Myrna Loy is Turner Classic Movies’ Star of the Month for December. Here’s a bio written two decades ago. It’s all still true. – RTJ
Born as Myrna Williams, August 2, 1905; Raidersburg (near Helena), Montana
Death: December 14, 1993; New York, New York
Myrna Loy was a Montana girl who broke out of the Grauman’s chorus line to play vamps and houris in the 1920s and early ’30s, then became the paragon of sophisticated—though always respectable—womanhood on the American screen.
Her father, a cattleman and legislator, died in the 1918 influenza epidemic, occasioning the family’s move to Los Angeles. While dancing, she began trying out for film roles and landed her first job in 1926. The movies came thick and fast, and while her own participation was mostly minor, the résumé doesn’t read badly: Don Juan (1926), the first feature with synchronized music and sound effects; Lubitsch’s So This Is Paris (1926); The Jazz Singer (1927), the first part-talking feature; Hawks’s A Girl in Every Port (1928); the part-talkie Noah’s Ark (1928), in which hers are the first spoken words heard; John Ford’s The Black Watch (1929)—as a maharani seemingly joined at the pelvis to Victor McLaglen as they traded some of the most stilted lines of the early-talkie era.
Her features were vaguely Oriental, which may account for the odd-sounding professional name of Loy, and she was often cast as an exotic: e.g., Karloff’s daughter in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932). More good stuff: Ford’s Arrowsmith (1931), Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932), Clarence Brown’s Emma (1932), Topaze opposite John Barrymore (1933), and the better-than-it-sounds The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933).
Then destiny, and director W.S. “Woody” Van Dyke II, took a hand. In Manhattan Melodrama (1934), Loy climbed into the mockup of a limo to play her first scene with an actor she had yet to meet, William Powell. The script would take her away from Clark Gable, no less, and give her to Powell—and the actors’ chemistry validated the proposition. Van Dyke remembered, and reteamed Powell and Loy later that year in a sixteen-day quickie that became a classic, as well as one of the most enduringly delightful films of the ’30s: The Thin Man, in which Loy was Nora Charles to Powell’s Nick (“Nicky” in her more exasperated moments). Her voice occasionally acquired a spacey slur that connoted divine imperviousness to earthly perturbations, or maybe just one-too-many martini in Nick’s bibulous company. They were the perfect movie couple: lovers so devoted they could kid about it, but great pals, too, whose mutual respect and frank sexuality became a paradigm of adult marriage to millions of viewers.
There was nothing but friendship and professionalism between Loy and Powell themselves. That was plenty, in five “Thin Man” sequels (of steadily diminishing quality), as well as Evelyn Prentice (1934), 1936’s Oscar-winning The Great Ziegfeld (Loy played Flo’s second wife, Billie Burke), the comedy-romance Libeled Lady (1936, with Spencer Tracy and Powell’s real love, Jean Harlow), Double Wedding (1937), I Love You Again (1940), and Love Crazy (1941), not to mention the post-MGM, Powell-starred The Senator Was Indiscreet (1948), in which she had an in-joke cameo. Meanwhile, Gable did get her back: she was named “Queen of the Movies” in 1936, the same year he was officially crowned “King.”
She was in a lot of other movies, with Test Pilot (1938) deserving special mention for its peculiarly compelling, nonromantic triangle involving Loy, Gable, and Spencer Tracy. By the mid ’40s she was still as lovely as ever, but unmistakably of an age to move on to a different sort of role—and away from MGM, which had been her studio home for fifteen years. William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives—another best picture Oscar-winner for her filmography—memorialized the transition by casting her as the wife who welcomes Fredric March back from the war in the most moving homecoming scene since The Birth of a Nation. She wore middle age somewhat more stylishly opposite Cary Grant in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947) and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), then settled into conventional motherhood in The Red Pony (1949), Cheaper by the Dozen (1950), et al. She continued to appear in character roles through the early ’80s.
Always an appealing actress, Loy was never a strong one; there is no such thing as a movie starring Myrna Loy. But she was rarely less than enchanting as a co-star, and, while never nominated for acting honors (as William Powell was), in 1991 she was voted an honorary Oscar.