William Powell (1892-1984) was no “star” of vaudeville, but he did do some time there during his years of struggle from the time of his graduation from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1912, to his discovery by Hollywood ten years later. Can his vaudeville training have anything to do with his sparkling personality, expert timing and expertise in filling out a tuxedo, in those scores and scores of Hollywood classics? We think it could!
From vaudeville, he stepped up to Broadway in 1918 in The King, and did four more Broadway shows after that. In 1922, he broke into films, thus spending the first six or seven years of his movie career making silents — a lot of people don’t know that. He was in When Knighthood Was in Flower (1922) with Marion Davies; Romola (1924) with the Gish sisters; the original screen version of The Great Gatsby (1926); and dozens of others. In the talking era he put all that good stage experience to use, in such classics as the Philo Vance series (1929-1933); the Thin Man series (1934-1945), two outings as Flo Ziegfeld in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and Ziegfeld Follies (1946); My Man Godfrey (1936) and his poignant swan song Mister Roberts (1955). Much like another dashing, good-looking charmer, Powell opted to retire from the screen early, leaving his popular public image intact. He passed away in 1984.
Powell was married to Carole Lombard from 1931 to 1933 (which might explain their special chemistry in My Man Godfrey), and was romantically lined to Jean Harlow from 1935 until her death in 1937.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.