It is often said that calling something or someone classy is to immediately make them less so, but it’s hard to think of any other appellation that better fits the onscreen presence of Myrna Loy. By the time she reached the apex of her career, she had perfected her image as the humorously sanguine, even-tempered but never frosty society wife. As Anjelica Huston put it in her introduction to Loy’s Honorary Oscar, she could say more with a raised eyebrow than others could with impassioned speeches.
Born Myrna Adele Williams in Helena, Montana on August 2, 1905, Loy grew up in the home of lifelong Democrat mother Adelle (née Johnson) and staunch Republican father David Williams, and likely learned early on the joyful tension to be found in opposites attracting that would be on display in her best loved films. Adelle frequently spent time in California to recover from respiratory illnesses and, while there, convinced her husband, a banker and the youngest man ever elected to serve in the Montana stage legislature, to purchase properties as real estate investment. These plots eventually paid off nicely when he later sold one parcel of land to Charlie Chaplin on which to build a film studio. Loy accompanied her mother on her first jaunt to La Jolla, then after returning to Montana, went back out to Los Angeles, where David died in the 1918 flu epidemic.
Adelle encouraged Myrna’s interest in performance, even enrolling her in a different high school school when the one she was attending would not allow extra-curricular artistic activities. She trained as a dancer, at one point posing for Harry Fielding Winebrenner’s Foundation of Education sculpture, a piece that you can see in the opening shots of Grease (it’s not there anymore, it was removed in 2010 after too much abuse from vandals and the elements). By the age of eighteen, Myrna was supporting her family full-time, dancing at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on stage during the movie prologues.
Portraits of her taken during her Grauman’s stint caught Rudolph Valentino’s eye, who tested her for the lead in a film he was producing with Natacha Rambova. Myrna wasn’t cast but entered films as an extra alongside fellow chorus girl Joan Crawford, before Rambova cast her in What Price Beauty, a film that remained unreleased for a few years while publicity photos of the actress proliferated in magazines and raised her profile enough to land her a contract at Warner Bros., who changed her last name.
As with many of the greatest stars, Myrna Loy was made, not born, and went through a number of phases before she found the perfect fit for her screen image. Early roles were mostly femme fatales, often in yellowface as what was then referred to as “Oriental Temptresses,” with the odd appearance in a prestige project like the 1931 Oscar-winner Transatlantic, which was recently reassembled for the first time in decades and is sadly missing from Criterion’s collection celebrating Loy’s career. She delivers a great deal of her dialogue awkwardly in this film, and it would be a great benefit to her fans to see the road she traveled from her early unsure performances to becoming a towering master of the craft, inscrutable yet warm and always fully in control of her presence.
The beginning of the Loy we know and love happened, in part, because of a criminal: John Dillinger was famously coming out of a screening of Manhattan Melodrama when he was shot, and having already declared her to be his favourite actress, made Loy more famous than ever before, which was swiftly followed the same year by the role that would make her a Hollywood legend. Director W.S. Van Dyke got the idea to cast her as Nora Charles in the comedic detective film The Thin Man after testing her humour at a Hollywood party, by pushing her into a swimming pool (lovely). The role, which included a magnificent star entrance in which she wipes out on a nightclub floor, paired her up with William Powell for the second of eventually thirteen times (fourteen if you count her cameo in The Senator Was Indiscreet) and the role of Nora Charles came to define her signature onscreen persona: wise, witty, accommodating, and styled within an inch of her life. The downside of this, of course, is that her stardom was based on her always portraying the perfect wife, as Nora Charles in particular the plot rarely allows her to be more than just commentary on Powell’s activities, and she would rarely be anything but wives in her best known films to follow (a notable exception, the Sidney Sheldon-scripted comedy The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, in which she plays a happily single judge until meeting Cary Grant, is strangely absent from this collection).
