Classic Hollywood: The “Perfect” Couple
They called her “The Perfect Wife.” Best known for playing William Powell’s partner in crime-busting in the classic Thin Man movies, Myrna Loy eye-rolled that nickname: “Some perfect wife I am. I’ve been married four times, divorced four times, have no children, and can’t boil an egg.” Loy and Powell made marriage look fun – and acting look easy. So easy, in fact, that neither performer ever won an Academy Award.
(Hello, 911? I’d like to report a robbery.)
Myrna’s career took a decade to take off. Born in Helena, Montana, on August 2, 1905, Loy lost her father in the 1918 influenza pandemic. The family moved to Los Angeles, where Myrna ran into a fellow Helena expat named Gary Cooper. Loy’s first screen test was a flop (“I rushed out of the projection room, ran home and cried for hours. It was so awful!”). Determined to break into show biz, she began landing gigs and even scored a bit part in Hollywood’s first talkie, The Jazz Singer.
Finally, in 1934, the planets aligned and Myrna became a star. What happened?
First: She gained fame when John Dillinger, America’s most wanted gangster, ditched his hideout to catch her in Manhattan Melodrama – and went down in a hail of FBI bullets as he left the movie theater. Myrna admitted she always felt “a little guilty about it…they filled him full of holes, poor soul.”
Then: The Thin Man was released. Shot in 12 days, it launched a legendary screen team whose breezy repartee turned a scrappy little sleeper into a blockbuster:
Nora: I read where you were shot 5 times in the tabloids.
Nick: It’s not true. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.
Suddenly finding herself an “overnight sensation” after making 80 films, Loy co-starred with Clark Gable, James Stewart, Spencer Tracy, Fredric March and Cary Grant, in hits like Wife vs. Secretary, Libeled Lady, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.
Yet Myrna was more than “just” an actress. Politically active, she once asked the MGM brass, “Why does every black person in the movies have to play a servant? How about showing a black person walking up the steps of a courthouse carrying a briefcase?” She put her career on hold during World War II, slamming Hitler so often, he banned her movies in Germany. Myrna was an American Red Cross volunteer, sold war bonds and later supported John F. Kennedy’s bid for president.
For most of us, Loy will be forever linked to Bill Powell, with whom she made 14 pictures. Fans assumed they were married in real life – and they weren’t the only ones. When Powell died in 1984, Myrna recalled, “I was one of the first people Mousie (Bill’s wife) called. For weeks afterward, friends wrote and telephoned condolences, as if I had lost a husband. Well, our screen partnership lasted longer than any of my marriages. He was a brilliant actor, a delightful companion, a great friend, and above all, a true gentleman. I miss him more than I can say.”
Classic Hollywood posts appear bimonthly on The Music Hall blog.