Friday, September 19, 2014

Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood

Author:  Emily W. Leider
Genre:  Biography

Four Stars
From the beginning, Myrna Loy's screen image conjured mystery, a sense of something withheld.  "Who is she?" was a question posed in the first fan magazine article published about her in 1925.  This first biography of the wry and sophisticated actress best known for her role as Nora Charles, wife to dapper detective William Powell in The Thin Man, offers an unprecedented picture of her life and extraordinary movie career, which spanned six decades.  Opening with Loy's rough-and-tumble upbringing in Montana, the book takes us to Los Angeles in the 1920s, where Loy's striking looks caught the eye of Valentino, to her films of the 1930s, when Loy became a top box office draw, to her robust post-World War II career.  Throughout, Emily W. Leider illuminates the actress's friendships with such luminaries as Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and Joan Crawford and her collaborations with the likes of John Barrymore, David O. Selznick, Sam Goldwyn, and William Wyler, among many others.  This highly engaging biography offers a fascinating slice of studio-era history and gives us the first full picture of a very private woman who has often been overlooked despite her tremendous star power. 
I love Myrna Loy.  She was a terrific actress, and her mannerisms conveyed everything she didn't say.  A twist of her head, a sidelong look...well, you get the idea.  At any rate, I was looking forward to this new book about her, and I was not disappointed.
Ms. Leider gives us a comprehensive account of Myrna Loy's life and career.  She starts with Myrna's beginnings - namely, her parents' and grandparents' lives, who they were and their effect on Myrna.  Her mother wanted more for her; her father expected that women were basically to be 'seen and not heard,' in other words, stay home and take care of the house.  Her mother rebelled against this, and it did not sit well with her father.  When her father died early, young Myrna felt she was the one to take care of the family - her mother and younger brother.  In this sense, Myrna was an enabler - by not forcing her brother to go out and get a permanent job.  For much of his life he depended on her largesse to support him.  I personally don't see how that can be healthy in any way.
Aside from this, when she first started in pictures she was shunted into "exotic" roles, usually playing the part of the 'bad girl who gets hers in the end.'  She was fortunate enough not to be typecast the rest of her life.  When she finally came into her own as an actress, she proved she could play any part - good or bad - and carry it with aplomb and grace.
In her marriages she wasn't as lucky.  Her first husband, Arthur Hornblow, Jr., it appears to me, only wanted a mistress and not a wife.  He certainly didn't treat her like a wife; but then again, neither did any of her husbands.  For some reason, she chose overbearing men who were not nice to her and cheated with other women.  Maybe she was looking for a substitute for her father, or maybe she just had bad taste in men.  This is something we may never know.
She had a long and storied career, with a record fourteen films with William Powell.  They were never lovers, but were electric together on the screen, perfect foils for each other.  To this day I watch The Thin Man every year at Christmas (it does take place at Christmas so therefore qualifies as a holiday film).  My favorite of theirs, though is I Love You Again with Powell as a dull husband turned con man.  A terrific turn for both of them.  She brought something to all her films, a quality of elegance and poise; even when she was insulting someone you couldn't get mad at her - they'd turn to her and think 'did she just say what I thought she did?', but it was said in a way that you were never quite sure.  She was one of a kind.
The reason I gave it four stars instead of five is because of the extensive background of her films.  No, I'm not referring to what went on with the stars and such, I'm referring to the plots.  Every time a film is mentioned, the author tells us the entire plot.  Now, I want to know as much about the films as anyone else, but I feel that there is a perfect place for that: at the back, where you can place a filmography.  Give the reader the opportunity to decide if they want to read about the film or not.  Don't put it throughout the biography, where it bogs down.  You're going to list the credits anyway (director/producer/actors, etc.) so why not put the plots there?  Yes, the biography itself  will be shorter, but it will be more concise and therefore more interesting to the reader.
A lovely book, recommended.

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