Why You Should Love Myrna Loy

Myrna Loy

Assuming you don’t already, here’s two good reasons to love Myrna Loy. First, she landed her signature role of socialite sleuth Nora Charles in 1934’s THE THIN MAN after director W. S. Van Dyke pushed her into a swimming pool at a showbiz party. Loy handled the prank – actually, an impromptu screen test – with such wry sangfroid Van Dyke knew immediately he had his Nora and went to war with a skeptical Louis B. Mayer, who had Loy down as a strictly dramatic actress, to secure her casting. And second, soon after THE THIN MAN had made her a star, Loy took the self-same studio mogul to task over Hollywood’s treatment of African Americans. “Why does every black person in the movies have to play a servant?” she demanded. “How about a black person walking up the steps of a courthouse carrying a briefcase?” Mayer’s response went unrecorded, but it’s doubtful that such forthrightness earned Loy many brownie points. Another one, for good measure? Okay. Loy was the favorite movie star of Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John Dillinger, who had such a crush on her he came out of hiding in 1934 to catch her luminous presence in the crime flick MANHATTAN MELODRAMA, and was consequently gunned down by the Feds when he left the theater. That America’s Public Enemy No.1 would risk breaking cover to get a fix of his idol, and pay for it with his life, says a great deal about Myrna Loy’s appeal.

Born August 2, 1905 Loy was a Montana farm girl with stars in her eyes. After her father died in the 1918 flu pandemic, she moved to Los Angeles with her mother and began to train as a dancer. Luckily, Loy had talent as big as her dreams, and the kind of breathtaking beauty that the movie camera might have been invented for. She had her first taste of fame in 1922 when she modeled for sculptor Harry Fielding Winnebrenner, who saw in her slender torso and willowy limbs the embodiment of ‘Inspiration’, the central figure of his Fountain of Education, an multi-figure piece which adorned the outdoor pool of Venice High School for many decades. (The statue of Loy, with one graceful arm raised, her face tilted towards the sky, can be seen in the opening sequence of the movie GREASE (1978).)

She made her professional debut as a dancer at Grauman’s Egyptian Theater, performing in the lavish musical numbers that preceded the main feature. But it was another modeling gig that set her on the road to stardom.

Early in 1924, a series of portraits taken of Loy by photographer Henry Waxman came to the attention of Rudolph Valentino who was so taken by the images he decided she would be the perfect female lead for his next film, COBRA (1925), which he was producing with his wife, the flamboyant designer Natacha Rambova. Loy tested for the role but was not successful; the part went instead to Gertrude Olmstead. Even so, Rudolph Valentino’s seal of approval counted for much in the 1920s, and with her sights now firmly fixed on an acting career, Loy began to make headway. Her striking features, which combined a pert button nose with vertiginous cheekbones and expressive almond eyes, ensured she was often cast in “exotic” roles, and spent most of the decade playing an assortment of Eastern femmes fatale of indeterminate provenance – “Orientals” in the parlance of the day. They were crude stereotypes for which Loy, to her credit, later expressed deep regret (not that there was any chance of Hollywood actually casting an Asian actress in an Asian role at the time).

Loy survived the sound revolution unscathed, proving herself a first-rate actress and an excellent dancer, a shoo-in for the early Technicolor musicals that then setting box-office tills ringing. She had small but significant parts in THE JAZZ SINGER (1927), THE SHOW OF SHOWS (1929), and UNDER A TEXAS MOON (1930). Even so, it took time to shake off the “ethnic” typecasting. As late as 1932, Loy was to be found playing arch-criminal Boris Karloff’s evil daughter in overwrought yellow peril guff THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932).   

