One of the nice things about doing a tribute to Myrna Loy is that Myrna Loy is still alive.
Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of other nice things about "Myrna Loy: So Nice to Come Home To," which premieres on the TNT cable network at 8 tonight and will be followed by a showing of Loy's 1941 film "Shadow of the Thin Man" at 9.
The clips on the special are fine, but then they oughta be. Once an early, confused phase of her career was out of the way, Loy appeared in a variety of solid Hollywood movies, from the prestigious to the confectionary. Actually, the clips from that early phase are fairly delicious too, especially Loy decked out as a Chinese maiden wiggling through an ersatz-Oriental dance for "The Show of Shows," a campy antique of the late '20s.
Loy sings, to an actor across the stage, "Is he a high-sing, is he a low-sing, is he a singsong bandit man?"
The problem for Loy, says host and narrator Kathleen Turner, is that studio bosses "kept trying to impose an image on her," when actually Loy was best at playing variations on her own flinty, forthright self, as she did in the "Thin Man" pictures and comedy classics like "Libeled Lady."
She could toss off a wisecrack or level a withering gaze with the best of them. In fact, she was the best of them.
It's ironic, though, that the program declares Myrna Loy worthy of tribute and then proceeds to pay perfunctory, laggardly tribute. "So Nice to Come Home To" has the hastily assembled air of those movie star scrapbook shows tucked between films on HBO, Cinemax and other cable channels.
The script and direction are by Richard Schickel, one of our duller-minded film critics. Does he have to feign show biz chumminess by referring repeatedly to William Powell as "Bill"? And is it asking a bit too much of Loy to say she symbolized "all that was extraordinary about supposedly ordinary womanhood"?
Schickel may be more smitten with his own prose than with Loy. He plasters words all over one of the most eloquently hushed encounters in movie history, the homecoming scene from "The Best Years of Our Lives." Loy is at the kitchen sink when she hears the doorbell, and from the ensuing silence realizes that Fredric March, as her husband, is back from the war.
It's a crystalline, iconographic image that everyone knows -- not just a movie moment but an authentic episode of Americana, a simulation that has turned into The Real Thing.
Turner doesn't make the ideal host, at least not for this. She certainly is, to use a Midwestern phrase, full of herself. Or full of something. She looks like Linda Ellerbee before Linda Ellerbee lost 25 pounds. Turner's famous breathiness has deteriorated into breathlessness, as if she just ran up a flight of stairs carrying a wedding cake.
When the subject of "The Great Ziegfeld" comes -- briefly, with barely a clip -- Turner pronounces the showman's last name "Zig-field." Wrong!
It is pointed out in the script that Loy never won an Oscar. Neither did Cary Grant or Alfred Hitchcock; Hollywood has not always recognized its own bests. But Loy did win one of the Kennedy Center Honors in 1988 (recalled in a clip), and it was at that point that a lot of people realized someone they might have thought of as a minor star was really major.
Plus, she made people happy, and still does. When Loy and William Powell as Nora and Nick Charles compete at martini-drinking, or chase their fox terrier Asta all over the apartment, or just tumble down in merriment, they bring back a sense of sexual playfulness the movies have lost.
It wasn't innocence. It was sophistication. Myrna Loy gave lessons in that, and it proved to be a felicitous education for everybody.