William Powell (1893-1984):
“I have to work hard in pictures. I’m not one of those handsome dogs who can stand around and people look at my profile and get by with that. I have to dig for what I do.“
Earlier this summer I caught Rendezvous (1935) with William Powell and Rosalind Russell on TCM. Not knowing this film, it was a delightful surprise; a World War I spy film with thrills, but also great comic moments. The stars have real chemistry. Funny, when Russell was told she was going to be Powell’s leading lady in the film, she felt bad for him.
“I felt self-conscious. Powell and Myrna Loy had been a hit in The Thin Man, they were an unbeatable team, so my first day on Rendezvous, I tried to apologize. ‘I know you don’t want me, you’d rather have Myrna…’ Powell denied it: ‘I love Myrna, but I think this is good for you, and I’m glad we’re doing it together.“
His kindness helped Russell in more ways than one. It is obvious that they enjoy each other’s company in this film, and Russell does quite well in her first leading role. She adored Powell as a friend and as a man with many great qualities, especially in his ability to make others around him feel comfortable on the set and making them laugh.
Years ago, after a rather difficult verbal sparring match, I turned to The Husband with the challenge: “Are we George and Martha… or Nick and Nora?” Even in the heat of the disagreement, he coolly answered:
“We are William Powell and Myrna Loy. We are NOT Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton!”
Powell was a major star at MGM where he was paired with Loy in 14 films, including the Thin Man series in which Powell and Loy played married detectives Nick and Nora Charles. I never have recovered from seeing the Thin Man films in my youth. After watching the sparkling six film series in Film Theory 301 when I was 20 years old, I made a choice to be as sophisticated and dry as a martini, plus I decided that I would grow old with Powell as my role model: urbane, cynical, with a drink in my hand at all times.
The first film The Thin Man (1934) is pre-Hays Code, the Motion Picture Production Code that set of industry moral guidelines that was applied to most films released by major American studios from 1930 to 1968. It was directed by W. S. Van Dyke. The screenplay was written by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, a married couple, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett. Nick is a hard-drinking, retired private detective, and Nora is a wealthy heiress. Their wire-haired terrier Asta is played by the great canine actor Skippy, who also starred in two screwball comedy classics, The Awful Truth (1937) and Bringing Up Baby (1938).
The “Thin Man” is not Nick Charles, by the way, but the man Charles is initially hired to find, described in the movie as a “thin man with white hair”. The “Thin Man” moniker was thought by many film fans to refer to Nick Charles and it was used in the titles of sequels as if referring to him.
Powell, on how he stayed so thin:
I highly recommend worrying. It is much more effective than dieting.
The film received rave reviews and was a box office hit, with special praise for the chemistry between Loy and Powell. The Thin Man was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. The film was such a great success that the studio made five sequels: 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).
The much-missed Chicago critic Roger Ebert said of Powell’s performance:
“Powell is to dialogue as Fred Astaire is to dance. His delivery is so droll and insinuating, so knowing and innocent at the same time, that it hardly matters what he’s saying.“
Powell as Nick Charles:
“The important thing is the rhythm. Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhattan you shake to foxtrot time, a Bronx to two-step time, but a dry martini you always shake to waltz time.“
“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.“
Powell and Loy were more than Nick and Nora. In I Love You Again (1940) Powell plays an amnesiac, and his character feigns insanity so Loy won’t divorce him in Love Crazy (1941). Both films show Powell’s gift for physical comedy to great advantage. The team really plays against type in Double Wedding (1937) where Loy is a tightly wound controlling business woman and Powell is a beret wearing bohemian artist. At one point, Loy’s character asks Powell’s: “Do you take dope?”
Powell and Loy were so identified as a couple that they were often mistaken for married in real life, but they never even had an affair. Loy:
“Oh, there were times when Bill had a crush on me and times when I had a crush on Bill, but we never made anything of it. We worked around it and stayed pals. In this world today, nobody seems to understand how you can just be terribly close and love somebody a whole lot and not sleep with him. If Bill and I had been lovers, then we would have had fights. And if we’d been married it would have been even worse.“
In a 1939 readers, poll by the Tribune News syndicate, Loy was named “Queen of the Movies”. Loy was leaving for the ceremony when she received a florist box filled with dead leaves and bunches of rotten grapes. The card read: “From William the Fourth”. Powell had come in fourth in the Tribune News voting for “King of the Movies” (Clark Gable won and the title stuck).
Nick Charles wasn’t the only suave, sophisticated detective character for Powell. He played resourceful sleuth, Philo Vance, in The Canary Murder Case (1929) and its sequels, The Greene Murder Case (1929) and The Benson Murder Case (1930) with Jean Arthur, and the great Louise Brooks as “the Canary”.
In 1920, fresh from the University of Kansas, Powell appeared in a successful Broadway production which led to an offer to play the villain opposite the formidable John Barrymore in a silent-film version of Sherlock Holmes (1922). His skilled villainy continued in such films as Romola (1924), where he got nasty with sisters Lillian and Dorothy Gish and Dangerous Money (1924) where her menaces Bebe Daniels.
He was noted for his trim mustache and impeccable attire; one of Hollywood’s best-dressed males. He was not handsome in the traditional Hollywood sense. Unlike many silent film actors, Powell flourished with the advent of sound with his resonant, stage-trained voice. He worked in films for the next four decades. When he began in films, his face was considered more suited to those sinister characters rather than romantic leads, yet, sound films really showed his polished charm and wit, making him a highly paid box-office star.
I would like to finish up my life looking handsome, charming and smart at 91 years old, at my house in Palm Springs, right after that last martini, just like Powell. He makes a fine role model.