I'm a retiree from academe (University of California-Berkeley, UCLA) and the non-profit world who has come to writing late in life. My previous...read more experience as an executive and my educational degrees were in unrelated areas. I've also been an occasional columnist for various newspapers and journals.
Who are the most celebrated on-screen movie couples to have captured the imagination of American cinema fans? Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy surely would have to be near the top of the list with nine movies between 1942 and 1967, including such classics as Woman of the Year, Adam’s Rib and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Then there was Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the iconic dancing couple who waltzed themselves into movie fans’ hearts with nine film hits during the 1930s -- the last one followed a decade later by the blockbuster Barkleys of Broadway.
Certainly Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, a real-life couple off-screen, deserve a high place on the list, though they appeared in just five films together between 1944 and 1948 – remember To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep and Key Largo? Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, whose eleven movies during the 1960s and 1970s often mirrored the tempestuousness of their own two marriages off-screen – who can forget Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – are without a doubt very worthy contenders.
But the real surprise for some movie fans may come in the form of William Powell and Myrna Loy, whose fourteen films together between 1934 and 1947 is unsurpassed numerically in the annals of the silver screen. They started with a smash-hit crime movie, Manhattan Melodrama, also a famous historical footnote because notorious bank robber John Dillinger, “Public Enemy No. 1,” had just watched it when he was trapped and shot to death in 1934 by FBI agents outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater.
Shortly thereafter, they started work on The Thin Man. It was the first of a series of six films, all based on detective stories written by Dashiell Hammett, which catapulted them to fame as the husband and wife detective team of Nick and Nora Charles.
Their respective paths to Nick Charles, the raffish private eye, and Nora, his rich and classy society wife, could hardly have been predicted. After graduating from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Powell spent ten years in vaudeville and on Broadway before landing his first job in silent films in 1922. Throughout the 1920s, his silent film roles, usually as unscrupulous and villainous characters, were polar opposites of the dapper, sophisticated Nick Charles.
Myrna Loy also started in silent films following her discovery by Rudolph Valentino and his wife, though initially she performed in musical work at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. Her silent movie roles from the mid-1920s to early 1930s frequently portrayed her as an exotic vamp or femme fatale, sometimes an especially villainous one, of Asian or Eurasian heritage. This was a wildly different image than the witty, glamorous Nora Charles of the Thin Man movies.
Though many of his previous movie appearances depicted him as a pretty nasty
character – he went even further off type as a gas station owner in The Great Gatsby – Powell ultimately was well suited for the lead role in The Thin Man. He spoke with a resonant baritone voice and exuded a cool sophistication that virtually defined Nick Charles, the on-screen private detective with the clipped, pencil moustache. He was an easy casting decision for W.S. Van Dyke, the film’s director.
Myrna Loy was another matter. Van Dyke had detected a droll wit and sense of humor in her which he decided to test by shoving her into a swimming pool at a Hollywood party. She reacted with a remarkably cool equanimity, making her just right for the role of Nora in his eyes. But studio head Louis B. Mayer felt otherwise, saying Loy was more of a dramatic actress and, besides, she wouldn’t have time for The Thin Man because she was soon to start filming another motion picture, Stamboul Quest.
Van Dyke persisted, pointing out how well the on-screen chemistry between Loy and Powell had served their first movie together, Manhattan Melodrama. Van Dyke won the argument but only after agreeing to film the entire movie in no more than three weeks so Loy could meet her other acting commitment. It was completed in just fourteen days.
Thus began The Thin Man. It went on to become one of the most popular hits of the year, receiving an Oscar nomination for best film. Powell was nominated for a best actor Academy Award and Loy got excellent reviews, especially for her comedic skills. The pair were now on their way to stardom, with Loy wryly observing that The Thin Man “finally made me…after more than eighty films!”
Originally, the thin man in the movie title was not intended to refer to Nick Charles but, rather, to a murder victim named Clyde Wynant – “the thin man with white hair” – he had been hired to find. The Thin Man appellation soon came to be identified with the slim and trim Nick, however, and in all the subsequent movies in the series it was used in the film titles as though referring to him.
The public clamored for more of the chemistry that Powell and Loy so effortlessly projected on the screen. They were truly unlike any other movie couple to have appeared on film. They made no pretense of being an intensely romantic duo and their relationship was not marked by passion or deep love or, for that matter, pathos or tragedy. Their special appeal lay in their easy relationship and droll repartee, augmented by Nick’s urbane charm and Nora’s wit and sophistication.
