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Myrna Loy Biography: Q&A with Author Emily Leider

Myrna Loy biography The Only Good Girl in Hollywood
Myrna Loy biography: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood

Many believe that Myrna Loy is the best American actress never to have been nominated for an Academy Award. Despite having played leads and supporting roles in more than 100 movies (in addition to a few dozen bit parts during the silent era), Loy was invariably bypassed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But that's the Oscar and the Academy's loss.

For starters, Loy was a delightful light comedienne in movies such as W.S. Van Dyke's The Thin Man and Jack Conway's Libeled Lady. One of the greatest – and most beautifully politically incorrect – dialogue exchanges in movies can be heard in Rouben Mamoulian's 1932 musical Love Me Tonight:

Jeanette MacDonald: “Don't you think of anything but men, dear?"

Myrna Loy: “Oh yes, schoolboys.”

Loy could be a remarkable dramatic actress as well, as can be attested by her quite moving performance as war veteran Fredric March's wife in William Wyler's 1946 Best Picture Oscar winner The Best Years of Our Lives. If that weren't all, she all but stole Mark Robson's otherwise dreary From the Terrace from young lovers Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. And, as Ramon Novarro's lust/love interest, she's phenomenal in both the comedy and dramatic segments of Sam Wood's outrageous The Barbarian, which features rape, beatings, and singing. Personally, I think Loy would have been great in film noirs, but Hollywood studios clearly disagreed.

In addition to the aforementioned titles, Loy's movies – covering a wide range of topics – include Penthouse, Manhattan Melodrama, The Great Ziegfeld, The Rains Came, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, and Cheaper by the Dozen. Among her leading men were William Powell (mostly in the Thin Man movies), Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Melvyn Douglas, Clifton Webb, John Barrymore, Spencer Tracy, and Tyrone Power.

Off screen, Loy was devoted to liberal causes, including the Civil Rights movement, in addition to being an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and a vehement opponent of the right-wingers in the House Un-American Activities Committee. A strong supporter of the United Nations, for a time she was also a UNESCO spokesperson.

Author Emily Leider, who previously wrote books on Mae West (Becoming Mae West) and Rudolph Valentino (Dark Lover), has tackled Myrna Loy's life and career in Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood (University of California Press, 2011). Clara Bow and Jean Harlow biographer David Stenn called The Only Good Girl in Hollywood “a masterful tribute to MGM's subtlest star,” while film historian Anthony Slide wrote that “this first biography of Myrna Loy is so conscientiously researched, so closely written in detail and intelligent style that there will be no need for a second.”

Emily, whom I met several years ago while I was working on my Ramon Novarro biography, kindly agreed to answer a few questions about Myrna Loy and The Only Good Girl in Hollywood. Please see link below.

Myrna Loy actress
Myrna Loy

You've written books on Mae West and Rudolph Valentino. Why Myrna Loy?

Shortest answer: I saw her on Libeled Lady on TCM one night, and said to myself, “She is so delightful. Has there been a book on her?” Longer answer: My previous book was on Valentino, who “discovered” Myrna when she was a Prologue dancer at Grauman's Egyptian Theatre and gave her the first screen test she ever had. I liked the link.

The subtitle of your Myrna Loy book is “The Only Good Girl in Hollywood.” How was Loy a “Good Girl”? Or was she?

The title comes from something said about Myrna by John Ford when she was starting out as a silent film actress and kept getting assigned roles as an exotic vixen. Ford said, “Wouldn't you know? The one they have playing tramps is the only good girl in Hollywood.” He meant that (compared to other young actresses of the day) she wasn't sleeping around.

Myrna was no saint. She had four divorces before she quit the marriage game in her private life. But she was “good” in the sense that she was a person of integrity who saw the world beyond herself and Hollywood and who cared about things like fighting Hitler, opposing the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, and supporting both the U.N. and liberal candidates running for public office.

Most people remember Myrna Loy for her performances opposite William Powell in the Thin Man movies and for William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives. But before that, Loy was a frequent movie “exotic.” How did she manage to switch her screen image so radically – and so rapidly? Is she a unique case in that regard?

Myrna hated the straitjacket of type casting, which constricted her for much of her movie career. First she was typed as an evil temptress, usually Asian, because she had slightly slanted eyes and could be made up to look good as a Third World siren. Then, after The Thin Man, she got typed at MGM as “The Perfect Wife,” which she came to loathe.

Hollywood tends to type performers because Hollywood likes to cash in on past successes. Switching types does happen – Joan Crawford started out as a dancing vamp – if an actress has a long enough career. If she acquires enough clout to help decide on her own casting, she can guide her own course. Katharine Hepburn carried that off, but not so many others could or did. These days, an actress like Glenn Close can buy a book or play she likes and, if she has the power and money, become her own producer and enabler.

Myrna Loy and William Powell. They had a great on-screen rapport. But what was their relationship like in real life?

In real life they were great buddies, but never lovers. Myrna said if they'd gotten into the sack they might not have stayed such good friends or made 14 films together.

Did Myrna Loy have a favorite screen partner? A favorite director? A favorite movie? If so, any particular reason for her choice(s)?

She loved working with William Wyler in The Best Years of Our Lives. And she credited Woody Van Dyke for fighting to get her cast as Nora Charles in The Thin Man; Louis B. Mayer was saying she couldn't do comedy. She showed Mayer that she could, big time.

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2 Comments to Myrna Loy Biography: Q&A with Author Emily Leider

  1. Karen Churn

    Again, I'm a day late and a dollar short in finding your articles. I was just watching one of the “Thin Man” movies yesterday and was, again, struck by how gorgeous Myrna Loy was and how whip sharp she was as an actress. Very few could play comedy with more sophistication than Ms. Loy. Most of the time, all she had to do was give a look and it would be hysterical. Also, I honesty feel that she fit perfectly with practically all of her leading men. However, pairing her with William Powell was probably one of the best moves that first casting director who did it ever made.

  2. Norman Wesley

    Many years ago (1960's), I hosted Ms. Loy on a tour of a steel mill, at her request. I asked her about her interest in steelmaking. She told me that her father worked in a mill and she was curious about that industry. I will read your biography with anticipation but I have first skimmed through passages about her parents and I see no reference to that job. Did you come across any such information — (a summer job, perhaps, during school vacation?).
    Good luck with this and future publications.