John Ford once described Myrna Loy as “the only good girl in Hollywood,” mainly because she wouldn’t sleep with him, but the label was often reinforced by the types of roles Loy played and the way she led her life. She was also often referred to as America’s favorite wife due to the preponderance of loyal & loving wives she played in many of her films, most notably The Thin Man series (’34-’47) & The Best Years of Our Lives (’46). That she was married & divorced 4 times had little bearing on public sentiment because she chose to live her private life outside the spotlight, focusing on social causes that were important to her. If her roles focused on being a loyal wife to neer-do-wells like Nick Charles (William Powel) or Van Stanhope (Clark Gable, Wife vs. Secretary ‘36), it was from a position of strength and confidence. She was never a shrinking violet, instead imbuing in her characters a moral center based on equality (and in some case superiority) with the opposite sex. She was generally smarter than her mate & sometimes used her feminine wiles to befuddles them, but she always did so with class & style, thus making her not only the only good girl, but also the best girl.
If Loy were only remembered for The Thin Man series her place in Hollywood would be permanently etched as a master of witty & urbane comedy at the highest level. That I have placed The Thin Man at the top of Loy’s Top 10 greatest performances should come as no surprise because of its sheer genius, but also its amazing longevity. Loy played Nora Charles in 6 Thin Man movies spanning nearly 13 years & while the first 3 stand head & shoulders above the others, the entirety of the series makes it a pillar of the studio era. It was perhaps the first time that a married couple was shown as loving & respectful & the focus of the plot was not the falling in love, falling out of love or meeting cute. Nick & Nora are happily married when The Thin Man (’34) begins & while Nick clearly has a sorted past, his love for Nora never waivers, even when Nora challenges him to take the case, then outsmarts him to draw herself further into it. They have a routine that creates a world unto themselves that is both amusing to watch & a joy to behold; the scrunched nose & sly looks across a crowded room; the casual midnight breakfasts & the verbal interplay around Nick’s past & Nora’s money make them the couple everyone wish they were.
If 6 Thin Man movies weren’t enough to instill a love of Myrna Loy & William Powell together, then I Love You Again (’40), made just after the 3nd installment (Another Thin Man ’39) will certainly do the trick. While the 2 are again married, this time it’s not at all happy, nor is it driven by the casual verbal wit that made the other movies successful. Instead, Powell is a penny pinching bore, lacking all personality, who insufferably drives Myrna’s dutiful wife to seek a divorce. When he’s knocked on the head, however, he becomes a charismatic con-man, who arrives back in town determined to swindle the good folks by using the trustworthiness of his former self. If the high concept shenanigans don’t tweak your interest, or if amnesia isn’t your forte, I Love You Again can play as a twisted romantic comedy because Powell turning on the charm & Myrna’s reluctant acquiescence make their renewed courtship a sight to behold. Powell’s over the moon feelings towards Myrna plainly reflect the effect she had on any viewer & lend credibility to his character, if only because his memory has been zapped by the bonk to the head. Only the reconciliation between his conman core & his lovesick heart can bring about a happy end.
It’s a good thing that in classic Hollywood the handsome bachelor never has a girlfriend he needs to dispatch before finding true love with the heroine. As is frequently the case, that bachelor happens to be Cary Grant & in The Bachelor & the Bobbysoxer (’47) he is so free & easy that he ends up in court having precipitated a barroom brawl between 2 women fighting for his attention. That the judge presiding over the case is by the book Margaret Turner (Loy) at first looks like doom for Grant, but the truth sets him free. Unfortunately, he stumbles right into the starry-eyed clutches of Judge Turner’s precocious niece & ward Susan (Shirley Temple), who at 17 has grand dreams of Grant as her true love & savior. When he is sentenced to exhaust the young girl’s amour or be convicted of assault, he sets about to deflate the girl’s interest, while at the same time falling in love with her aunt. Loy does everything in her power to appear as the hard charging, no-nonsense speaker of reason, but she too falls victim to love & it is in these moments that the true Loy appeal shines through. As a married woman in most of her films, we are never privy to the flicker of attraction & the spark of love that she wonderfully conveys here. It is muted, and I would argue nuanced, as her character vacillates between sense & nonsense, being practical & loving a died in the wool bachelor…and an artist to boot.
