Myrna Loy: Before, During and After “The Thin Man”

Some brief tribute to Myrna Loy (Myrna Williams, 1905-1993) today. The wider public tends to remember her exclusively for her Thin Man films with William Powell, and I’ll probably write about those at some point, but today I thought it would be more interesting to look at almost everything but.

Like Gary Cooper, who was four years her senior, Loy grew up in the Helena, Montana area. The two even knew each other as kids, although surprisingly they never made a movie together. Loy’s father was an important man in the state: a rancher, banker, real estate developer and member of the state legislature. Her mother was a cultured woman, who’d studied at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. These facts explain Loy’s aristocratic bearing, which suited her for so many roles, although it is interesting to note that she is in almost no westerns during the sound era, which she technically could have handled just as well, having literally grown up on a ranch.

Loy took dance lessons and appeared in school theatricals throughout her childhood. When her father died in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, she, her mother and brother moved to Culver City, California. She was initially enrolled at the Westlake School for Girls, but her dancing and modelling was thought to interfere with her studies, so she transferred to Venice High School and then dropped out entirely to concentrate on her career. But she left her mark at the school. In 1921 she modeled for Harry Fielding Winebrenner’s sculpture Fountain of Education, which stood on the grounds for many decades:

In 1923 she began working as a chorus girl in the musical prologues at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre, where she worked for two years. In 1925 she posed for photos by Henry Waxman, which brought her to the attention of Rudolph Valentino and Natacha Rambova. Rambova cast her as a vamp opposite Nita Naldi in What Price Beauty. Though the film was not released until 1928, Loy’s movie career was on its way.

The silent leg of Loy’s career is less well known by the public, but frankly it is this early phase of her career, as a chorus girl and exotic screen siren that interests me the most. I first became acquainted with this phase of her career when I saw her as an evil “Asian” manipulator in Thirteen Women (1932), which ironically was one of the last of these type roles she was to play. But the fact is that for around eight years her dark, unusual beauty got her cast mostly as slave girls, natives, Indians, Gypsies, Mexican maidens, and the like. Her first film role to be seen by the public was in Raoul Walsh’s The Wanderer (1925), in which she played “Girl at Bacchanal”. She was a Slave Girl in Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1926). In Don Juan (1926) with John Barrymore she played “Mai, a Lady in Waiting”. In Howard Hawks’ A Girl in Every Port (1927) she is “Girl in China”. The last role of this nature she may have played was Fah Lo See in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) with Boris Karloff. Loy also played a long line of vamps and temptresses. One of the most prominent of these was Morgan Le Fay in A Connecticut Yankee (1931) with Will Rogers. 

At the same time, because of her dance background, she played chorus girls in both silent films and early musicals. Some of these were Pretty Ladies (1925), Sporting Life (1925), The Jazz Singer (1927) and The Show of Shows (1929).

But gradually directors began to take notice and she began to get decent roles that were closer to her in type. John Ford put her in his 1931 adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith. She played the central role of Becky Sharp in the 1932 version of Vanity Fair. She’s in the 1934 adaptation of Sidney Kingsley’s Men in White, and in Frank Capra’s Broadway Bill.

In 1933, W.S. Van Dyke cast her opposite boxer Max Baer in The Prizefighter and the Lady. Director and star clearly had a rapport; Van Dyke subsequently worked with Loy on Penthouse (1933), Manhattan Melodrama (1933) and the Thin Man films. And while the latter series provided a major thread of her work for over a decade, Loy had much else going on. There were other films with William Powell such as The Great Ziegfeld (1936) in which she played Billie Burke; Libeled Lady (1936) and Double Wedding (1937). There were many films opposite Clark Gable, like Wife vs. Secretary (1936) and Test Pilot (1938).

After the end of the World War Two (and the last of the Thin Man series), Loy continued to work steadily through 1960, her notable films including (but not limited to): The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer (1946), Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), Cheaper by the Dozen (1950), Lonelyhearts (1958), and Midnight Lace (1960).

Loy stepped away from films for almost the entirety of the 1960s, although she worked in theatre during that time. Then she returned to appear in the comedy April Fools (1969). I can say with a certainty that my introduction to her came through her comical appearance in the disaster movie Airport 1975, where she plays a hard-drinking passenger whose capacity for booze startles the man in the seat next to her, played by Sid Caesar: “Lady! That’s a boilermaker!”. She was only about 70 years old at the time, a spring chicken compared to Gloria Swanson, who also appeared in the film. Burt Reynolds gave Loy a role in his 1978 black comedy The End. Her last role was in Sidney Lumets 1980 film of Jay Presson Allen’s Just Tell Me What You Want, which was also contained the last starring role of Ali McGraw, and a rare star billing for Alan King. 

Although Loy retired from acting after that, she remained actively involved in various political and charitable causes, and published her memoir in 1987.