Obituary: Myrna Loy
Thursday 16 December 1993
IN 1934 a picture called The Thin Man caught the world's imagination. It was a thriller, based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett, and at its centre were a couple seemingly more bent on bitching each other nicely and boozing than trying to find the murderer. They were called Nick and Norah Charles and were played by William Powell and Myrna Loy (he always got first billing). Here is a piece of their dialogue:
She: 'Go ahead, see if I care. But I think it's a dirty trick to bring me to New York just to make a widow out of me.'
He: 'You wouldn't be a widow long.'
She: 'You bet I wouldn't'
He: 'Not with all your money.'
Powell and Loy had first appeared together earlier in the same year. Loy said later of that occasion: 'From the very first scene we did together in Manhattan Melodrama we felt that particular magic between us. There was this feeling of rhythm, of complete understanding, and an instinct of how each of us could bring out the best in the other.' They appeared together in a dozen more films, including six sequels to The Thin Man.
In this period Loy established herself as one of the most accomplished of the constellation of brilliant screen comediennes - which included Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, Irene Dunne, Margaret Sullavan, Claudette Colbert, Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn and Jean Harlow. She was the only one of them to have a regular partner: Loy and Powell's playing off each other was incisive but understated, crisp and cool, but also warm, even as each raised an eyebrow to the others' foibles. Along the way Loy became tagged 'The Perfect Wife', even though Norah Charles was much more likely to be found at a cocktail bar than in a kitchen - at least in the early films of the series. Loy was capable of transforming herself from wife or pal to mistress, from heiress or ingenue to vamp - and indeed it was in the latter capacity that she made her first 60 films.
She was 20, dancing in the shows which accompanied the movies at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, when a photographer, Harry Waxman, told her she should try to get into films. See tested for the Virgin in Ben-Hur (1925), but played a courtesan instead, and she was a chorus girl in Pretty Ladies - both for MGM - before signing a five-year contract with Warners.
She played maids, ladies-in-waiting, showgirls, moving up and down the cast list in almost a dozen films annually at this point. She first played a native girl, amorous and treacherous, in Across the Pacific (1926) and thereafter, whenever they needed someone of exotic appearance to be mean and nasty they sent for her. She was an unspecified Oriental in A Girl in Every Port (1928), a Spanish girl in Turn Back the Hours, a Chinese villainess in Crimson City, and in her first full-length Talkie, The Desert Song (1929), she was Azuri, the native dancer.
She adjusted easily to Sound techniques - and had a small role in The Jazz Singer (1927), the first Talkie - but Warner Bros dropped her in 1931. She had sufficient reputation to get work steadily, and she began to turn down the roles in which she had been typecast. She played the other woman in Rebound, and always praised its director, Edward H. Griffith, for showing the film industry that she could play serious drama. She had a similar role in John Ford's Arrowsmith, but a sympathetic one, as the woman who falls in love with Ronald Colman. Irving Thalberg, MGM's 'boy wonder' producer, believed that she had star quality - and she spent 1932 in a variety of parts as they tried to decide in which way that might best be exploited: she was an Oriental baddie (for the last time) in Mask of Fu Manchu, Leslie Howard's vicious wife in The Animal Kingdom, John Barrymore's understanding mistress in Topaze and an English milady who falls in love with Ramon Novarro, after he has kidnapped and raped her, in The Barbarian.
She gained a certain fame with Manhattan Melodrama (1934), when the gangster John Dillinger - who was a fan - was killed after leaving a showing of the film in Chicago. It was chiefly a vehicle for Clark Gable, with Loy as the woman loved by both him and Powell. The director of the film, WS Van Dyke, liked Powell and Loy together and teamed them again in The Thin Man. He was known as 'One-Shot Woody', because he could usually get what he wanted on the first take - so the seeming spontaneity of the stars' playing was just that, or almost.
