By Steve Starr
Photos: (top) Myrna Loy (purple frame) circa 1929. (Bottom) Myrna Loy (color) circa 1937.
In 1929, director John Ford said of actress Myrna Loy, "Wouldn't you know, the kid they pick to play tramps is the only good girl in Hollywood."
David Franklin Williams traveled through a train station named Myrna, and he liked the name so much that he bestowed it on his daughter. Myrna Adele Williams was born August 2, 1905 in Raidersburg, a small town near Helena, Montana, which was the home of Myrna’s childhood friend and future movie star Gary Cooper.
Mr. Williams was a banker and real estate developer, and became the youngest man ever elected to the Montana State legislature. His creative wife Della Mae had studied at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. Growing up on a ranch amid astounding natural beauty, Myrna wanted to become a nun or a nurse. One day, she saw a production of The Blue Bird, and the show left such an impression on her that she decided instead that the theater was her future.
When Williams became a victim of the influenza pandemic and died in November of 1918, Della Mae moved with her daughter Myrna and younger son David to Culver City, California, where Myrna took ballet and music lessons. She attended Venice High School, and, years later when she became a star, the school named their annual drama and speech awards "Myrnas." While at Venice High, a sculptor who was head of the art department, H.F. Weinbrener, asked Myrna to pose for a full-length statue he named "Aspiration." The figure of Myrna still stands in the schoolyard.
At 18, the pretty, red-haired and green-eyed young girl was hired as a dancer at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Performing in a prologue before the presentation of Cecil B. DeMille's silent version of The Ten Commandments, she developed an interest in film. A photographer, Henry Waxman, admired Myrna on stage, asked her to pose for him, and displayed the prints in his gallery.
There, they caught the attention of Natacha Rambova, who was Mrs. Rudolph Valentino, and with her help Myrna landed a small part in What Price Beauty (1928), a film shot in 1925 and released three years later. Myrna first tested for the role as the virgin in the silent version of Ben Hur (1925), starring Ramon Novarro, but due to her unusual beauty she was cast instead as a mistress to a Roman senator. In roles to follow, Myrna was generally chosen to play an exotic Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Polynesian, or Filipino temptress, as well as gypsies, slave girls, and mysterious spies, and she decided to change her last name to the Asian-sounding Loy. The following year she won a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers Studios.
Loy's first major role was in Across The Pacific (1927), and her first speaking role was in State Steet Sadie (1929), which was originally a silent movie but had sound and dialogue added when "talkies" suddenly changed Hollywood. Loy was appearing in an average of nine films per year.
The Wall Street Crash of 1929 forced Warner Brothers to eventually let Loy go in 1931, and for a while she worked freelance. Luckily, later that year she was signed by the great MGM Studios, and her career grew. In 1932 Loy played the role of gorgeous, sadistic Fah Lo See, the daughter of the wicked Fu Manchu in the film The Mask of Fu Manchu. Of her role Loy said, "Not only was I supposed to have a pet python, but I had my father's male victims turned over to me for torture, stripped; I then whipped them myself, uttering sadistic, gleeful cries." The film made Loy famous. That same year she played a homicidal maniac killing off her friends in Thirteen Women.
Better film roles followed. In 1933 Myrna made Topaze with John Barrymore, and in 1934 she appeared with Clark Gable and William Powell in Manhattan Melodrama, a movie famous for being the last film seen by notorious criminal John Dillinger at Chicago's Biograph Theater before he was set up by the "woman in red" and shot to death in the alley next door.
The chemistry seen on screen between Loy and Powell led to their being cast together as Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man (1934), a highly sophisticated, well written comedy-crime drama in which the two stars made marriage glamorous with their unsentimental mutual love and admiration, outbantering and outdrinking each other while solving a murder case. Highly likeable, lubed with martinis and dressed in a tuxedo, private detective Nick and his sensationally gowned wife Nora who was rarely seen in a kitchen, lived in a gorgeous apartment along with their intelligent dog, Asta. The pair continued to solve murder cases in five Thin Man sequels. In all, Loy and Powell made fourteen films together. After eighty movies playing mostly bad girls, Loy was now referred to as "the perfect wife," and "Men Must Marry Myrna Loy" clubs were formed around the country. In 1937, in a poll conducted by radio star Ed Sullivan, Myrna Loy and Clark Gable were voted by 20 million of the nations moviegoers as "The King and Queen of Hollywood."
