Tuesday, May 26, 2015

William Powell

From what I've seen of him, William Powell was distinctive from other actors of the 30s in that he was a charmer, but his style of charm came with a measure of tough-talking swagger to it. Not unlike his character in My Man Godfrey, it was as if someone had taken him off the street and turned him into a "gentleman," but they couldn't completely scrape away all of the rough edges to him.

It's funny, but even though the bulk of his career was in comedy, I don't necessarily think of him as a comic actor. To me, he's more like an actor who did comedy, and I'm not sure why that is. These days, comic actors like Will Ferrell or Tina Fey tend to be more pigeon-holed in those roles than in the past, and when they step outside their comfort zones to do a Stranger Than Fiction or a Punch-Drunk Love, that's looked upon as unusual, as an anomaly. 

With Old Hollywood actors like Powell, however, it was different. They took the scripts they were given, and sometimes it was a comedy, like Manhattan Melodrama, or a drama, like The Great Ziegfeld. So maybe my perception of Powell has something to do with that.

Powell made a mind-boggling fourteen films with Myrna Loy, including the six Thin Man films and Ziegfeld, the Best Picture winner. I've talked before about the two of them. Screen pairings like theirs were probably much easier to pull off when actors were tied to a single studio, which would explain why we never see them anymore - at least, not as prolifically. Still, I can understand the appeal in them. It can be a comfort to see two actors you like making movies together. You have an idea of what to expect, even when they're playing different characters.

Before the Thin Man movies, Powell headlined another franchise, featuring him as the amateur sleuth from literature, Philo Vance. He made five of those. I watched a clip from the first of them, The Canary Murder Case from 1929 (which also featured Jean Arthur and Louise Brooks) online, and it struck me that making the transition from silent films to talkies must have been easy for him. He had a remarkable speaking voice. He had made a living playing heavies during the silent era, and Canary was supposed to have been a silent until it was reworked as a talkie.

Powell, with third wife Diana Lewis
For a time, Powell was married to Carole Lombard, and he also had an affair with Jean Harlow. Lombard was his second wife, and they only lasted two years together before divorcing amicably in 1933. (Lombard would go on to marry Clark Gable.) As for Harlow, Powell was born in Pittsburgh and moved to Kansas City, and while there, he lived a few blocks away from Harlow, though they wouldn't meet until they both became movie stars. 

In 1935, they met on the set of the film Reckless, and that's when their relationship began. They would star together in Libeled Lady the next year. When Harlow died in 1937, Powell took it really hard. He paid for her funeral and took a break from acting for awhile. He'd find love again, though, in his third wife Diana Lewis, with whom he stayed until his death in 1984.

Powell was a pleasant actor to watch. I like to think he was a good guy as well; I certainly hope so. He deserves a place up there with the Cary Grants and Fred Astaires of Old Hollywood.

Next: Tod Browning

Films with William Powell:
The Thin Man
Libeled Lady
Mister Roberts

Jack Lemmon
Jean Arthur
Edward G. Robinson
Rita Moreno
Frank Capra
Bernard Herrmann
Joan Blondell
James Dean
Ethel Waters

I just thought this was funny.


  1. From Myrna Loy's autobiography: "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."

  2. Just about says it all, doesn't it? Thanks for that.

  3. It is truly satisfying to learn that someone may be all that we think they are.

  4. It is. When I said "I like to think Powell was a good guy," that was kind of an off-the-cuff statement. I had no idea of knowing for sure one way or another, and I probably had his screen "persona" in mind more than anything else, but yeah, it's nice to hear it confirmed from someone who knew him.

  5. There are also a lot of similar comments from many of his co-stars. Almost all his leading ladies listed him as one of their favorites to work with. His kindness and wild sense of humor mentioned a lot. Definitely a classy guy.


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