Through a series of star vehicles Loy achieved a popularity that was greater than that of the studio's reigning queens, Garbo, Shearer and Crawford. She played opposite most of the important male stars, with Warner Baxter in Capra's Broadway Bill (1934), with Spencer Tracy in Whipsaw (1935), with Powell in The Great Ziegfeld (1936), in which she was Ziegfeld's wife, Billie Burke; with Powell and Tracy in Libelled Lady and with Gable and Tracy in Test Pilot (1938). She was invariably the ultra-chic, managing woman - and to escape typecasting she was allowed to go to 20th Century-Fox to play a vapid British socialite in The Rains Came (1939). An earlier attempt, portraying Kitty O'Shea in Parnell (1937), was one of her very few failures: both she and Gable are lifeless, as if overweighted by the occasion.
The very nature of stardom means that personalities created the image of the studios and vice versa. Miss Loy's ability to play crazy comedy took some of the stuffiness out of MGM, while her ladylike demeanour was far more suitable to that studio than, say, Columbia or Warner Bros. She and Powell made some out-and-out farces, including Double Wedding (1937), I Love You Again (1940) and Love Crazy (1941). As the vogue for these faded a mutual disenchantment with MGM set in, unexplainable except in terms of the mentalities of the front office: MGM let go, or did nothing to retain, Shearer, Garbo, Crawford and Jeanette MacDonald. The war was on, and Loy was happy to work for the Red Cross; but while Claudette Colbert, Katharine Hepburn and Irene Dunne arrived to play the sort of roles Loy could do, she was offered nothing interesting - at the same time permission was refused to go to London to play Elvira in the film of Blithe Spirit (1945). She asked for release from her contract when Hepburn was cast in Sea of Grass (1947), which had been bought for her and Tracy (who, ironically, had pursued Loy romantically till Hepburn entered his life).
The 'Perfect Wife' reputation (she preferred Gore Vidal's description, 'the good-sex woman-wife') meant that she was Goldwyn's only choice to play in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), greeting Fredric March when he returns from the war: she originally turned down the role as too small, but Goldwyn and the film's director, William Wyler, had it built up - and then, Wyler said, she made it seem bigger than it was: and the picture itself was more popular and successful than any she had done. At RKO she did two fondly remembered comedies with Cary Grant, The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer (1947) and Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House (1943); and she played the mother in Lewis Milestone's film of John Steinbeck's The Red Pony (1949). She played mother again in Cheaper by the Dozen (1950) and its sequel, Belles on Their Tones, which were again very popular.
Always active politically, she found herself called a Communist in 1946 by the Hollywood Reporter, and she sued for pounds 1m; she settled for a retraction - and became one of the most visible of those campaigning against the right-wing activities of the McCarthy years. She was a dedicated Democrat and a friend of Mrs Roosevelt - and that was why, she thought, they had tried to smear her. She was one of the observers of the first meetings of the United Nations and during this period was active working for Unesco.
In 1950 she was appointed to serve a three-year term on the National Commission for Unesco, which sent her to Europe with a delegation headed by the Assistant Secretary of State, Howland Sargeant. When she married him as her fourth husband she became what she termed 'a Washington wife' - in semi-retirement from movies. As the marriage began to fail she accepted a star role in Lonelyhearts (1958) and supporting roles in From the Terrace (1960) and Midnight Lace (1960). She challenged herself to go on the stage, but without experience she was content to tour in roles created by others on Broadway - and did not appear in New York till 1974, when she played the heroine's mother in a revival of The Women. She appeared in some half-dozen television movies, the last of which was Summer Solstice (1981) - and turned down much other work. She was remembered for her kindness and professionalism within the industry, and many wanted to work with her: these included Burt Reynolds, who cast her as his mother in The End (1978) and Sidney Lumet, who cast her as Alan King's secretary in Just Tell Me What You Want (1980), her last two films for the cinema.
She was never nominated for an Oscar; and in 1991 the Academy atoned for this astonishing oversight by giving her a special Award.
In 1987 she published a memoir, Being and Becoming, its title taken from Matthew Arnold's 'Life is not a having and a getting, but a being and becoming'. It is one of the best books ever written by an actress as she reflects upon her life and career - with wit, charm, perception, honesty and a sense of realism. These, of course, are the qualities that were always to be found in her acting.
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