When musicals fell briefly out of fashion, Myrna Loy’s career stalled. That it not only regained its momentum but went into overdrive was, in some measure, thanks to both fate and the reckless leisure pursuits of a notorious bank robber. Apart from a star cast boasting Clark Gable and William Powell, 1934’s MANHATTAN MELODRAMA was a routine studio feature that was not expected to do anything more than moderate business. The story of childhood friends who grow up on opposite sides of the law and fall in love with the same women was hardly cutting edge even then. But when news broke that John Dillinger, something of a folk hero at the time due to his MO of robbing the banks that were busily issuing foreclosure notices, had been shot and killed after seeing the movie it became a sizeable hit. And when, moreover, it emerged that Dillinger had risked his life specifically to catch a glimpse of Myrna Loy, the spotlight fell firmly on her. It was partly this that persuaded MELODRAMA director W. S. Van Dyke to subject Loy to a watery screen test, but it was mostly her on-screen chemistry with Powell, which showcased a hitherto untapped flair for sophisticated repartee. Van Dyke’s next project, an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Thin Man, depended on sophisticated repartee the way a good martini depends on a frugal hand with the vermouth.

The pairing of Loy and Powell in THE THIN MAN proved to be one of the most successful casting coups in Hollywood history. Powell, playing boozy amateur detective Nick Charles, was already well known as a suave leading man, but Loy was a revelation as his sharp-witted wife and sparring partner Nora (sample dialogue: Nick: I’m a hero. I was shot twice in The Tribune. Nora: I read you were shot five times in the tabloids. Nick: Not true. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids). Although, again, the studio had no particularly high hopes for THE THIN MAN, audiences flocked to theaters, seduced by Loy and Powell’s easy charm and sparkling rapport, much of it derived from the actors’ real life behind-the-scenes banter; even Louis B. Mayer was forced to admit the casting was perfect. “When we did a scene together,” said Powell, “we forgot about technique, camera angles, and microphones. We weren’t acting. We were just two people in perfect harmony.”

It’s not hard to see why Nick and Nora’s blithe existence so appealed to movie-goers gripped by the Great Depression. Theirs was a world utterly untroubled by the Big Bad Wolf, an art director’s dream of Manhattan where highballs were imbibed like Gatorade and murders investigated for a lark. It was a world of wit and sophistication which, for the price of admission, the embattled public could share for a precious hour or two, basking in the warm glow of Nick and Nora’s  company. As film historian Andrew Sarris put it, rather prosaically, “[Nick and Nora were the] first on-screen Hollywood couple for whom matrimony did not signal the end of sex, romance and adventure.” They were the perfect couple, with the perfect marriage, and, in the shape of Asta, their sparky fox terrier, the perfect dog. They even had a cocktail glass named after them.

All this was somewhat familiar territory for the well-seasoned Powell, but for Loy it was entirely new. With her ‘vamp’ days now consigned to the past, she became, in short order, one of Hollywood’s most popular and highest paid stars. As such, she occupied a niche that set her apart from the standard issue movie goddess. She was sexy, but not intimidating; glamorous but approachable. Perhaps more than any other female star of her era, Loy exuded an air of normality that offset her chic appearance and breathtaking beauty. It’s as easy to imagine her wafting across the dancefloor at 21 or The Trocadero as it is her breezing into a PTA meeting or town picnic – not something you could say of Greta Garbo or Constance Bennett.

THE THIN MAN spawned five sequels, the first of which, 1936’s AFTER THE THIN MAN, is one of few follow-up films that are even better than the original. Altogether, Loy and Powell made fourteen movies together, winding up the THIN MAN series in 1947 with SONG OF THE THIN MAN.

Throughout the 30s and 40s, Myrna Loy shared the screen with an array of Hollywood royalty: Clark Gable in 1938’s TOO HOT TO HANDLE, Tyrone Power in THE RAINS CAME (1939), Melvyn Douglas in THIRD FINGER, LEFT HAND (1940), and Cary Grant in THE BACHELOR AND THE BOBBY-SOXER (1947) and MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE (1948), the latter a delightful comedy of errors that showcased a rapport with Grant that was almost as winning as her alliance with Powell.