They were known to improvise frequently during filming. Often decked out in a tuxedo, he seemed at ease with a shaker of dry martinis in hand – now and then appearing to be just a little tipsy. She indulged in figure-hugging gowns and clothing ensembles that nicely fit her shapely slim figure. She also drew upon a marvelous collection of chic hats that complemented her well-formed, pert nose. Her hats were so popular that she auctioned one off for $30,000 at a U.S. Army fundraiser in 1942.
Powell and Loy had a co-star who contributed immensely to the success of the Thin Man franchise. He was named Asta and he was one of the most personable, intelligent, endearing pets ever to appear in movies. Asta was an engaging wire fox terrier who was a scene-stealer par excellence throughout all the Thin Man movies. He was both a joy and a source of irritation to Nick and Nora -- running away with their evidence in his mouth, hiding with paws over eyes, being cowed by a tiny kitten and similar doggie dangers, sniffing out dead bodies, playing hide and seek and peeking out slyly with one eye behind a paw.
He was Skippy in real life and was so talented he rarely needed more than a single take for his scenes. He even had his own dressing room. When other canine actors were getting $3.50/day for Hollywood movies, Skippy earned $250/week and his movie roles sparked a huge surge in the popularity of the wire fox terrier breed as a pet. Skippy look-alikes assumed the role of Asta in some of the last Thin Man movies, but aficionados of the series claim the replacements simply were not quite in the same league as the original.
All the Thin Man films had essentially the same ingredients and followed a similar plot line. First, Nick and Nora would appear in some attractive or exciting setting, generally with martinis or other cocktails in hand. Van Dyke took a risk with this imagery since the prohibition era had just ended in 1933 and alcohol still had the taint of speakeasies and illegality … but movie audiences loved seeing the Charles alternately sipping or tossing down their drinks.
After the opening scenes, Nick and Nora would somehow launch into the investigation of a mysterious murder together with Asta, a befuddled cop or two and a somewhat disreputable bunch of Nick’s Runyonesque pals -- touts, ex-cons, safecrackers and assorted crooks -- all in the mix. Usually there were attractive females present, including, perhaps, an unworldly lass or a seductress or a gun moll. The backdrop could include elegant dinner parties and other such soirées, dancing, exclusive estates, a pro wrestling match, fancy restaurants or the racetrack.
Of course, ultimately only Nick is able to solve the mystery, aided by Nora’s occasionally unsolicited crime-solving solutions. Like several other mystery tropes, notably those of Agatha Christie, Nick would assemble all the suspects in a room and eliminate them one at a time. Finally, he would arrive at the very last suspect, who is unmasked as the killer. Inevitably, this person is the one who seems least likely to have been the murderer.
During all the scenes, Nick and Nora would continue with their flippant, comedic banter with hardly a note of real seriousness coming into play. Throughout the action, it is clear that rakish Nick is actually a faithful and dedicated husband to Nora, notwithstanding his oft-repeated claim that he had only married her because she was a wealthy Nob Hill heiress from San Francisco. Along the way, young Nick, Jr., is brought on the scene but he functions in a mostly delimited role in the films.
The five sequels were produced between 1936 and 1947, as follows: After the Thin Man (1936); Another Thin Man (1939); Shadow of the Thin Man (1941); The Thin Man Goes Home (1945); and Song of the Thin Man (1947). All of them were successes at the box-office, though The Thin Man was the acknowledged best of show in the series -- Katharine Hepburn called it “the funniest damn thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Such was the popularity of the Thin Man films that a radio adaptation, The Adventures of the Thin Man, ran from 1941 to 1950 and a TV series, The Thin Man, was broadcast from 1957 to 1959. The Broadway musical, Nick & Nora, was produced in 1991 and a stage play adaptation of the original Hammett novel was presented in 2009.
There is no doubt that the characters of Nick and Nora Charles were responsible for the triumphs of the Thin Man movies. During the same run as the Thin Man series, however, Powell and Loy paired up in eight other films, mostly of the screwball comedy ilk, and they were uniformly well received by the public. Particularly notable were The Great Ziegfeld, Libeled Lady, I Love You Again and Love Crazy. Those eight films as well as other ones made later in their respective careers served to demonstrate the skillful acting talent of Powell and Loy in roles other than Nick and Nora. Some included serious dramatic acting.
