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Susan M. Kelly

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1930's William Powell Color Tinted Real Photo PostcardLate 1920's William Powell 8x10 Paramount Publicity PhotoUrbane, smooth, suave and debonair…never were those terms more aptly applied to a member of the Hollywood elite than to William Powell.  His ability to invest even the most unpalatable characters with elegance and charm allowed him to move from heavy to leading man without losing his drawing power.  He was even able to make the most difficult transition of all, from silent films to talkies, with great ease - without spilling as much as a drop of his ever present scotch!

Born on July 29, 1892 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Powell was appearing on the Broadway stage by 1912, already developing the cultured manner that would later serve him so well in Hollywood.  He made his film debut in John Barrymore’s 1922 version of “Sherlock Holmes” and found regular employment throughout the silent era, appearing in such offerings as “The Bright Shawl” (1923) and “Romola” (1924), before signing with Paramount to appear in such hits as “Beau Geste” (1926) and as George Wilson in “The Great Gatsby” (also 1926).

In 1928 he landed the juicy role of the cruel movie director, Leo, who torments Emil Jannings in “The Last Command".  After gaining attention with the role, he made a few more silent films before making his talkie debut in “Interference” (1929).  While sound proved to be the death knell for many an acting career, it actually boosted Powell’s stock thanks to his clear, cultured voice.  Later in ‘29, he would finally achieve true stardom when he appeared as gentlemen detective Philo Vance in “The Canary Murder Case”.  Investigating the death of a scheming showgirl named “The Canary” (played by Louise Brooks), Vance found himself up against the odds and lacking witnesses, yet he managed to solve the case with panache.  Powell would reprise the role of Vance that same year in “The Greene Murder Case” and later in “The Benson Murder Case” (1930) and finally, after moving to Warner Brothers, in the best of the Vance films, 1933’s “The Kennel Murder Case”.

Though his stock went up with “The Canary Murder Case”, the roles at Paramount began to dwindle and, after starring opposite then wife Carole Lombard in “Ladies’ Man” (1931), he moved on to Warner Brothers.  He was immediately cast in several top flight films, including “High Pressure” March 1942 issue of True Detective featuring William Powell & Asta on the front coverand “Lawyer Man” (both 1932), which let him flex his comedic muscles and “Jewel Robbery” and “One Way Passage”, both of which saw him briefly teamed with Kay Francis.  By 1934, Powell had become a top box office draw and he once again found himself shifting studios, this time jumping to the head of the class with a contract at MGM.

He began the year by appearing opposite Clark Gable in “Manhattan Melodrama”.  The film also featured Myrna Loy and the two were quickly re-teamed later that year for a low-budget adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s

“The Thin Man”.  Starring as socialite sleuths Nick and Nora Charles, Powell and Loy were the epitome of class as they exchanged witty remarks, sipped their seemingly endless supply of cocktails, and solved the mystery with the help of their pet terrier, Asta.  Powell earned his first Oscar nomination for the role, a part he seemed born to play.

1935 would find Powell starring opposite platinum blonde superstar Jean Harlow, to whom he would later become engaged, in “Reckless”.  In 1936, Powell and Loy reunited for the first of five Thin Man sequels, “After the Thin Man”, and also starred opposite each other in “The Great Ziegfeld”, with Powell as Flo Ziegfeld to Loy’s Billie Burke.  Ziegfeld would win that year’s Best Picture Oscar.

With the success of the Thin Man films and Ziegfeld, Powell was at the height of his box office popularity and found himself loaned out several times to other studios.  RKO cast him opposite Ginger Rogers in 1935’s “Star of Midnight” and Jean Arthur in 1936’s “The Ex-Mrs. Bradford”, while Universal paired him with ex-wife Carole Lombard in the classic screwball comedy “My Man Godfrey” (1936).  The role of Godfrey, rich man turned derelict before being hired as butler to the madcap Bullock family, would net Powell his second Oscar nomination.

Powell soon returned to MGM and made several more films in 1937, including “Double Wedding” again opposite Myrna Loy.  While he was working on that film, tragedy struck as his beloved Jean Harlow suddenly took ill on another soundstage and was rushed to the hospital where she would eventually die.  Her death took a terrible toll on Powell, who found himself unable to work as he battled depression and other serious 1936 William Powell & Myrna Loy Ardath Tobacco Cardhealth problems of his own for over a year.  He eventually returned to the studio and the familiar role of Nick Charles in “Another Thin Man” (1939).

As the 1940’s dawned, he made three more films with Myrna Loy, including “I Love You Again” (1940) and “Shadow of the Thin Man” (1941).  He continued to work steadily over the next few years, but the films he was offered were not of the highest quality and he eventually made the tough choice to leave MGM and freelance.  By this time, an aging Powell realized he was beyond the point where he could credibly continue to portray urban socialites and he ventured into more diverse roles, including the starring role in “Life With Father” (1947).  His portrayal of the eccentric father would earn him his third Oscar nomination and he followed it in quick succession with “The Senator Was Indiscreet” (1947), as a rakish politician and “Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid” (1948) as a confused fisherman.

In 1951 he returned to MGM for a cameo appearance in “It’s a Big Country” and in 1953 played Elizabeth Taylor’s father in “The Girl Who Had Everything”.  He rounded out a long and distinguished career with one final, notable role as a worldly wise doctor in 1955’s “Mister Roberts” before quietly retiring to Palm Springs.  While frequently offered “comeback” roles over the ensuing years, he always declined…politely, of course.  Would we expect anything less from Hollywood’s ultimate gentleman?
Susan M. Kelly is a freelance writer who lives and works in Dunellen, New Jersey. Susan is a regular contributor to The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.

Other William Powell Pages:

The William Powell Pages
A Tribute to William Powell A tribute to the suave and debonair actor who began his career playing silent villains and ended up one of the most popular actors in Hollywood, starring in one of the most beloved movie series ever made!