tracy), whose life is crazy enough trying to balance his insanely demanding job and equally demanding (but far prettier) fiancée Gladys Benton (Jean Harlow). In a stroke of pure journalistic crookedness, Warren calls in smooth-talking former reporter Bill Chandler (William Powell) to get close to Connie so they can be found by Bill's wife, effectively squashing the legitimacy of her libel suit. The only problem is that Chandler doesn't have a wife, but that's where Gladys comes in: Warren assures his fiancée she'll be married soon, but it won't be to him - the lucky man will be Bill, for the sake of Warren's career. Though Gladys initially puts up a good fight, for some reason she eventually breaks down and agrees, but not without a tendency to warm up to her real love in public whenever she can.


Being the clever former newsman that he is, Bill does his research and concocts a plan: he'll show up on the same boat as Connie and her father, J.B. (Walter Connolly), rescue Connie from 'reporters,' and befriend J.B. over their shared love* of angling so he can eventually get in with J.B.'s daughter.   

*Bill's 'love' of the hobby loosely translates to him speed reading books on the subject and faking it. 

Rosy cheeks all around! Except on Harlow.

Bill's charm and persistence eventually breaks the suspicious Connie down. There's a hitch though: Bill actually falls in love with her. Knowing nothing of the covert wife and plan, Connie falls too. When a rumor springs up that Bill is married, Connie proposes to him to find out the truth. To the audience's disbelief (at least mine, the first time around), he accepts.


Well, Bill's marriage to Gladys is just a ruse, right? Well for Bill, yes, but Gladys, who's been cooped up waiting for her cue and sufficiently fed up with Warren's mistreatment of her, decides to turn her sights elsewhere, and what better candidate to receive her affections than her husband, Bill? So, Gladys goes through with the original arrangement, barging in on Connie and Bill and proclaiming to be Bill's wife. The event doesn't go according to Gladys' plan, though, when she finds Bill and Connie are actually married.


When Gladys loudly objects, Bill bursts her revenge-and-desperation filled bubble with the news that her divorce from her first husband wasn't legal. To his surprise, she one ups Bill by telling him she knew the first divorce wasn't legal, so she went out and got a second one. Surprise! Now, can she have her husband back, please?


Well, Bill and Connie are justly nervous, and finally, Warren perks up and shows some interest in his fiancée: "She may be his wife, but she's engaged to me!" A few loud arguments, a fist fight, and a good dose of girl talk later (Connie: "Women can't fool women about men"), and all is right with the world and each couple.  


Though each character has his/her moments, I feel Harlow was handed the funniest role, and she gave it her all. It's amusing, and a bit dizzying, watching her Gladys bounce back and forth between Warren and Bill, physically and emotionally. With Warren, she's the biting, long suffering fiancée who's put up with way too much for the sake of that newspaper. On the other hand, Gladys' hatred of Bill slowly dissipates into misplaced love and affection, mostly because she wasn't getting any attention from her own beau. It's great fun to watch Harlow play that role opposite Powell, since they were a real-life couple at the time.


Meanwhile, Loy stands her ground as the sometimes childish, sometimes straight (wo)man and voice of morality. In her scenes with Gladys at the end, she spews out comical textbook-worthy advice: "You can't build a life on hate, or a marriage on spite. Marriage is too important. Mine only lasted an hour, but I know." For her, the way to win her man is to stay sane and rational about it, which is quite the feat considering the characters and circus operating all around her!  

I love this photo, but I have no idea what is going on with William Powell's foot...The couples: Bill, Connie (Myrna Loy), Gladys, and Warren (Spencer Tracy).

I always delight in watching these four fabulous performers shine in such an vibrant, hilarious story (and literally shine, for Harlow and Loy, in those marvelous dresses). It was a special treat, however, to view their antics on the big screen with an audience, the way, Carley reminded us, that these films were meant to be seen.  


Thanks for the great evening Carley, Jill, Wade, and the rest of the Black Maria team, and congratulations on a wonderful event. Hope to hear about future film screenings soon!

thanks for stopping by!

I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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