After a lifetime in motion pictures, Powell was credited with almost a hundred films and Loy with one hundred twenty four. At their peak, they were among Hollywood’s busiest and highest paid actors. He was nominated for three Academy Awards and Loy received the Honorary Award for Career Achievement from the Academy in 1991.
In 1937, Loy was voted “Queen of Hollywood” in a nationwide movie audience poll opposite Clark Gable, voted the “King.” She made movies until she was 75, with the Oscar-winning The Best Years of Our Lives generally regarded as her finest dramatic achievement. In the latter part of her career, she made a successful transition into TV and stage acting.
Were they ever romantically involved with each other? The answer is no. The movie-going public has developed such expectation of movie couples in general and it certainly has not been unusual for on-screen couples to develop romances in their private lives, but Powell and Loy were simply lifelong good friends – nothing more. When Powell died in 1984 at age 91, Loy said “I never enjoyed my work more than when I worked with William Powell. He was a brilliant actor, a delightful companion, a great friend and, above all, a true gentleman.”
Their private lives bore little resemblance to those of Nick and Nora Charles on film. Powell’s first marriage to actress Eileen Wilson produced his only child, a son and ended in an amicable divorce after fifteen years. He then married Carole Lombard, but that marriage lasted just two years. He and Lombard maintained a good relationship afterwards and even starred together in the 1936 comic hit, My Man Godfrey, and other films. Powell was overwhelmed with grief when Lombard was killed in a plane crash in 1942.
Tragedy also had also struck Powell’s life earlier when Jean Harlow, to whom he had been engaged, died suddenly from uremic poisoning in 1937. During interment, a white gardenia and a note from him were placed in her hands. The note simply read “Good night my dearest darling.” Powell paid $25,000 for her final resting place in the Great Mausoleum of Forest Lawn, a 9’ x 10’ private room lined with imported marble.
Shortly after Harlow’s death, Powell was diagnosed with rectal cancer. He did not do any film work while fighting the disease with surgery and an experimental radium treatment, and the cancer went into full remission within two years. In 1940, he married Diana Lewis, yet another actress. He had met her just three weeks before the nuptials, and their union lasted until his death some forty-four years later.
Many in Hollywood were surprised by what appeared to be Powell’s early retirement following successful character roles in Dancing in the Dark, How to Marry a Millionaire and Mr. Roberts, his final film in which he played Doc. Only after he had died did Loy disclose that Powell’s hearing had gotten so bad that he did not feel he could do a proper acting job any longer. He and his wife retired to Palm Desert for the last thirty years of his life.
Loy was married and divorced four times, first to producer Arthur Hornblow followed by John Hertz of Hertz Rent-A-Car whom she married six days after her divorce from Hornblow. She later wed screenwriter and producer Gene Markey and, finally, UNESCO delegate Howland Sargeant. The marriages ranged from two to nine years and the lack of a fulfilling long-term marital relationship was a source of great disappointment and sadness for her.
Hertz was abusive, once flinging a Rodin sculpture at her and on another occasion blackening her eye so she had to cancel a meeting with Queen Wilhelmina and Eleanor Roosevelt. Her last marriage ended in 1960 and at that point she deliberately decided neither to marry again nor to attempt reclaiming her youth via cosmetic surgery.
Her other relationships were limited and ordinary by Hollywood standards. She was known to have had an affair with Leslie Howard in 1932 during filming of The Animal Kingdom and one with Spencer Tracy during Libeled Lady in 1936. Loy disclosed in her 1987 autobiography, Being and Becoming, that she was infertile due to a botched abortion years earlier. Though she had no children of her own, she was very close to her step-children and left her estate to Arthur Hornblow’s offspring. Gene Markey’s daughter was said to far prefer Loy to Hedy Lamarr, her previous step-mother.
During World War II, Loy essentially gave up her acting career to do work on behalf of the Red Cross, go on fund-raising tours and help run a Naval Auxiliary canteen. FDR invited Loy, a staunch democrat, to the White House and she subsequently became good friends with Eleanor Roosevelt.
She was active politically in her later years, serving as a UNESCO representative and on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. She also was co-chair of an anti -housing discrimination council and was a founding member of a group formed in 1947 to fight the blacklisting of the “Hollywood Ten.”
Loy was a breast cancer survivor and had two mastectomies in the 1970’s. She died in 1993 at age 88 and her cremated remains were interred in her state of birth, Montana.
“How about mixing up another shaker of martinis, Dear? It’s getting to be that time.”
“I’ll be happy to, Love. Just save a little for me . . . and don’t let Asta get near it again!”