In the 1940s, acting took a backseat for Loy as she threw herself wholeheartedly into the war effort. She worked tirelessly on behalf of the Red Cross, helped to run a Naval Auxiliary Canteen in Long Beach, California, and toured the country to sell war bonds. She vented her hatred of Adolf Hitler so vehemently that he personally blacklisted her, banning her films from German screens.

When she returned to acting full-time, Loy entered another phase of her career, what might be termed her ‘domestic goddess’ period. She was still seen as the perfect wife but, now in her forties, a very different kind of perfect from the martini-fueled Nora Charles. Muriel Blandings showed she had not lost her comic touch, but this period really reached its apotheosis with her role as Milly Stephenson, the wife of homecoming infantry sergeant Fredric March in 1946’s THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, director William Wyler and writer Robert E. Sherwood’s devastating portrait of post-War America and of lives irrevocably damaged by the conflict. Loy’s performance struck such a chord, especially among veterans, that a slew of Men-Must-Marry-Myrna clubs sprang up across the country. Her After the THIN MAN co-star James Stewart went so far as to say, “There ought to be a law against any man who doesn’t marry Myrna Loy.” His logic might have been off, but his sentiments were perfectly in tune with much of the male population. Loy, of course, had her own typically pithy take on the subject. “Some perfect wife I am,” she said. “I’ve been married four times, divorced four times, have no children, and can’t boil an egg.”

In 1950, Myrna Loy consolidated her position as the nation’s favorite missus opposite Clifton Webb in the box-office hit CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN, easily outshining her superannuated co-star – Webb’s appearance may have been more authentic; he looked every inch a man who has raised twelve kids. Loy, in contrast, was her usual breezy and adorable self. She re-teamed with Webb for a Cheaper sequel, BELLES ON THEIR TOES in 1952, but by this time her film career was once again vying with her work as an activist.

In 1948, she became the first Hollywood celebrity to lend her weight to UNESCO, and in 1950 she became co-chairman of the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing. Later, she was an energetic campaigner for the election of John F. Kennedy. She still found time to make the odd film, notably 1958’s Lonelyhearts with Montgomery Clift and Robert Ryan, and FROM THE TERRACE (1960) with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. After that, she took a nine-year hiatus, reappearing in Hal Dresner and Stuart Rosenberg’s underrated 1969 comedy THE APRIL FOOLS with Jack Lemon, Catherine Deneuve, and Charles Boyer. The New York Time review read, in part: “The best things in the movie are the extraordinarily good supporting performances… by two stars who invented movie elegance almost 30 years ago.” No prizes for guessing who they were.

Loy made her Broadway debut in 1973 in a revival of Clare Booth-Luce’s The Women, and the following year had a scene-stealing role in Airport ’75 as the boozy Mrs. Devaney, who may well have been a nod to Nora Charles if her choice of tipple hadn’t been so eccentric. You wouldn’t have caught Nora knocking back a cocktail of Jim Beam and Olympia beer to save her life. She made her final big-screen appearance in 1980’s JUST TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Ali McGraw, Alan King, and Keenan Wynn, who she had last appeared with in SONG OF THE THIN MAN in 1947.

Inexplicably, Myrna Loy never received an official Oscar nomination, an oversight that was somewhat rectified in 1991 when, after a robust campaign lead by screenwriter Michael Russnow, and involving many of her friends and colleagues, she was awarded an honorary Academy Award for “career achievement”. Sadly, she was too frail to attend the ceremony and accepted the award on camera from her home in Manhattan. Her acceptance speech was short and sweet: “You’ve made me very happy. Thank you very, very much,” Anyone capable of recognizing a class act when they see one might’ve responded with a hearty, “Right back at you, Myrna!” Her Oscar speech was her last public appearance of any kind. Loy died at the age of 88 on December 14, 1993. Her ashes were interred at Forestvale Cemetery in Helena, Montana.

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