It’s time to give a little attention to one of my favorite screen teams, a couple so famous in the talkies that most people do not even realize that they started in the silents: William Powell and Myrna Loy.
I initially planned to write about more famous The Thin Man but then I decided to write about my favorite Powell/Loy collaboration, 1941’s Love Crazy. It may not be as acclaimed as some of their other vehicles but Powell was never zanier and his chemistry with Loy is completely charming.
As usual, I will not be combing the credits for every single performer who appeared in a silent but will focus on Powell and Loy. And perhaps a bit of director Jack Conway. But first, the review!
William Powell and Myrna Loy are, once again, an on-screen married couple. While celebrating their fourth wedding anniversary, Susan (Myrna Loy) comes to believe that her husband Steve (William Powell) is having an affair with gal pal Isobel (Gail Patrick in an uncharacteristically nice role). Egged on by her nasty mother and her would-be suitor, Ward Willoughby (Jack Carson, my favorite “That Guy” of classic Hollywood), Susan files for divorce.
Steve is beside himself until he realizes that it is illegal to divorce someone who has been declared insane. Hmm… Susan, of course, sees through Steve’s ruse but he is convincing enough to get the divorce delayed. This means war! Susan has Steve committed and now he is in a pickle.
Will he admit he is sane and risk losing Susan forever? Or will he stick it out and stay in the asylum? Will Steve and Susan split their twin beds forever? Find out in Love Crazy!
Steve and Susan are perfectly likable in this battle of the sexes. That says a lot for the skills of Powell and Loy as, in lesser hands, Steve could come off as annoying and Susan as shrill. Instead, they are instantly adorable and the audience can’t help but root for those crazy kids to get back together. They are aided by a top-notch supporting cast and some very funny comedy set-ups.
Here is a clip of William Powell performing his crazy act.
It’s a real treat!
Did anyone embody 1930s sophistication quite as well as William Powell? That voice, that humor, those cufflinks… But William Powell, motion picture actor, had his beginning in the 1922 John Barrymore vehicle, Sherlock Holmes. Powell played a sneaky henchman-turned-ally to Holmes.
Powell’s intense eyes were seen as sinister, he could sneer beautifully and so he found himself typecast as villains (often of Latin extraction) in most of his silent era roles, though he was handed a meatier part in von Sterberg’s The Last Command.
Powell menaced some of the most popular stars in Hollywood: Marion Davies, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, and Richard Barthelmess. He was also the original George Wilson in the 1926 production of The Great Gatsby. Powell would ply his villainous trade four times with comedienne Bebe Daniels before the 1920’s ended: Dangerous Money (lost), Senorita (held by a private collector), She’s a Sheik (lost), and Feel My Pulse (available on DVD). Powell had carved out a decent career in villainy but the coming of sound would change everything.
If I had to pick one star who benefited the most from sound I would have to say that it was William Powell’s friend Ronald Colman. However, Powell is a very close second. His wonderful voice, smooth and resonant, was one of the most delightful discoveries unearthed by the talkies.
Powell scored a hit with the 1929 film The Canary Murder Case, the first entry in his Philo Vance series. Louise Brooks plays the murdered Canary. She famously refused to return to Hollywood in order to dub her voice (the film had been shot silent) and incurred the wrath of Paramount as a result. One film, two career turning points.
William Powell was cast opposite Clark Cable and Myrna Loy in 1934’s Manhattan Melodrama. It’s the movie Dillinger ventured out of hiding to see (he loved his Loy)– he was gunned down by G-men outside the theater. Powell and Loy’s second outing, The Thin Man, set the pace for all of their collaborations to follow: witty, glamorous and a bit zany.
Powell may have found stardom in the talkies but his silent work is also quite good and worth checking out, especially for fans.
Oh, and may I take this opportunity to say that William Powell is not the Thin Man! The Thin Man went missing and was suspected of murder! To say more would be telling but it was not William Powell! Just like the Pink Panther is a diamond, not Peter Sellers! And Frankenstein is a doctor, not a monster! (pant, pant, pant)
Myrna Loy was born Myrna Williams and started her career as a dancer. She was discovered by none other than Rudolph Valentino and his wife, Natacha Rambova. She screen tested for Cobra and did not get a role, though she did win a bit part in Ben Hur.
Myrna Loy’s career in silents paralleled Powell’s in many ways. Like Powell, she was soon typecast in exotic villain parts, her name changed to the more exotic-sounding Loy in order to capitalize on her unusual beauty. She played Chinese, Moroccan, Indian and Gypsy roles, as well as so-called “half-castes” of every stripe in the silents and early talkies. She was a seductress, a home-wrecker and a sadistic villainess in many of her roles.
Loy had a memorable supporting role as Estelle Taylor’s snarky handmaiden in 1926’s Don Juan but she would have to wait for the talkies for her career to take off. No one, it seems, realized that above all things, Myrna was funny! Her dry wit and smart delivery were rare commodities (still are, in fact) but it took a few years for anyone to realize it.
For a good (or bad, depending on how you feel about such things) example of “exotic” Myrna, check out the 1933 pre-code (and I do mean Pre-Code!) potboiler, The Barbarian. It’s a throwback to the heady days of Valentino, when sheiks were chic. Poor Ramon Novarro is sheepishly in the lead (he didn’t like these parts any more than Valentino did) as an Egyptian tribal prince and Myrna Loy is his hapless English lover/victim. (I reviewed the whole film alongside The Sheik) Myrna Loy is revealed to be half-Egyptian herself, thus paving the way for romance without any risk of an interracial union (which was a big no-no). The Barbarian is best remembered today for the scene where Myrna Loy takes a bath with only a few strategically placed rose petals between herself and the audience.
It struck me as I was watching the film that Myrna Loy was just too smart for that kind of thing. The next year, MGM finally realized it too and paired her with William Powell for the first time. Myrna Loy went from exotic temptress to witty sophisticate, ideal wife and clever heroine. Surely one of the strangest career twists in classic Hollywood.
Myrna Loy would be paired with William Powell 14 times ( though the final pairing in The Senator Was Indiscreet was just a cameo from Myrna Loy), including six Thin Man films.
It’s fun to watch silent films and play Spot Myrna. She shows up a lot more often than you would imagine.
Love Crazy was directed by Jack Conway, who began his career as a director all the way back in 1912. He directed the Joan Crawford flapper picture Our Modern Maidens as well as MGM’s first sound picture, the William Haines part-talkie Alias Jimmy Valentine (missing and presumed lost, by the way, check your attic or your crazy uncle’s film stash). Another silent movie connection: he married Francis X. Bushman’s daughter, Virginia.
Francis X. Bushman was fixated with Great Danes and owned 295 of them. At the same time. Just wanted to share that. Thank you, good night!
P.S. Lest you think Mr. Bushman was a hoarder, he did own a 280 acre estate. So almost an acre per dog. Not a bad thing, considering.