Loy’s most successful years followed in the late thirties and throughout the forties, including her favourite of all her films, the Oscar-nominated Test Pilot, a number of Thin Man sequels, a highly memorable (if, typically, underused) performance in The Best Years of Our Lives, and confirmation of her status as Queen of Hollywood through her off-screen efforts during World War II. She more or less abandoned acting during the war years, serving as assistant to the director of military and naval welfare for the Red Cross, so effective in her open criticism of Hitler’s Germany that she made it on to der fuehrer‘s blacklist and her movies were banned from that country while he reigned. After the war, she returned to movies but at a slower pace, more interested in her position as member-at-large of the U.S. Commission to UNESCO; when she took the position on in 1948, she was the first celebrity to do so. In the fifties she only made four movies, between 1960 and her retirement in 1981 she appeared in six; among the most memorable is her happy alcoholic in Airport 1975, which she shot while, offscreen, she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer and had a double mastectomy, which she never revealed publicly until publishing an autobiography over a decade later. Her final appearance before retirement was an episode of the short-lived, groundbreaking series Love, Sidney with Tony Randall.
Loy was never nominated for an Academy Award, and in a twisted way it’s easy to see why. She co-starred a number of times with Cary Grant and the two of them had a brand of stardom in common, they were famous for comedy (which the Academy has a bad history of never properly respecting) and they both had solid personae on screen that you never doubted for a second. It makes sense that people watching her would forget that she was even acting. On screen she seems to have no self-consciousness about cameras, there’s no feeling that she’s worrying about favouring her good side, and to watch her in her best-known comedies she is both aspirationally perfect and warmly relatable, almost as if she was straight out of an advertisement (but not as shallow). An attempt to rectify the injustice of her lack of recognition came when she received her Honorary Oscar at the 1991 ceremony. However, she was unable to attend in person due to illness and gave a very brief thank you via satellite, as perfectly to the point as she was in her greatest roles. She died two years later, in December of 1993, at the age of 88.
Criterion’s collection of Loy’s films celebrating the month of her birth (117 years ago) doesn’t cover the full breadth of her career, there should be selections from her early, admittedly problematic roles as Asian women and her late-life cameos in movies like The April Fools (not that I ever want to sit through that again). What is does give the viewer, however, is a perfectly satisfying glimpse at why she is still so loved, beginning with the pre-Thin Man performances where she’s glamorous but not quite on steady ground yet, through to her gliding across the screen like the unchallenged queen of the industry in her most famous roles. She’s without a doubt one of the classiest acts in the movies, it almost feels like she’s too good for the medium, but in case it lessens her to say so, let’s keep that opinion between us for now.
All reviews are by Bil Antoniou, except where noted. Many thanks to Rachel Ho and Emma Badame for their generous contributions.
MUST-SEE MYRNA LOY
Libeled Lady (Jack Conway, 1936)
The best side effect of the enforcement of the Production Code was the invention of screwball comedies, movies in which Hollywood’s slyly provocative writers followed the rules in practice but never in spirit. This one is in the top tier of the genre, in which Spencer Tracy’s newspaper is being sued for millions by wealthy heiress Myrna Loy thanks to a libelous story about her indulging in a carefree love affair. He hires William Powell to seduce her in order to drag her into a scandal that she will hopefully be embarrassed enough about to drop her suit; to catch her in the act with a married man, however, Powell needs to be married, so Tracy sends him down the aisle with his own frustrated fiancée Jean Harlow, only to see his plan in jeopardy when both of the ladies fall in love with the dapper con man. Each sequence sparkles with funnier jokes than the last and the film benefits greatly from the combination of the four vastly different but strangely complementary styles of its stars, enjoying in full Tracy’s understated everyman charm, Loy’s frosty command, Powell’s effortlessly erudite and reserved romantic hero, and Harlow’s good-natured, rough-hewn dazzle. A gem.
I Love You Again (W.S. Van Dyke, 1940)
Rachel Ho: Another collaboration with Powell, in which Loy takes a backseat to her long-time scene partner. Powell’s performance as George Carey, a cunning conman who had been living as Larry Wilson, an uptight boring businessman, for 9 years due to a severe case of amnesia, is charismatic and hilarious. Loy, of course, plays George Carey/Larry Wilson’s wife, Kay Wilson. While it is a Powell film, the movie doesn’t work without a strong actress to play Kay and, given the era, the character rather spicy. She is the one to insist upon a divorce from her husband, Larry, because she feels no excitement in their marriage or her life. Loy brings a tenacity to Kay that matches Powell’s conman toe to toe. She refuses to back down from George/Larry, giving a voice to the countless number of wives trapped in joyless marriages and stagnant lives.
