There were many memorable screen teams during Hollywood’s dream factory era -- Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. But none made as many features together as MGM’s William Powell and Myrna Loy -- 13 films over a 14-year period.
The two were best known for playing the wealthy -- and often inebriated -- detectives Nick and Nora Charles in 1934’s Oscar-nominated mystery comedy “The Thin Man,” based on the Dashiell Hammett tale, and five sequels. But they also appeared in seven other films together, and five of these features are included on the new DVD set “TCM Spotlight: Myrna Loy and William Powell Collection.”
The films -- “Manhattan Melodrama,” “Evelyn Prentice,” “Double Wedding,” “I Love You Again” and “Love Crazy” -- are still a delight some 70 years later thanks to the charm, wit and frivolity of the stars. Generally cast as husband and wife, they played distinctly modern couples. Loy’s women were never pushovers; her characters could match Powell’s quip for quip, pratfall for pratfall.
Both actors had been working in Hollywood since the 1920s. Powell began his career in silent films, typically playing villains. But his theatrical experience paid off handsomely in talkies, and he began to be cast as urbane sophisticates. His staccato, rather high-pitched delivery was imitated years later by Don Adams when he played Maxwell Smart in “Get Smart.” Loy, 13 years younger than Powell, was typecast as exotic femme fatales. She finally got a chance to demonstrate her comedic prowess in the 1932 Paramount musical “Love Me Tonight.”
Their first pairing at MGM was in 1934’s “Manhattan Melodrama,” directed by W.S. Van Dyke. An Oscar winner for its screenplay, the gritty drama revolves around two boyhood friends -- one (Powell) becomes a sanctimonious district attorney and governor, while the other (Clark Gable) becomes a racketeer. Loy plays Gable’s sensible girlfriend, who eventually leaves him for Powell. “Manhattan Melodrama” was the film gangster John Dillinger saw before he was gunned down by FBI agents as he left a Chicago theater.
Even in their first film together, Powell and Loy exude that indescribable chemistry -- they play off each other as though married for years. Powell and Loy, who were never lovers off-screen, became fast friends on the set of “Manhattan Melodrama,” sharing the same dry wit and sensibility. Van Dyke was so impressed that he cast them as Nick and Nora Charles.
But the second film in the set, 1934’s “Evelyn Prentice,” proves that not even the best of actors can turn a pig’s ear into a silk purse. The two put up a good front but are waylaid by the mothball-laden story of a criminal lawyer’s wife whose shady boyfriend blackmails her when she tries to break up their affair. Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the film is it that marks the film debut of Rosalind Russell. Though she and Loy didn’t share scenes, the two became friends. “Evelyn Prentice” was the last dramatic vehicle starring Powell and Loy.
Though epitomes of sophistication and elegance, they were not afraid of acting like comic fools. And in 1937’s “Double Wedding,” they get to show their silly side. Unfortunately, the screwball comedy often tries too hard to be zany. In this outing, Powell throws out his usual double-breasted suits and tuxedos to play a down-and-out bohemian painter and budding film director who lives in a small trailer next to a bar. Loy, wearing some incredibly gorgeous outfits by Adrian, plays a strong-willed fashion designer who rules the roost in her household, pushing her younger sister (Florence Rice) into the arms of a dimwitted young man (John Beal). Production had to be stopped for several weeks on the film after Powell’s girlfriend, Jean Harlow, died in June 1937.
‘A true gentleman’
A year after Harlow’s death, Powell learned he had cancer. Though the doctors gave him a short time to live, he beat the disease after a series of radiation treatments. He returned to the screen in 1939 in “Another Thin Man,” followed by the rollicking 1940 comedy “I Love You Again,” which features many wonderful slapstick moments with Powell, most notably when he’s trying to break into the safe in his office.
The clever premise finds Powell playing a stick-in-the-mud teetotaler on an ocean cruise who is hit in the head by an oar when he dives into the water to save a passenger (Frank McHugh). When he wakes up, he discovers that he has had amnesia for the past nine years and is actually a con man. After he looks at his alter ego’s bank book, Powell -- with McHugh in tow -- decide to go to the small town in Pennsylvania where he has lived. Loy plays his estranged wife, whom he goes to great lengths to win back.
The film proved to be so popular that MGM teamed them the following year in “Love Crazy.” This time, Powell plays a married man who pretends he’s insane to woo back his estranged wife (Loy). Like “I Love You Again,” this vehicle is filled with snappy patter and slapstick. And it’s one of the few films featuring Powell without his mustache. He had to shave it off to play his sister in the film’s loony finale. While in production, Loy divorced her first husband and Powell married his third wife, Diana Lewis, 26 years his junior.
By this time, Powell was 49 and Loy 36. They’d make three more “Thin Man” movies and appear briefly together at the finale of 1948’s “The Senator Was Indiscreet.” Powell continued to make movies until 1955, bowing out after playing the kindly Doc in “Mister Roberts.” He retired to Palm Springs but kept in touch with Loy. He died in 1984 at 91.
Loy continued working in films, theater and TV, making her last feature film, “Tell Me What You Want,” in 1980. She died at 88 in 1993. She once said of her relationship with Powell: “I never enjoyed my work more than when I worked with William Powell. He was a brilliant actor, a delightful companion, a great friend and, above all, a true gentleman.”