Made famous by being the last movie John Dillinger saw before being gunned down by federal agents, Manhattan Melodrama (’34) was also the first of 14 films Loy made with William Powell. 2 best friends Powell & Clark Gable), saved from drowning as youth, grow up together, but choose different sides of the law as adults. Powell is the upstanding assistant DA, while Blackie (Gable) runs an illegal casino & regularly pays off the cops to stay open. Blackie does have the girl, however, & Loy plays against type as the gangster’s mole, but with a great deal of class & panache. She’s the girlfriend who only wants to get married & save her man from himself. Instead, Blackie inadvertently provides the means by which Loy meets Powell’s ADA & we all know what happens when those to get together, they get married. Gable’s Blackie is all smiles & dimples, unless business is on the line & when he kills a man over a gambling debt, becoming a suspect for the ADA things start to get a little interesting. The marriage isn’t perfect & Powell must choose to be true to himself or true to his friend, with Loy’s loyalty hanging in the balance.
While Manhattan Melodrama was the starting point for the Loy/Powell relationship Double Wedding (’37) was the mid-point in the 14 film run. Similar to Bobbysoxer, the uptight Loy must be molded towards pliability by a free willed bachelor, this time admitted bohemian Charles Lodge (Powell), but still romanced through a younger charge in Loy’s care. While Loy agrees to pose for a portrait painted by Lodge, all to supposedly keep Lodge from her impressionable younger sister, the pair falls in love, albeit reluctantly. Relying heavily on the Screwball Comedy template quite prevalent in the 1930’s, Double Wedding has mistaken identity, smashed paintings & drunken assaults, all before a happy ending where one bride gets carried away & one groom gets a sock on the nose. Loy’s exasperation is played wonderfully off the manic Powell character, creating a balance between the 2 experienced partners. In fact, it’s the casual physicality the 2 actors share with one another that makes the slow boil romance so believable. Watching them together in 6 of the films on this list is a joy.
Staying in the Screwball genre, Libeled Lady (’36) is a fast-paced & fast talking gem that has Loy & Powell joined by Spencer Tracy & Jen Harlow in a round robin foursome of love, marriage & deceit. Loy, per usual, is a sophisticated & high-class heiress, who just happens to have been libeled by Tracy’s newspaper to the tune of $5,000,000. Tracy brings in the suave Powell to compromise her integrity, but he must pretend to be married to Tracy’s long-suffering fiancé (Harlow). When Powell’s escape clause is foiled & he’s actually married to Harlow, all the while sincerely falling in love with Loy (who wouldn’t), it puts a major crimp in Tracy’s grand scheme. Complicating matters is Harlow’s insistence that maybe she prefers Powell to Tracy, wanting to further undermine the scheme & remain married to Powell. Loy stays mainly out of the fray but has some wonderfully intimate scenes with the vacillating Powell before finally becoming too alluring to resist. She starts out as a cold fish, but warms up as the story proceeds, dropping her veneer & becoming the charismatic Myrna the audience wants, which only further complicates the proceedings as the story moves towards its happy conclusion.