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (H.C. Potter, 1948)
Emma Badame: This classic comedy, which sees Loy co-star alongside leading man Cary Grant, remains just as delightfully entertaining as it was upon its release in 1948. Directed by H.C. Potter, the film follows the Blandings family as they look to trade in their small New York City family apartment for an idyllic and, most importantly spacious, country seat in Connecticut. Unfortunately for Jim and Muriel (Grant and Loy) but fortunately for audiences, the two are conned into buying the ultimate fixer-upper. As construction commences and the repair bills amass, their dream life recedes further and further from view. It’s a genius set-up that leads to memorably hilarious moments and a few surprisingly effective dramatic ones too. While Grant delivers from the get-go, it’s Loy who steals the show. Watching her run down the exact paint colours she wants (if only she had Pantones!) with one of the workers, only to have him recount the absolute basics is a true highlight and one I quote every time a DIY project surfaces. Yearning for that perfect nest is something each of us can relate to and it allows us all to see a little of ourselves in both of the Blandings. It’s such a timeless concept that it was remade as, or at least heavily influenced, 1986’s The Money Pit, starring Tom Hanks and Shelley Long
The Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 1934)
Rachel Ho: The legendary partnership between Myrna Loy and William Powell began in May 1934 with the release of Manhattan Melodrama and The Thin Man. The latter would transform Loy from femme fatale to heroine, and in turn, help her become a true Hollywood star. The Thin Man was the first of six films in the series about Nick and Nora Charles, a happily married couple, he a retired private detective and she a wealthy socialite. When an old client of Nick’s goes missing, he is persuaded out of retirement and sets about to solve this mystery. As far as plot goes, while entertaining and more complex than your average whodunit, The Thin Man wasn’t anything groundbreaking then and isn’t groundbreaking today. What continues to draw audiences to this film is Powell and Loy’s chemistry, which was noticeable in Melodrama but undeniable here. They had an effortless ease with one another that feels steeped in lived experience and their banter is drowning in worn familiarity. Rather than fighting for the spotlight, Loy and Powell are gracious in giving each other space to be funny, dramatic, vulnerable and heartfelt when needed, encouraging one another and elevating the other’s performance. Both actors were formidable in their own right, but together they were pure magic, and The Thin Man is arguably when the magic began. Canadian subscribers, please note that this film is only screening on the channel in the United States.
After The Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 1936)
Emma Badame: Asking a classic film fan to pick a favourite Thin Man is like asking a parent to pick a favourite child. We all make a big show of it being an impossible question to answer when really we have a clear favourite. And for the six-film Nick and Nora Charles series, that answer is After the Thin Man. From a story by Dashiell Hammett, and a script by award-winning husband and wife screenwriting team Albert Hackett and Francis Goodrich (fittingly), the sequel to 1934’s The Thin Man sees the sleuthing couple back on the case as Nora’s cousin reports her somewhat sketchy husband missing. The story is full of gratifying twists and interesting characters, and before you know it the missing persons’ case has become a whodunnit murder mystery. The natural chemistry between Loy and co-star William Powell is something few actors are lucky enough to experience and it makes every moment between the two sparkle. They shine individually, there’s no doubt, but together they’re something rare and riveting to watch. Add to that a great turn by Jimmy Stewart in one of his first notable roles, and this one is a must-see for more than just curious Loy fans. Canadian subscribers, please note that this film is only screening on the channel in the United States.
Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian, 1932)
Watching this film for Loy isn’t a satisfying experience: she’s delightful, but she only has a few minutes on screen in a musical comedy whose focus is the romance between Maurice Chevalier and Jeannette Macdonald. Chevalier plays a Parisian tailor who is incensed with an old money/no money aristocrat (Charles Ruggles) who gets fitted for a new suit and takes it home without paying his bill, so our plucky, perpetually warbling hero (whose always being slightly off key had some manner of appeal to Americans in the thirties) follows him to his country villa. While there, Chevalier passes himself off as an aristocrat and charms a princess (MacDonald), but their passion is in danger when she finds out his true identity. It’s a silly, lighthearted charmer but the use of recitative in the bountiful musical score, reminiscent of recent works by René Clair, is more or less revolutionary for American cinema of the time. Mamoulian’s zippy pacing and spontaneous energy isn’t the least bit hindered by awkward early sound technology.
