With auburn hair and striking blue eyes,
Myrna Loy looked the part of the delicate, exquisite beauty, but there was much
more to this extraordinary actress than meets the eye. Overcoming everything
from tremendous typecasting to a difficult transition into the talkies, Myrna
Loy was able to forge one of the longest and most prolific careers in the annals
of Hollywood. Despite her looks, many a producer and director would come to
learn that this was not a woman to be taken lightly!
Born in Radersburg, Montana on August 2,
1905 to an influential cattle baron, Myrna Williams learned to overcome hardship
at an early age. Her father died when she just was just 12 years old and Myrna
and her family moved to Los Angeles. It was here, at the Westlake School for
Girls, where young Myrna would first be bitten by the acting bug, appearing in
local stage productions from the age of 15, usually dancing in the chorus line.
During one such production, at the famous Grauman’s Theater, Myrna was spotted
by the wife of Hollywood legend Rudolph Valentino. Mrs. Valentino was struck by
the young girl’s beauty and talent and managed to pull some strings to get her
into motion pictures.
Now calling herself Myrna Loy, she made
her film debut in 1925’s “What Price Beauty?” Her dark good looks led producers
to cast her most frequently as foreign femme fatales. She worked steadily
throughout the rest of the silent era, with performances in such films as
“Ben-Hur” (1926), “The Girl From Chicago” (1927), “A Girl in Every Port” (1928)
and “Noah’s Ark” (1929) among others. She had a brief, non-speaking, part in
the breakthrough film “The Jazz Singer” (1927), but her transition to talkies
was not easy. Her thin, reedy voice hindered her progress until, with
extraordinary determination, she taught herself how to project for movie
microphones. Soon, she was carving out her niche in the world of talking films.
She continued to find herself cast in
many Oriental and Mexican vamp roles in such films as “The Black Watch” (1929)
and “The Mask of Fu Manchu” (1932), but she also began to break out into
“occidental” roles, although still often cast as a vamp. She worked tirelessly,
making several films each year and soon her resume included such titles as “A
Connecticut Yankee” (1931), “Love Me Tonight” and “Vanity Fair” (1932), and “The
Prizefighter and the Lady” (1933).
Later in 1933, Loy appeared in the
stylish mystery melodrama “Penthouse”. Her performance convinced the brass at
MGM to cast her in their latest venture, as cultured socialite turned detective
Nora Charles opposite William Powell in “The Thin Man” (1934). She and Powell
had an immediate and impeccable chemistry, bringing a marvelous spin to Dashiell
Hammett’s characters Nick and Nora Charles. The film was a hit and marked Myrna
Loy’s ascension to full blown stardom.
She continued to work almost without
stopping, appearing in a succession of box-office hits including “Manhattan
Melodrama” (1934), “The Great Ziegfeld” (1936), “Double Wedding” (1937), “Too
Hot to Handle” (1938) and “I Love You Again” (1940). She would also appear in
five separate sequels to “The Thin Man”, including “Another Thin Man” (1939) and
“Shadow of the Thin Man” (1941).
With America’s entrance
into World War II, Loy finally called a halt to her busy career, removing
herself from film work and devoting herself to Red Cross activities and war bond
fundraising. She returned to the screen just once during the war years, in
1944’s “The Thin Man Goes Home”, but she resumed acting full time in 1946 and
found her popularity undimmed. By the 1950’s she found herself more
interested in politics than acting and she worked more sporadically, though she
never fully removed herself from the Hollywood spotlight.
Her post WWII performances include a
brilliant turn in William Wyler’s moving “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946).
The film documented the return of three American servicemen after the war and
their struggles to resume the lives they left behind. Loy was magnificent as
the loving wife helping to ease her husband back into civilian
appeared in the last of the Thin Man series,
“Song of the Thin Man”, in 1947 and
in 1948 gave one of her greatest comedic performances as the faithful, yet
somewhat bemused wife in “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House”. She displayed
a wonderful chemistry with co-star Cary Grant and very nearly stole the film
with the classic scene where she chooses paint colors for her new home.
She continued to work fairly steadily
through the 50’s in such films as “Cheaper By The Dozen” (1950), “Belles On
Their Toes” (1952) and “Lonelyhearts” (1958). The parts became fewer and
farther between in the 60’s and the 70’s found her branching out to TV movies
and the theater, where she made her Broadway debut in a revival of “The Women”
in 1973. She appeared in a few more films, including 1978’s “The End” as Burt
Reynolds’ mother and 1980’s “Just Tell Me What You Want” as Alan King’s long
suffering secretary. Her final screen appearance came in the TV movie “Summer
Solstice” (1981), at the tender age of 75.
Having worked tirelessly for over six
decades, Myrna Loy had more than earned a little rest and relaxation. She
published her autobiography “Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming” in 1987 and lived
out the rest of her days in peaceful retirement. In 1991, she received an
honorary Academy Award for “a lifetime’s worth of indelible performances”. A
lifetime indeed - by the time she died, on December 14, 1993, at age 88, she had
appeared in a staggering 129 motion pictures. While fame may not have come
easily for this cattleman’s daughter, once she got a hold of it there was no
letting go. No doubt, her legions of adoring fans are grateful for her
remarkable talent - and tenacity!
# Susan M. Kelly is a
freelance writer who lives and works in Dunellen, New Jersey. Watch for her profiles in
Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.