During World War II, Myrna worked full time for the Red Cross and agreed to make only one film, The Thin Man Goes Home (1944). After the war, she served for three and a half years as a member of UNESCO. In 1946 she made one of the best movies of her career, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), which won several academy awards including Best Picture. Myrna continued to make hit movies that include The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947) with Shirley Temple, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) with Cary Grant and Cheaper By The Dozen (1950) with Clifton Webb.
Loy was a staunch Democrat, and this made her one of the first in line, along with dozens of other Hollywood luminaries, to be attacked in the Communist witch hunt led by Joseph McCarthy. Myrna and other actors responded by forming The Committee for the First Amendment. She defended herself successfully and in 1960 campaigned diligently for John Kennedy. That same year she became an active member of the National Committee Against Discrimination In Housing. During an interview in 1982 for the television show Legends of the Screen, Myrna stated, "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."
In 1963, Myrna went into live theater work and made her Broadway debut in 1973 in a revival of The Women. Myrna's last film appearance was in The End (1978) with Burt Reynolds. Her final television movie was Summer Solstice (1981).
Other great films Myrna Loy appeared in are When Ladies Meet (1933) with Joan Crawford, Evelyn Prentice (1934), The Great Ziegfeld (1936) with William Powell, Wife Vs. Secretary (1936) with Jean Harlow, Test Pilot (1938) with Clark Gable, Love Crazy (1941), Belles On Their Toes (1952) with Jeanne Crain and Debra Paget, Lonelyhearts (1959) with Montgomery Clift and Robert Ryan, From The Terrace (1960) with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Midnight Lace (1960) with Doris Day, and Airport '75 (1974), with a large roster of Hollywood stars.
In her later years, Myrna Loy stated, "I will say one thing for the old days. We had individiuality. I admire some of the people on the screen today, but most of them look like everybody else. As to those "monsters" I used to work with, well, I wish they were back. They really loved film, and I miss them."
In 1990, Myrna Loy was awarded an honorary Oscar. She died from surgical complications December 14, 1993.
The Great Movie Stars by David Shipman
The New York Times Directory of the Film
Hollywood Babylon II by Kenneth Anger
More Fabulous Faces by Larry Carr
Myrna Loy Websites
Steve Starr is the author of Picture Perfect-Art Deco Photo Frames 1926-1946, published by Rizzoli International Publications. A photographer, designer, artist, and movie star historian, Starr is the owner of Steve Starr Studios, specializing in original Art Deco photo frames and artifacts, and celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2007. His personal collection of over 950 gorgeous frames is filled with photos of Hollywood's most elegant stars.
Steve Starr's column, STARRLIGHT, about movie stars of the 1920's, 1930's, and 1940's, appears in various publications, including Entertainment Magazine Online-www.EMOL.org/reporters/Starr, the Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine, and the Windy City Times.
You may email Steve at [email protected], and visit www.SteveStarrStudios.com where you can enter The Starrlight Room and view part of his collection, read STARRLIGHT stories, and enjoy many of the letters, photos, and autographs he has received from his favorite luminaries.
Steve Starr is a Nightlife Photographer for Clubline Magazine, a photo contributor to various periodicals, and the House Photographer for the gorgeous Rumba Restaurant and Nightclub, 351 West Hubbard Street, Chicago. STARRGAZERS-Radiant Digital Photography by Steve Starr is available for portraits and events. Phone 773-463-8017 for further information.
Photo of Steve Starr in Chicago, September 2, 2007, by Patrick Hipskind
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