Manhattan Melodrama (W.S. Van Dyke, 1934)
The same year that Myrna Loy and William Powell hit paydirt with Van Dyke in The Thin Man also saw them co-starring for him in this involving drama about two orphaned boys (one of them played in the opening by a young Mickey Rooney) who grow up on opposite sides of the law. As adults, Blackie (Clark Gable) is a gangster and Jim (William Powell) is a district attorney gunning for governor, who bumps up his bid for office when Blackie commits a murder and Jim has to prosecute him. Despite one of them having to condemn the other to death, the bond between these two never frays and they love each other despite having come to such opposite outcomes. Loy is wonderful as Blackie’s gal Friday who falls in love with Jim and switches to him instead. She moves up socially in doing so, only to question the choice when she finds that her classy husband doesn’t honour his loyalty to his lifelong friend. The plot is a framework that would be used time and again in many a manly drama (Angels with Dirty Faces, We Own the Night, etc), and while this isn’t the most scintillating version of it, the performances and cinematography make it reek with class.
Test Pilot (Victor Fleming, 1938)
Rachel Ho: Loy is Ann Barton, a Kansas farm girl who encounters arrogant test pilot Jim Lane (Clark Gable) after his aircraft made an emergency landing on her property. He quickly falls in love with Ann, while Spencer Tracy is Gunner Morris, Jim’s best friend and the third-wheel of the loved up couple. After one of Jim’s colleagues dies during a flight, both Jim and Ann are faced with the dangerous reality of Jim’s profession. They fight to keep their relationship afloat while Gunner does the best he can to protect his friend in the air and on the ground. When acting between two Hollywood heavyweights like Gable and Tracy, it’s an impressive feat to not only keep your head above water, but to stand on firm footing. The King of Hollywood, Gable in particular oozed a particular brand of charm that would disarm the vast majority of us. However, it’s Loy’s boisterous performance as Ann that is the beating heart of the Oscar nominated Test Pilot. One scene in particular where Jim and Ann, still in the courting phase, attend a baseball game, shows Loy’s warmth, as Ann is jubilantly cheering on her team much to the chagrin of a fellow spectator seated in front of her. Gable’s Jim sits back and watches Loy’s Ann in awe of her unapologetic playful coarseness. Loy brought an intelligence, humour and light-hearted manner to Test Pilot that softened the rough edges of Tracy and humbled the inherent confidence of Gable. A well-rounded performance from a remarkable actress who could have easily faded into the background but instead, shone brightly.
Love Crazy (Jack Conway, 1941)
This hilarious screwball comedy is another pairing between Loy and William Powell, whose chemistry never ran dry in the fourteen films they made together. They play a couple who are getting ready for a lovely night to celebrate their fourth anniversary before being interrupted by a series of remarkable inconveniences. Her nosy mother (Florence Bates) visits and sprains her ankle. Powell gets stuck in an elevator with ex-girlfriend Gail Patrick. Loy thinks he’s having an affair and tries to get revenge by seducing Patrick’s husband, but accidentally goes to bachelor neighbour Jack Carson instead. Arguments take us to divorce court where Powell gets the idea to feign madness in order to delay their split, begging Loy to consider taking him back before a wonderfully elaborate bedroom door-slamming sequence sees him dressing up as an old lady to avoid his pursuers. It’s not as polished a classic as The Awful Truth or The Lady Eve, but the laughs are plentiful and come often in this delightful charmer.
The Red Pony (Lewis Milestone, 1949)
With the success of The Best Years of Our Lives and with screwball comedies that exploited the smart set no longer popular, Loy moved into a series of Mary Astor-style maternal roles, slowing down her film appearances until rarely doing more than cameos in her last three decades before retiring. She brings a great deal of wisdom and warmth to an otherwise underwritten supporting part as the mother to a little boy growing up on a California ranch, who comes of age into an understanding of grown-up responsibility thanks to his father’s gifting him a beautiful pony to call his own. Ranch hand Robert Mitchum is a loving mentor to the boy and helps him learn the ropes of caring for the animal, but nature has its way and the pony’s fate is integral to our sympathetic hero’s learning to live with a broken heart while, at the same time, letting the experience mend his broken home. Look for an eight year-old Beau Bridges appearing in this warm and wonderful family film.
