One of Myrna Loy’s husbands grew bored with her because at home she didn’t live up to the champagne-flute elegance that she embodied on the screen. You would think that a movie star’s consort would know better than to suppose that the adored one could stay aloft without the buoyancy of lines written by the likes of Dashiell Hammett. But in the 1930s, when talking pictures were still new and Loy was in her heyday, the letdown might have taken “Mr. Loy” by surprise.
Otherwise, he would have had little to complain about. As the subtitle of Emily W. Leider’s crisp, smart biography suggests — “Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood” — Loy was known for the orthodoxy of her private life. Although she married four times, she refrained from stealing other women’s husbands and from sleeping with her leading men (Clark Gable once made a pass at her, only to be shoved into a hedge). Her lasting screen image is that of a wife — but what a wife. Nora Charles in the “Thin Man” movies is the template: gorgeous, stylish, tolerant, a good sport who matches her husband — played by the debonair William Powell — drink for drink and quip for quip.
As Leider shows, it hadn’t always been that way. Early in Loy’s career, which kicked off in the Silent Era, the slight slant to her eyes led to her being cast as an Asian femme fatale; the epitome of these roles was her Fah Lo See in “The Mask of
Fu Manchu” (1932).
She arrived in Hollywood as Myrna Williams, born in 1905 to a middle-class family in Montana. After her father died in the influenza epidemic of 1918, the family moved to Culver City, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles, where Myrna took ballet and piano lessons while attending a private girls’ school. Her training in dance helped make her, in Leider’s words, “a screen actress [who excelled] at timing, restraint, and mastery of subtle nonverbal clues such as the deft shrug of a shoulder or arching of an eyebrow.”
Soon, Myrna was in the chorus line at a movie palace called Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre. Her good looks got her noticed. She played bit parts in several movies, and in 1925 she signed a contract with Warner Bros. Her new surname was probably borrowed from Mina Loy, a minor poet of the time.
After learning her craft at both Warner Bros. and Fox, Loy entered MGM’s stable of stars in 1931. There she managed to shed her exotic image and become a homegrown leading lady, but it wasn’t until she was paired with Powell in “The Thin Man” (1934) that her career went into high gear. So high, in fact, that when American newspaper readers were polled in 1937, they named Gable the king of Hollywood and Loy the queen. The 14 movies she and Powell made together — six of them in “The Thin Man” series — put them in the class of immortal Hollywood duos, on a par with Astaire and Rogers.
Loy could do more than toss back a shot and toss off a quip. She could also act — witness her fine performance in the postwar drama “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946). Even so, she never received an Oscar nomination. Her career peaked at a time when to be named best actor or actress you had to chew scenery (a la Paul Muni or Luise Rainer), and an understated master like Loy didn’t stand a chance. (Incidentally, Leider mistakenly awards Carole Lombard a best-actress Oscar for “My Man Godfrey.” Never happened.)
Unlike her friend Joan Crawford, Loy didn’t depend on stardom to give her life meaning. A lifelong Democrat, she served three years on the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO and told friends that she got “more emotional satisfaction” from her work for the United Nations than she did from all her decades “as a screen actress.” Late in life, she teamed up with James Kotsilibas-Davis to write “Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming,” a first-rate autobiography. She died in 1993, at age 88, three years after receiving an honorary Oscar for the body of her work.
Loy tried to tell her fans, “There’s nothing sensational about me,” but that’s wasn’t so. Her sensational contribution was to make an ideal credible: the beautiful, intelligent, high-spirited and supportive wife that every mature, heterosexual American male would like to marry.
Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.
The Only Good Girl in Hollywood
By Emily W. Leider
University of California. 411 pp. $34.95