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Oscar Profile #91: Myrna Loy

Born August 2, 1905 in Radersburg, Montana, Myrna Williams’ (later Loy’s) father was a rancher, banker, real estate developer and the youngest man ever elected to the Montana state legislature. When she was 7 her mother nearly died of pneumonia and she and her mother were sent to live in Southern California until she recovered. Her mother tried to convince Myrna’s father to join them, but he preferred the life of a Montana rancher, so they returned to Montana where Myrna made her stage debut at 12. After her father’s death from the Spanish flu in 1918, 13 year-old Myrna, her mother and brother moved permanently to California where she began making stage appearances at 15. At 18, she left school to pursue acting full time.

Her screen career began in 1925 when she was just 19. Seen in bit parts as vamps, slave girls and maids, she graduated to chorus girls and murderesses, often playing Asians. In 1932 she caused a sensation in a transparent gown in Ernst Lubitsch’s musical, Love Me Tonight in support of Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette Macdonald, a scene that had to be deleted when the film was re-released under the Hollywood Production Code in 1949. She followed that with two major starring roles in 1932 as villainesses – as the Eurasian half-breed opposite Irene Dunne in Thirteen Women and as the sadistic Chinese princess in The Mask of Fu Manchu opposite Boris Karloff. In her fourth film that year, she played Leslie Howard’s cold wife opposite Ann Harding as his true love in the film version of Philip Barry’s The Animal Kingdom.

She was in six films in 1933, all of them hits – Topaze opposite John Barrymore; The Barbarian opposite Ramon Novarro; When Ladies Meet opposite Ann Harding and Robert Montgomery; Penthouse opposite Warner Baxter; the all-star Night Fight with John Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Clark Gable, Lionel Barrymore and Robert Montgomery and The Prizefighter and the Lady opposite Max Baer.

She began 1934 with Clark Gable in Men in White, was torn between him and William Powell in Manhattan Melodrama and then played Powell’s perfect wife in The Thin Man, the first three of her six hits that year. She inadvertently made headlines when gangster John Dillinger, whose favorite actress she was, was shot and killed coming out of a Chicago theatre showing Manhattan Melodrama. It was as Nora Charles in The Thin Man, however, in which she established her screen persona as the perfect wife, the first of six films in the popular series. She and Powell would star in a total of 14 films altogether. In the same Ed Sullivan poll that year, in which readers selected Clark Gable as King of Hollywood, she was selected Queen.

Among her many films of the next few years were the Oscar winning The Great Ziegfeld as Billie Burke opposite Powell’s Ziegfeld; Libeled Lady with Powell, Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy; Test Pilot with Gable and Tracy and The Rains Came opposite Tyrone Power. She took time out during World War II to work with the Red Cross and run a Naval Auxiliary Canteen. She made no films between 1941’s Shadow of the Thin Man and 1945’s The Thin Man Goes Home.

Her post-war career included the Oscar winning The Best Years of Our Lives opposite Fredric March; The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, both opposite Cary Grant and Cheaper By the Dozen opposite Clifton Webb.

Long renown as one of Hollywood’s most outspoken liberals, she was amusingly cast as the wife of one of Hollywood’s most outspoken conservatives, Adolphe Menjou, in 1955’s The Ambassador’s Daughter in support of Olivia de Havilland and John Forsythe. She was Robert Ryan’s alcoholic wife in 1958’s Lonelyhearts and Paul Newman’s alcoholic mother in 1960’s From the Terrace. After playing a minor role as Doris Day’s friend in the same year’s Midnight Lace, she did not make another film until 1969 when she supported Jack Lemmon and Catherine Deneuve in April Fools.

Only three more big screen roles followed. She was Gloria Swanson’s secretary in 1974’s Airport 1975; Burt Reynolds’ mother in 1978’s The End and Alan King’s secretary in 1980’s Just Tell Me What You Want. Still beautiful in her late seventies, she had to don a white wig to play Henry Fonda’s dying wife in the 1981 TV movie, Summer Solstice, the last film for both of them.

Finally awarded a career achievement Oscar in 1991, Loy was too ill to attend the ceremony and was seen on the Oscarcast accepting her award in her New York apartment. Ironically, the screen’s perfect wife could not, as she often jokingly remarked, keep a husband in real life. She was married and divorced four times.