Dropping a mother in law in the middle of a Screwball Comedy is a surefire recipe for mayhem & Love Crazy (’41) proves the point to the hilt. Loy & Powell play a happily, if precariously, married couple ready to celebrate their 4th wedding anniversary when Loy’s mother drops in to destroy the evening, the mood & quite possibly the marriage itself. Through happenstance, an ex-girlfriend & an elevator accident, all precipitated by the aforementioned mother-in-law, the couple struggles to right the ship after not 4, but 5 people, including the awesome Jack Carson, are involved in a comedy of errors, attempts at two-timing & a full court press on Loy by championship archer Carson. No one is innocent in the mess, even Myrna plots to first give the appearance of cheating, then gets caught up in a hilarious seduction, & it takes Susan/Loy going all the way to court with a divorce decree in her hands to begin to sort things out, but not before an insanity plea, a commitment to an asylum & a harrowing escape. Powell is manic & entertaining, but Loy is not quite the level-headed woman she normally plays, instead jumping to conclusions, acting rashly & misguidedly listening to the mother that put everything in motion, but to great comic effect. It’s a departure for her, but a welcome one in her list of great comedic performances.
On the flip side of emotion is Loy’s performance in The Best Years of Our Lives (’46), the 7 times Oscar winning drama about returning soldiers & their families after WWII. Loy plays wife to veteran Fredric March, who suffers from alcoholism & depression upon returning home in one of the most celebrated movies about WWII. Also starring Dana Andrews, Theresa Wright, Virginia Mayo & Harold Russell (the only actor to win 2 Oscars for the same role), The Best Year of Our Lives is a sincere & honest portrayal of post war American & the permanent damage that was done to its servicemen & their families. Myrna’s character has as much depth as any in her career, and while certainly not her biggest role, if any had been worth of an Oscar this may have been it. She is the backbone of not only her family, but of the movie as a whole, while at the same time representing what every American left behind would have aspired to be. There is great emotion in her performance, but done so with subtlety & TYPICALLY Myrna understatement.
Because Myrna was so good at all kinds of comedy Mr. Blandings Builds Dream House (’48) fits right in with her Screwball Comedies, even if its release falls outside the heyday of the type. Co-starring Cary Grant, Loy’s Mrs. Blandings falls right in with her husband in their obsessive desire to build the perfect house in the suburbs of New York. In a wonderfully daffy scene Myrna dictates color after color to seemingly bewildered painters in an effort to create moods & patterns clearly not visible to the naked eye. At certain times, however, per usual she is also given to be the voice of reason to temper her increasingly befuddled husband. While dissimilar to Bachelor & the Bobbysoxer in the nature of their relationship, the give & take between Grant & Loy, with whom she starred in 3 films, is perhaps second only to hers with Powell.
Finally, in The Rains Came (’39), Myrna is the dissatisfied wife of a British aristocrat in early 20th century India. A former lover, George Brent, first tries to take advantage of her failing marriage, but Loy’s character instead chooses to seduce a native Indian doctor, played by Tyrone Power. When the monsoon comes & causes first flooding & then a cholera epidemic, killing Loy’s husband, she decides to turn away from her deceitful ways and help the suffering along with the doctor, but is forced to pay a penalty for her wayward past, sacrificing so the doctor can take his place in his native society. While never mentioned among 1939’s best films, The Rains Came earned 6 Oscar nominations, winning the first ever special effects Oscar, beating both Gone with the Wind (’39) & The Wizard of Oz (’39). Myrna is seductive and alluring as she tries to seduce or entice 2 different men, which makes this performance more of a throw back to some of her ‘exotic’ roles from early in her career like The Barbarian (’33) or The Black Watch (’29).
It’s no coincidence that the best films of Myrna’s career were in the heart of the Golden Era of Hollywood. Her versatility lent itself to a variety of genres, most notably sophisticated comedy, but it also captures the many important sub-genres that evolved in the era like pre-code dramas, screwball comedies & melodramas to name a few. That she worked with the most talented co-stars is also a testament to the depth of her talent, but also to her everyday appeal to the audience. Even when she was playing rich aristocrats in the middle of the depression she was accepted for her down to earth believability, beautiful features and most of all her willingness to not take herself in her characters too seriously. She was America’s wife, willing to sacrifice self for the relationship, but also willing to hold her man accountable when necessary, all while making a perfect house & with a smile on her face. She was one of a kind and a joy no matter what she was playing, wife or single, rich or poor, nice or even not too nice.