Monday, December 17, 2007

Great Film Icons: Myrna Loy

Born August 2, 1905 in Radersburg, Montana Myrna Adele Williams was the daughter of Welsh rancher David Franklin Williams and his wife, Della Mae a talented artist who would later encourage her daughter in an arts career. Myrna's father was a banker and real estate developer and the youngest man ever elected to the Montana state legislature. Travelling by train in early 1905, he went through a small beautiful station called Myrna and eventually named her after that station. Myrna described herself as "...a homely kid with freckles that came out every spring and stuck on me till Christmas." Myrna Williams made her stage debut at age 12 in Helena Montana's Marlow Theater in a dance she choreographed based on The Blue Bird from the Rose Dream Operetta.


When Myna was 13 her father died of influenza and the family moved to Los Angeles. She attended the Westlake School for Girls and at the age of 15 she began appearing in local stage productions.

She attended Venice High School and posed for a statue by Harry Winebrenner called Spiritual, which actually isn't a particularly good likeness of Miss Loy. Standing atop a stone pedestal, back arched, the short-haired figure is semi-nude (wearing only a thin gown which leaves little to the imagination), with one arm raised in a dramatic pose. The statue still remains in front of Venice High School and can be seen in the opening scenes of the film Grease. Recently the statue was vandalized but it has been restored and is now fenced in.


It was actress Natacha Rambova (second wife of Rudolph Valentino and infamous lesbian queen of Hollywood) who arranged a screen test for Loy which she failed. "I rushed out of the projection room, ran home and cried for hours. I was really ashamed of myself. It was so awful..." Myrna would recall years later. The auditions continued til 1925 when she got a role and appeared in the Rambova-penned movie What Price Beauty? opposite Rambova and Nita Naldi. In 1926, Myrna appeared in the Warner Brothers film called Satan in Sables which, at long last, landed her a contract. From there on she had steady work in silent films as the femme fatale, the vamp and other kinds of exotic women a stereotype she would struggle to break free of for years.

Her real breakthrough coincided with the birth of sound when she appeared in 1927's The Jazz Singer (the first sound movie made) as a chorus girl. In 1929 she improvised a "foreign" accent, sang and danced in Warner Brothers' first musical The Desert Song. Loy would later say on the film "...it kind of solidified my exotic non-American image"... To break free of the stero-typing she was cast in a number of early lavish Technicolor musicals including 1929's The Show of Shows, 1930's The Bride of the Regiment and 1930's Under A Texas Moon. Soon Loy became associated with musicals and when they went out of favor with the public, late in 1930, her career went into a bit of a slump.

In 1934 she appeared in Manhattan Melodrama with Clark Gable and William Powell. It was the film infamous gangster John Dillinger had seen at The Biograph Theater the night he was shot and killed. The film received widespread publicity with some newspapers reporting that Loy had been Dillinger's favorite actress. Loy later expressed distaste for the manner in which the film studio had exploited Dillinger's death.


After appearing with Ramón Novarro in 1933's The Barbarian, Loy landed the part that established her as a major actress, Nora Charles in The Thin Man. The director W. S. Van Dyke chose Loy after hearing about her wit and sense of humor which the public had yet to see in her films. Legend has it that to test her reaction he pushed Loy into a swimming pool in the middle of a party, her aplomb in handling the situation was exactly what he envisioned for Nora and in his mind she won the role.

Louis B. Mayer however hated the idea and refused to let Loy play the part, saying that she was a dramatic actress only, but Van Dyke insisted. Mayer eventually relented on the condition that filming be completed within two weeks as Loy was committed to start filming on another picture Stamboul Quest. Surprisingly The Thin Man became one of the year's biggest hits, and was nominated for the best picture Academy Award. Loy's performance received excellent reviews and she was acclaimed for her comedic skills. She and her co-star William Powell proved to be a popular screen couple and would go on to appear in 13 films together, the most prolific pairing in Hollywood history. Loy later referred to The Thin Man as the film "that finally made me... after more than 80 films".

Her success in Manhattan Melodrama and The Thin Man marked a turning point in her career and she was cast in more important and prestigious pictures, giving her the opportunity to develop her comedic skills in films like 1936's Wife vs. Secretary with Clark Gable again and Petticoat Fever with Robert Montgomery. She made four films in close succession with William Powell: 1936's Libeled Lady, which also starred Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow, The Great Ziegfeld, in which she played Billie Burke opposite Powell's Florenz Ziegfeld, the second Thin Man film, After the Thin Man, and the fantastic romantic comedy 1937's Double Wedding.


During this period, Myrna was a big box-office draw. She was popular enough that, in 1936, she was named Queen of the Movies and Clark Gable the king in a nationwide poll of movie goers and her profile was the most requested in the by women to their plastic surgeons. Loy was one of Hollywood's busiest and highest paid actresses, and in 1937 and 1938 she was listed in the annual "Quigley Poll of the Top Ten Money Making Stars", which was compiled from the votes of movie exhibitors throughout the U.S. for the stars that had generated the most revenue in their theaters over the previous year.