FOR THE CURIOUS
Penthouse (W.S. Van Dyke, 1933)
Warner Baxter plays a lawyer who loses his firm and his fiancée because of his efforts to defend underworld criminals, but agrees to help the woman who dumped him (Martha Sleeper) when her new fiancé (Phillips Holmes) is arrested for murdering his moll-ish mistress (Mae Clarke). The evidence is stacked against the accused and Baxter receives anonymous threats to drop the matter, but he doesn’t stop looking to find anything that could exonerate him. Help comes in the form of a classy call girl (Loy) whose apartment overlooks the balcony upon which the murder took place. Her help also provides Baxter with a new possible romance, while the good will he has garnered in the gangster world assists with finding out the truth. The plot gets a bit convoluted towards the end but the stylish sets and great characterizations make it a solid good time. Loy, working for the director who would helm her legendary breakthrough a year later, still hasn’t found the right fit for her countenance but is already showing a great deal of star quality.
Stamboul Quest (Sam Wood, 1934)
This silly bit of escapism was one of many female-led spy thrillers that were popular in the thirties. Loy is iconic and irresistible as a German counter-espionage agent based on the real-life “Fraulein Doktor”, who was still alive and teaching her trade to students at the time the film was released. She is sent to Constantinople (now Istanbul) during the first World War to discover if a Turkish commander is a double agent giving up secrets to the British, but her job gets difficult when she falls in love with an American doctor (George Brent) who demands that she give up her career for marriage. It’s silly escapism, told with the vague sense of faraway land exoticism more common in Paramount ventures of the time (the settings and music are closer to what you’d find in Baghdad, and the non-English writing on screen is actually Arabic, not Turkic). It’s the kind of movie in which the hard-hearted heroine makes sure to have no end of stunning evening gowns to wear while on assignment halfway around the world, but the real issue here is that director Wood, the famously conservative and likely pro-fascist helmer of later classics like Goodbye Mr. Chips and The Pride of the Yankees, is no Ernst Lubitsch, and directs this film as if he’s embarrassed to be responsible for such foolish indulgence. His cast fights him every step of the way, and they make it worth the effort.
Double Wedding (Richard Thorpe, 1937)
Myrna Loy later remembered filming this movie as an unhappy experience thanks to Jean Harlow’s death during shooting. (Harlow was the fiancée of co-star Powell at the time.) None of that drama shows on screen in this sweet little charmer in which Loy plays a controlling, humorless fashion boutique manager who is furious when she begins to lose control over the little sister (Florence Bird) whose life she has been steering in the “right direction.” Bird is supposed to marry the suitor that Loy picked out for her, a sweet but passive John Beal, but the young woman is thrilled to be taking part of the amateur theatricals of a bohemian artist who lives in a trailer (Powell) and is beginning to fall in love with him instead. Getting to the happy occasion of the title involves delightful complications that are produced by a script that doesn’t crackle as nicely as Libeled Lady did, but still has pleasures to deliver the ultimately satisfied viewer.
Whipsaw (Sam Wood, 1935)
The most ludicrous film in this series has Loy as the accomplice to two jewel thieves who steal four impossibly precious pearls from a gem collector just moments after he purchased them. She doesn’t know that her cohort Harvey Stephens planted the goods on her as she travels across the country to meet him in New Orleans, accompanied by another hood (Spencer Tracy) who got her out of some trouble and is now escorting her on her journey. She knows that Tracy is actually an undercover cop but doesn’t let on, hoping to shake him off before reaching her destination, but along the way she, what else, falls madly in love with him and is inspired to go straight. The stupidity of Depression-era movies that seek to soothe female audiences with the notion that their poverty is not nearly as important as their moral rectitude is almost embarrassing to behold now, but it’s kept from being too painful thanks to Loy’s, as always, nuanced and multiply layered performance, putting across intelligence, sensitivity, savvy and steely self-preservation simultaneously without ever so much as twitching a nerve.