It was Jean Harlow day on Turner Classic when I was at my dad's last week, thus all the movies with Jean Harlow. She seemed to get stuck in a lot of roles where she's sort of the secondary love interest, or maybe the homewrecker character type, which kind of stinks, but at least her character usually seems to resent the disrespect and vocally object.
It doesn't necessarily look like The Libeled Lady is going to go that way at first. Harlow's character is engaged to a newspaper editor played by Spencer Tracy. After a couple of years of him putting it off, them seem to finally be getting married, but one of his staff ran an article about the daughter (Myrna Loy) of a wealthy foe of the paper's owner that turned out to be false, and now she's suing the paper for $5 million, in 1930s dollars. Since a retraction apparently won't do, Tracy hits upon the idea of rehiring the paper's old libel lawyer (played by William Powell). Between the two of them, they cook up a truly idiotic scheme: Powell will pretend to be a writer (he's trying that in real life and failing), married to Harlow. They'll arrange for him to meet Loy, and he'll come up with some way to get her alone in a room with him. Tracy will burst in with a photographer, and they'll have proof of her fooling around with a married guy, which is I think what the tabloid headline had falsely accused her of.
There are multiple problems with this. One, Loy's clever, and not about to fall for Powell just because he bats his eyelashes at her. But she and Powell do gradually, truly, fall for each other. Two, Harlow is also growing sort of attracted to Powell, because even if it's just for appearances' sake, he's paying more attention to her than Tracy is. Three, Tracy keeps nearly screwing the thing up because he's too impatient, and doesn't entirely trust Powell.
The movie has a fair number of funny bits. If you've watched any of the Thin Man movies, you know Loy and Powell have excellent chemistry, and play off each other well. Harlow's character is rougher around the edges, considerably less composed than those two, but you understand where she's coming from. Even at the end, when she's trying to put the kibosh on the fairytale ending, I didn't begrudge her that. Everyone had been just treating her like a tool to use for their own purposes, and she was just supposed to sit there with a smile and take it? As for Tracy, I really wanted to put a fake mustache on him, give him a cigar, and hear him growl out, 'Bring me pictures, pictures of Spider-Man!' just once. I think he'd have been good at it.
The one problem, besides the idiocy of Tracy/Powell's scheme, is there didn't seem to be much chemistry between Tracy and Harlow. Sure, part of the plot is that he's been neglecting her for work, but they're still supposed to be believable as a couple who like each other enough to be getting married, and it just isn't there.