I spent last night (evening actually) with Myrna Loy. What a delight.
I love Turner Classic Movies. And not just because sometimes I get to see old Hollywood friends I haven’t seen in a while as co-hosts (with TCM’s main host Robert Osborne) of the evening’s programs. Or because they show movies full screen and uninterrupted. But because Osborne puts so many of the interesting stories about the making of these old flicks in perspective, with details I don’t readily know or remember.
Like the two films I caught last night that Myrna Loy was in before she became a big star. The year was 1933, the worst year of the Great Depression and Loy was twenty-eight, a fact I wouldn’t have guessed but Osborne made a point of. Loy had made many movies as a bit player but in the first, even though she enters the movie what seems like more than halfway through it, she steals it. In the second, she’s the pivotal character and once again makes the entire film worth watching.
With her round little Betty Boop face and that peculiar inflection in her speech, plus the offhanded lighthearted way she has with even the most serious lines, let alone the least interesting—exposition etc.—she makes them all seem like the lightest irony ever expressed, without that tinge of superiority most sarcasm has in movies, but instead a little flicker of self-deprecation—she just plain steals all the focus in the camera and our hearts.
It was the following year, 1934, that she met her match, William Powell, starring with him in the first THIN MAN movie and in turn becoming a huge star herself (at one time, as Osborne points out, voted the “Queen” of movies in conjunction with Clark Gable’s “King”—interesting that I grew up knowing about Gable’s title but not about Loy’s).
But in these two flicks—PENTHOUSE and WHEN LADIES MEET—the only co-stars who can keep up with Loy are the women. Warner Baxter, a ‘30s movie star who’s the star of PENTHOUSE, always seems too old for the roles he’s playing, at least romantically, and with little screen charisma, though his slicked back hair and thin little moustache is supposed to indicate his irresistibility to women.
This is the flick Loy first appears in after the film’s been going quite a while, as a supposed “common” girl whose best friend is a gangster’s moll (Mae Clark, another bright screen presence who didn’t have Loy’s unique qualities but still holds the screen better than anyone other than Loy in PENTHOUSE). And even though it’s hard to take Loy seriously as the gangster hanger-on type, she still makes the role work out of sheer movie magic—just making every line and every bit of business delightful to watch.
In WHEN LADIES MEET, the main male roles are played by Frank Morgan (who six years later made his mark as the wizard in THE WIZARD OF OZ) in another totally unbelievable slicked-back-hair-and-thin-moustache-supposedly-passing-for-irresistable-to-females-like-Loy role and the young Robert Montgomery, an actor I was never that crazy about in movies though I bought him as an older male lead in TV’s FATHER KNOWS BEST [I've been corrected on this, thanks Bob, the latter was Robert Young, but if you see the young Robert Montgomery in WHEN LADIES MEET you'll see how he could easily grow older to become Robert Young in FATHER KNOWS BEST, and I have to admit I did like Montgomery in HERE COMES MISTER JORDAN, even if his low class pug act seemed totally put on, as in this flick, it was a nice effort]. He does his best in WHEN LADIES MEET and almost comes up to Loy’s level, but not.
The women, on the other hand, make this flick totally worth watching—Ann Harding, a star in many ‘30s flicks, and Alice Brady, a comic actress sidekick in many ‘30s flicks, both are unique screen presences. Together with Loy they make this close to a classic.
But in the end, as I learned last night, even the lousiest movie can be worth watching if Myrna Loy is in it. I knew her mainly from THE THIN MAN series, and she certainly captures my heart and admiration and critical kudos for her role in one of my all time favorite flicks, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. But now I know, she’s just simply terrific in anything, even a klunker like PENTHOUSE.
If they play them again, check them out and you won't be disappointed, at least not in Myrna Loy.