Easy to Wed is a remake of the 1936 film, Libeled Lady, which starred such heavyweights as William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy, and Jean Harlow. I actually like this version better than the original, but I can only draw favorable comparisons between each cast. Van and Esther Williams made just five films together compared to William Powell and Myrna Loy’s fourteen (!), but they were a popular screen duo all the same. I love that the Johnson-Williams team recreated this particular Powell-Loy partnership from ten years earlier. Lucille Ball in Jean Harlow’s role is an utter delight. And Keenan Wynn in Spencer Tracy’s part turns in a truly great performance as one of the leads when he was typically relegated to supporting roles. This is a movie Van made with his friends. Keenan was his best friend, and it was Lucy who insisted that he try his luck once more in Hollywood. Thanks to her, he won an MGM contract!
I’ve written before about how well suited Van was to roles that went against his established boy next door type. Easy to Wed is another film where he sheds that wholesome image. The film is almost identical to Libeled Lady. There are a few changes but the general idea remains the same.
Wealthy socialite Connie Allenbury (Esther Williams) files a $2 million libel suit against the Morning Star newspaper for printing a false story about her stealing another woman’s husband. Editor Curtis Farwood is convinced that Connie and her father J.B. (Cecil Kellaway) want to destroy the paper, especially when he has personally thwarted J.B.’s political aspirations in the past. The paper’s business manager Warren Haggerty (Keenan Wynn) comes to Farwood’s rescue. He concocts a plan to frame Connie as an actual husband stealer so she’ll have no choice but to drop the suit. And Farwood is sold on the idea, thanks to the guy Warren has in mind for such a scheme: Bill Chandler (Van Johnson), a womanizer who Warren actually fired from the Morning Star. Bill was also quite adept at getting libel suits dropped over the course of his employment at the paper.
“Men have been throwing themselves at Connie Allenbury for years.”
“Yes, yes, at her feet. But I’m going to throw this one at her head.”
Warren was actually in the midst of getting ready for his own wedding when Farwood sent for him, but he gladly headed to his boss rather than his bride. And not long after he’s arrived at the paper, his irate bride Gladys Benton (Lucille Ball) storms into the Morning Star’s offices in her wedding gown. This isn’t the first time Warren has postponed their nuptials or put the needs of the paper over her own. Obviously, Warren’s reluctance to settle down is played for laughs. When his best man Spike (Ben Blue) asks why he’s marrying Gladys if he doesn’t want to, Warren quips: “Have you ever said to a redhead, ‘So long, it’s been nice knowing you’?”
But why does Gladys put up with him and insist on getting married? Because she loves him and he loves her, although that seems highly debatable. Warren just watches as a screaming Gladys is carried out of the building, much more concerned with getting a hold of Bill Chandler. And when he does some time later, Bill is already aware of Connie’s impending suit. But when he learns the amount she’s suing for, he vows that she’ll settle for far less after he’s through with her, echoing Warren’s own words from earlier. Here we have these two men who are determined to not only get the libel suit dropped, but also to humiliate Connie and still ruin her reputation over a lie.
Now that Warren has recruited Bill for this despicable plot (which Bill negotiated to the tune of $50,000), he can bring Gladys on board for free. She’s got no incentive to even agree, but she begrudgingly does when Warren assures her it’ll be a fake wedding ceremony. Except it’s actually legit, because Warren Haggerty is uniquely terrible.
Bill flies down to Mexico where the Allenburys are vacationing and registers at the same hotel. He’s done his research on J.B., an avid duck hunter, and plans to soak up as much as he can about the sport so he that he can impress the man and easily win him over. Winning over Connie, as he discussed with Warren, will involve more lying. And will definitely be harder. He plans to invite her to his hotel room. It’ll be perfectly innocent, but his wife won’t think so. Gladys will announce that she’s suing Connie for alienation of affection. Connie is branded as a homewrecker for real this time, the suit against the paper is dropped, and everyone lives happily after. Would that it t’were so simple!
Our first clue that Connie won’t be easily framed is when Bill sees her for the first time at the hotel pool. (An Esther Williams movie always has one of those)! Connie is poised at the top of an enormously terrifying water slide with an audience of onlookers down below. “You mean women slide down that thing?” Bill asks in disbelief. “No senor, not women. Only Senorita Allenbury.” Maybe her reputation does precede her after all, despite Bill and Warren declaring it isn’t worth much.
Bill is hardly aware that he’s found his match in Connie. That becomes clear to him later on when she doesn’t immediately fall for him. Connie is rather icy and aloof. She suspects that Bill is just another fortune hunter. He eventually proves her suspicions wrong though and gains her trust and affection. But by then, he too has fallen in love with her so he can no longer go through with the scheme.
It was clear from the beginning that this plan was doomed to failure, but it’s so much fun watching the whole thing fail! Even knowing how it ends doesn’t lessen the pleasure of watching it. All the credit belongs to the stars who manage to make the story seem new and exciting. Easy to Wed further sets itself apart from Libeled Lady with its musical numbers. Van and Esther wonderfully perform a duet in Portuguese.
Everyone is quite good, especially Lucille Ball, but it’s Van and his overwhelming charisma that make Easy to Wed such a success in my eyes. My starry, Van filled eyes! And his ever reliable chemistry with Esther is another major factor in that success.
As usual, he’s not unlikable even when he’s playing a jerk. Though Bill Chandler is a cocky guy, he’s so laughably hopeless when he’s duck hunting. As the ice around Connie melts, her romance with Bill produces such a marked difference in both of them. They’ve both met their match so it’s completely believable that they become so enamored with each other. As Michaela writes in her ABCs of Esther Williams:
An Esther Williams character was never clumsy, ditzy, or bad at what they do. She projected such a solid image of confidence and practicality that it wouldn’t have been believable if she had tried to play someone who was easily flustered or adorably naïve. Esther’s women voice their desires, freely move about any space they are in, and frequently stay career-driven, all while achieving professional and personal — specifically romantic — success.
Connie’s career is merely being an heiress, but the above is still true of her. Being in love with Bill doesn’t fundamentally alter her. She’s still the same stoic, poised woman who goes after what she wants. She’s the one who proposes to Bill for instance, recalling that line from before: “Only Senorita Allenbury.” It’s almost like she does have a reputation worth guarding from a malicious lie. Bill however, seems like a totally different man by the end. Yet the change in him isn’t jarring, owing to Van’s sincerity and his ability to make the character evolve past his unflattering traits.
Van just looks so much at ease throughout the film, whether he’s being suave, conniving, silly, or romantic. And he gets to sing and dance too! He had some big shoes to fill but they fit him perfectly.
This is my first post for Michaela’s Fourth Van Johnson blogathon. Click the banner below to read some more posts about Van! Van! Van!