“Some perfect wife I am. I’ve been married four times, divorced four times, have no children, and can’t boil an egg.”Myrna Loy
A woman who was the very essence of sophistication even though she was born Myrna Adele Williams in rural Montana, she moved to Southern California in 1912 for the good of her mother’s health. Crazy, I know, but in those days it was believed that the sunny warm weather in Los Angeles could be good for your health.
As Myrna Loy (1904-1984), she found work in the chorus that performed live between the features at the famous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. She was first noticed by gay silent screen star Rudolph Valentino who hired her as an extra for his film Pretty Ladies (1925) where she and a yet to be discovered Joan Crawford are among a circle of cute chorus girls dangling from a colossal chandelier. After see a still from her makeup tests, Warner Bros. changed her name from Williams to the more exotic, enigmatic “Loy”.
Loy’s voice made her transition to the talkies a bit tough. She was frequently cast as an “Oriental” or Mexican in her first sound films. But, her performance in Penthouse (1933) convinced the MGM brass to cast her opposite William Powell in the first of what would be six Thin Man films beginning with The Thin Man (1934), she she plays the martini-swilling Nora Charles. The film was a big success and Loy finally found her well-deserved Hollywood stardom. Their chemistry was unbeatable, and Powell and Loy were a team for 13 more films.
She looks pale and dark-haired in her films, but Loy was actually red-haired and freckle-faced. Producer David O. Selznick was concerned with her prominent ears, and demanded that the studio’s make-up artists glue them to her head. Can you imagine how uncomfortable it would be to have your ears glued to your head every day?
Loy became Hollywood’s go-to “perfect wife: for a film, so bright, witty, and charming in MGM films such as Wife vs. Secretary (1936) with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, and Petticoat Fever (1936) with Robert Montgomery. She made four films in a row with Powell: two The Thin Man sequels; the delightful, daffy Libeled Lady (1936) with Harlow and Spencer Tracy; and The Great Ziegfeld (1936), playing Billie Burke opposite Powell’s Florenz Ziegfeld. Loy was one of Hollywood’s busiest, most popular, and highest paid actors in town in the 1930s.
Loy took a break from making films during World War II (except to play Nora Charles again), giving herself over to the war effort, doing Red Cross work, and selling those war bonds. Loy was so outspoken in her distaste of the Nazis that her name made Adolf Hitler‘s special enemies blacklist. You’ve got to love her for that.
Loy returned to the films in 1946, making such well-made, entertaining films as The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946), Song Of The Thin Man (1947), the last of the series; a pair of comedies with Cary Grant: The Bachelor And The Bobby-Soxer (1947) and the delightful madcap Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948); The Red Pony (1949) a western with Robert Mitchum; and the agreeable comedy, Cheaper By The Dozen (1950) and its sequel Belles On Their Toes (1952), both with elegant gay actor Clifton Webb.
Always a proud lifelong liberal, Loy was involved with Progressive politics in the 1950s and 1960s, and only acted occasionally for the rest of her life. She was a good friend of Franklin D. Roosevelt and traveled on speaking engagements with her even closer friend, Eleanor Roosevelt. She fought with Louis B. Mayer, the legendary MGM studio chief, who was critical of Roosevelt and his New Deal. When The Hollywood Reporter, then a right-wing rag, condemned her political activities, Loy sued the influential publication for $1 million. That sort of scrappy spirit continued into the 1980s, when she sharply criticized Ronald Reagan at a time when most members of Hollywood’s Old Guard considered that president to be a hero. Loy:
“I never worked with Ronald Reagan. I’m not happy that he’s President. I was willing to give him a chance. But he’s destroying everything now I’ve lived my life for.”
From 1949-1954 she served as the film adviser for UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific And Cultural Organization) and as a consultant to the National Committee Against Discrimination In Housing. Loy spoke out openly and fiercely in favor of Civil Rights for all Americans, taking a stand from the start of her career. In the 1930s and 1940s, she challenged MGM by stating:
“Why does every Black person in the movies have to play a servant? How about a Black person walking up the steps of a courthouse carrying a briefcase?“
Maybe it is a good thing she isn’t with us today. MAGA-ism and the rise of Christian White Nationalism would probably have killed her.
Loy aged gracefully, still lovely in her last years, and she occasionally found roles in films playing a refined older lady. She gives great supporting performances in Midnight Lace (1960) with Doris Day; From The Terrace (1960) with Paul Newman and his wife Joanne Woodward; The April Fools (1969) with Jack Lemmon and Catherine Deneuve; and she played a delightful Jim Beam and Olympia beer swilling drunk in the campy Airport ’75. Her final film was Sidney Lumet‘s Just Tell Me What You Want (1980). That’s correct; Loy worked in showbiz for 55 years, acting in 130 films of every genre. Then, she made her Broadway debut in 1973, at 68 years old, in a revival of Clare Boothe Luce‘s classic comedy The Women.
Like her good friend, Cary Grant, she never received an Academy Award for acting. Because of the campaigning by gay actor Roddy McDowall, Loy received a special honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in 1991.
Loy married four times, plus she enjoyed affairs with Spencer Tracy, Leslie Howard, and possibly with Joan Crawford.
Loy lost a battle with that damn cancer in December 1993, at 88 years old. A class act, she is one of my favorite movie stars ever, and believe me, I have the best of taste.
“Nora Charles was different. Nora had a gorgeous sense of humor; she appreciated the distinctive grace of her husband’s wit. She laughed at him and with him when he was funny. What’s more, she laughed at herself. Besides having tolerance, she was a good guy. She was courageous and interested in living and she enjoyed doing all the things she did. You understand, she had a good time, always.“