Myrna Loy: All-American wife and mother – and more
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.
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.
William Powell, Myrna Loy
Myrna Loy claims that before Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland took Warner Bros. to court, she fought her own studio – in Loy’s case MGM. What was that about? And did Loy’s stance impact her film career in any way?
Loy went on strike against MGM in 1935, partly because she had been miscast in a film called Escapade [Loy was replaced by newcomer Luise Rainer], and partly because she wanted more vacation time and more money after hitting pay dirt as Nora Charles. She did win more money and more time off, but MGM continued to under-utilize her talents and to stick with safe bets in casting her.
Myrna Loy the Activist. How was she an activist? How did she become involved in social/political activism? And how did that affect her film career?
World War II was a turning point for her. She spoke out against Hitler at a time when MGM was trying to cling to the German market for its films and didn’t want its stars making noise against the Nazis. Then she worked full time during the war for the Red Cross, as a volunteer arranging for performers to visit wounded soldiers in hospitals. After that, she became an advocate for the U.N. and for candidates like Adlai Stevenson, Eugene McCarthy and JFK. She spoke out against the war in Vietnam.
Myrna Loy and the Hollywood Blacklist. How does that tie in with Loy’s political activism? Was Loy actually blacklisted? How did that affect her personal life?
In response to the HUAC hearings investigating “reds” in Hollywood, she joined William Wyler and John Huston in forming the Committee for the First Amendment. When The Hollywood Reporter published an article naming her as a “fellow traveler” she threatened to sue them for a million dollars if they didn’t publish a retraction. They backed off, published a retraction, and she withdrew the suit. She was never named on a blacklist, so far as I know, but she may have lost out on some opportunities because of her outspokenness.
About twenty-five years ago, Myrna Loy wrote her own autobiography, Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming. Was that book an accurate retelling of her life? Any key points that were left out of Loy’s narrative? How does The Only Good Girl in Hollywood complement – or expand upon – Being and Becoming?
Loy’s autobiography, co-authored by James Kotsilibas-Davis, is a terrific book. Loy was reticent about her private life and excelled at burying her tracks. She did not put many intimate documents like diaries or more than a few letters from those close to her into her archive at Boston University. So I do rely in my book on her own published recollections.
I supplemented those with interviews, especially with members of the family of her first husband, producer Arthur Hornblow Jr., the love of her life and the father of her surrogate son, Terry Hornblow. I learned a lot from Terry, who opened his home to me. He told me of Loy’s abortion and the fact that she became sterile and could not bear children after it.
I also learned about her close relationship with Montgomery Clift from Jack Larson, friend to both Clift and Loy, and from the diaries of Myrna’s personal assistant, Leone Rosson. I learned about her third husband, writer-producer Gene Markey, from his letters and from interviewing his daughter.
Richard Benjamin talked to me about working with her in theater in the ’60s. For the early part of her life, her Montana childhood, I found surprising and revealing stuff about her father and his financial problems in, of all places, Probate Court documents in Helena, MT.
While doing research on Myrna Loy and her times, was there anything that came as a shock to you? Any major difficulties while trying to uncover aspects of Loy’s life and career? Was there a “most enjoyable” area of research? Or perhaps a “least enjoyable”?
I sometimes felt frustrated by Loy’s success in covering her tracks. I longed for more revelations, but her step-granddaughter Deb Hornblow warned me when I first got going on this book that it was going to be tough to find original material that was going to unlock secrets. Also, time has passed, and most of those closest to her are not around any more.
Most enjoyable to me was watching Myrna Loy movies. She was a really terrific actress, a natural, without formal training or a background in theater, who had a grace, intelligence and range that should have been explored more on screen.
How would you introduce Myrna Loy to someone who has never heard of her? Which movies would you select to show that person?
I’d show them The Jazz Singer or Don Juan so they could see her when she was just starting out at Warner Bros. In my talks with clips, the audience has squealed with surprise and delight seeing her as the wild gypsy temptress Nubi in The Squall, an early talkie with 17-year-old Loretta Young as the sweet young innocent.
Penthouse shows her finding her unique quality, her wit, spontaneity and sass, at MGM. I love Manhattan Melodrama, with Clark Gable. That film introduced Loy to Powell. The Thin Man and After the Thin Man are perennial favorites. Test Pilot, with Gable again, and Spencer Tracy, was one of her own favorites, but airplane movies are not my thing. Myrna thought she did her best work in The Best Years of Our Lives, a great film. She might have been right.
And finally, any reason as to why Myrna Loy was never even nominated for an Academy Award despite a 50-year+ career?
There are theories. One is that her liberal politics had something to do with the cold shoulder she got from the Academy. Another is that comedies tend to get short shrift, and her strong suit was comedy.
The Academy itself acknowledged its neglect, late in the game, by inviting her on, finally, as a presenter in 1970, and by giving her a tribute at Carnegie Hall in 1985 and an Honorary Oscar in 1991, when she was close to the end of her days.