Myrna Loy died during surgery on December 14, 1993 at 88. She was cremated in New York City, her ashes buried in Montana.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

THE THIN MAN (1934), directed by W.S. Van Dyke

Dashiell Hammett’s novel was the basis for one of the screen’s great screwball comedies in which the mystery takes a back seat to the comedic goings-on between newlyweds William Powell and Myrna Loy. In the second of an eventual fourteen films they made together, Powell and Loy established a rapport that few other screen couples have ever been able to match and none have surpassed.

Powell plays a retired detective who is lured back into solving a murder at Loy’s insistence. The banter between the two is priceless. The film received four Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Actor. Loy was shockingly left in the cold. The hubbub over Bette Davis’ failure to be nominated for Of Human Bondage caused the Academy to allow write-in votes of which both Davis and Loy received a considerable sum. The Academy eventually updated its records to show Davis as an official candidate, but Loy still gets the cold shoulder.
The film was so popular it spawned five sequels, 1936’s After the Thin Man; 1939’s Another Thin Man; 1941’s Shadow of the Thin Man; 1945’s The Thin Man Goes Home and 1947’s Song of the Thin Man. .

THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936), directed by Robert Z. Leonard

Legend has it that Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner made a deal – if Mayer would ask his studio employees to vote for Paul Muni for the Best Actor Oscar, Warner would ask his studio employees to vote for Mayer’s behemoth musical for Best Picture.

At 185 minutes in the roadshow version the Oscar winning film was a chore to sit through. It had its moments, but much of it was tedium. William Powell played the great showman with Myrna Loy and Luise Rainer as his co-stars. Rainer played Anna Held, Ziegfeld’s mistress and common-law wife, portrayed here as his legal wife. In actuality, Ziegfeld’s only legal marriage was to Billie Burke, whom he met after his break-up with Held. Loy, as Burke, enters the film in the third hour, but dominates her portion of the film save for Rainer’s legendary telephone scene in which she congratulates “Ziggy” on his marriage to Burke. Rainer won the Oscar largely for that scene. Powell was nominated for My Man Godfrey that year while Loy was again ignored.

Loy’s lovely portrayal of Burke will surprise audiences who only know the older actress for her flibberty-gibberty roles later in her career. In fact she was one of the most glamorous stars of her day.

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946), directed by William Wyler

The film of which Loy is most proud, the Oscar winning classic about the often harsh readjustment to civilian life that veterans face, remains one of the screen’s great dramas. Best Actor winner Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, Cathy O’Donnell and Best Supporting Actor winner Harold Russell all had larger roles for which Loy was given top billing in compensation.

Nevertheless Loy has the scene that everyone remembers from the film. March returns from the war, greets his son and daughter and shushes them so he can surprise wife Loy in the kitchen. Growing suspicious due to the sudden silence in the apartment, Loy figures out what is going on and gets a look of sheer exhilaration and joy on her face as March approaches. That look has never been topped by any other performer in the history of film.

Despite the film’s eight Oscar nominations and seven wins, Loy once again failed to be singled out for her contributioin.

THE BACHELOR AND THE BOBBY-SOXER (1947), Directed by Irving Reis

Cary Grant is the artist playboy bachelor and Shirley Temple the bobby-soxer (teenager) who has a crush on him. Loy is Temple’s sensible older sister, a local court judge who falls hard for the playboy herself. It’s a fast-moving screwball comedy featuring memorable turns from Rudy Vallee, Ray Collins, Harry Davenport and Tommy Sands, but it’s the film’s three stars who keep things gracefully humming along. Sidney Sheldon won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Grant and Loy were quickly rushed into another smash hit screwball comedy, the following year’s Mr. Buildings Builds His Dream House. Suffice it to say the house turns out to be anything but a dream.

FROM THE TERRACE (1960), Directed by Mark Robson

Loy had her saddest role as Paul Newman’s alcoholic mother in this popular tearjerker form John O’Hara’s best-seller.

The emphasis is on the failed marriage of Newman and Joanne Woodward as his bitchy, bitter wife. Ina Balin received a Golden Globe nomination as Newman’s young lover, and she’s fine, but, really, acting honors here go to Woodward and Loy in a performance that should have signaled the beginning of a new career phase, but after a small part in the same year’s Midnight Lace, her film career was basically over. .

MYRNA LOY AND OSCAR

  • 1990 Awards– Honorary Oscar In recognition of her extraordinary qualities both on screen and off, with appreciation for a lifetime's worth of indelible performances.
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