Loy had proven her comedic talents but was anxious to demonstrate her dramatic ability which she did in 1939 as the female lead in The Rains Came, opposite Tyrone Power, the story of an Indian aristocrat Rama Safti returning from medical training in the U.S. to give his life to the poor folk of Ranchipur. Lady Edwina, played by Loy, and her drunken artist ex-lover Ransome get in the way, but everyone shapes up when faced by plague, earthquakes and flooding. This movie was a monumental undertaking for the studio, it shot for 100 days, and almost half were spent filming effects shots including man-made rain and floods, for which 33 million gallons of water were used. It was the first movie to win an Oscar for Best Visual Effects.

When World War II broke out, she all but abandoned her acting career to focus on the war effort and worked closely with the Red Cross. She was so fiercely outspoken against Adolf Hitler that her name appeared on his blacklist. She helped run a Naval Auxiliary Canteen and toured frequently to raise funds.

In 1946, after the war, she returned to acting in William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (his first post-war movie as well), playing the wife of returning serviceman portrayed by Fredric March. Loy considered this film her proudest acting achievement as she had throughout her career, championed the rights of black actors and characters to be depicted with dignity on film which this film did. The American Film Institute ranked this as the #37 Greatest Movie of All Time.


In 1947 Loy was paired with Cary Grant and a teenage Shirley Temple in David O. Selznick's comedy film The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer. Teenaged Susan Turner (Temple), with a severe crush on playboy artist Richard Nugent (Grant), sneaks into his apartment to model for him and is found there by her sister Judge Margaret Turner (Loy). Threatened with jail, Nugent agrees to date Susan until the crush abates. He counters Susan's comic false sophistication by even more comic put-on teenage mannerisms, with a slapstick climax. The Grant/ Loy pairing was so successful they appeared together again in 1948's Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.


Her film career continued on sporadically after that. In 1960, she appeared in Midnight Lace and From the Terrace, but was not in another until 1969 in The April Fools. She also returned to the stage, making her Broadway debut in a short-lived 1973 revival of Clare Boothe Luce's The Women. Loy also occasionally appeared on TV until 1982 when she made her last appearance on a TV show called Love, Sidney.

Loy had no children of her own, though it is documented that she was very close to the children of her first husband, Arthur Hornblow. "Some perfect wife I am," she said, referring to her typecasting. "I've been married four times, divorced four times, have no children, and can't boil an egg."

In later life, she assumed a more influential role as Co-Chairman of the Advisory Council of the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing. From 1949 until 1954, she was a member of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO; she also was a feminist and an active member of the Democratic Party. She also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Kennedy Center in 1988.

On December 14, 1993, after battling breast cancer and undergoing two mastectomies(one in 1975 and another in 1979), she died during surgery, the exact nature of which was never specified in the reports of her death in New York City. She was cremated and the ashes interred at Forestvale Cemetery, in Helena, Montana.


Although Loy was never nominated for an Academy Award for any single performance, after an extensive letter writing campaign and years of lobbying by screenwriter and then-Writers Guild of America, west board member Michael Russnow, who enlisted the support of Loy's former screen colleagues and friends such as Roddy McDowall, Sidney Sheldon, Harold Russell and many others, she received an Academy Honorary Award in 1991, "for her career achievement". She accepted via camera from her New York home, making only a short acceptance speech of, "You've made me very happy. Thank you very much." It was her last public appearance in any medium.

A tribute to Myrna Loy by Julianne Moore from TCM

5 comments:

michele said...

First off, I'm the daughter of Harry F. Winebrenner and that posting of the sculpture is what was left of twenty years of an attempt to revamp what it was.
You're an ass to post that. That was not what my dad had originally did. I've got pictures. I hate this, all my life I've watched people try and pretend that they knew stuff about this sculpture. I agree, that if that is what you came up with, it is shit. But don't post my fathers name on it. Several artists tryed to recreate the original after vandals had their way with it. They don't have the original casting. Stanley Johnson was given that by my dad in 1968. He moved to 29 Palms a couple of years later. My dad passed in 1969. I was only 13 years old.

Becca said...

Michele-
Firstly let me say I'm sorry if I offended you or the memory of your father, it was not the intention of this post. I did research for this post from several sources and obviously based on what you say here what I read about the statue was inaccurate. Thank you for setting the record straight.

Now that I've said that...
I'm an ass? My aim was to provide a small overview of the amazing life and career of the wonderful actress Myrna Loy, not to offend you or your father's good name. He was an artist, I myself am an artist and I have nothing but the greatest respect for a proffessional peer, you however... Well perhaps you could have set the record straight without the colorful language.

erich vance said...

I can't absolutely swear it, but Myrna Loy made at least one TV appearance after the one listed: she wasd on a Murder She Wrote episode. I can't recall the episode or the circumstances, but i remember seeing her there.

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Wendel said...

I have always thought that how a woman carries herself is more important than her outside package. To me Myrna Loy has always epitomized that. She is the most sensual actress of her era. She had class, style, and you knew SHE KNEW what she wanted, and how to get it. You can talk about your "sex kittens" all you want, but Myrna Loy always came across as "you're going to remember this for the rest of your life."
She was my first "cougar crush."