Susan M. Kelly
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
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”
“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
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
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
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:
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!