Friday, July 30, 2010
William Powell July 29, 1892 - March 05, 1984
William Powell was one of the most popular and longest-enduring leading men in Hollywood, his stardom lasting four decades, from the 1920s through the 1950s, and even beyond his retirement in 1955, and embracing some of the best comedies, detective thrillers, and dramas in each of those decades. William Horatio Powell was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA, in 1892, and in his early teens the family moved to Kansas City, MO. His father was an accountant and planned a career in law for him, but the younger Powell got other ideas after he worked on a high-school production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Rivals. A quiet and studious boy, he enjoyed the freedom that acting gave him, and came to seek out more plays and watch professional actors at work, frequenting the city's theaters and even taking a job as an usher at an opera house to learn what he could from watching actors at work. Powell enrolled in the University of Kansas in an attempt to satisfy his father but was gone almost as soon as he arrived, in pursuit of an acting career. He had to support himself, as his father refused to contribute to his support, so he went to work for the telephone company in 1910. By the following year, he'd conceived of a plan to go to New York: he wrote to a wealthy aunt appealing for her assistance and a loan of 1,400 dollars; he got 700 dollars, put up the rest himself, and was off to New York. There he enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where his classmates included Joseph Schildkraut and Edward G. Robinson.
Powell got his first role, a walk-on in The Ne'er-Do-Well, in 1912, and in 1913 got a supporting role in Within the Law, which was successful enough to keep him employed for two years on tour. He also married Eileen Wilson, an actress in the cast of the play, in 1915; their marriage lasted 16 years and gave them one son, William David Powell, born in 1925. Powell moved between stock companies based in Pittsburgh, Portland (OR), Buffalo, and Detroit, and was back on Broadway in 1917 in The King and the Judge of Zalamea. That same year, he was cast in the musical comedy Going Up, which became a huge hit for the time, running 351 performances. He spent a season in Boston with the Castle Square Stock Company and then returned to Broadway for what proved to be his star-making role, as the villain Javier in Spanish Love, which ran from 1920 through 1922. During the run of the show, he was approached backstage and offered a role in a new movie version of Sherlock Holmes, to star John Barrymore, and, intrigued by the idea of working in this burgeoning entertainment medium, accepted. He ended up playing the secondary villain of Fortnam, opposite Barrymore, and was a smashing success.
A whole new career opened up for Powell with the release of Sherlock Holmes. He quickly appeared in two more movies that year, and he was done with the theater after one last, unsuccessful play, The Woman Who Laughed (1923). Over the next seven years, he came to specialize in playing villains onscreen, his intense yet suave, mustachioed presence gracing a series of melodramas and costume romances, including Under the Red Robe (1923) and Romola (1925), the latter shot in Italy, where he became a lifelong friend of the star, Ronald Colman. That movie, in which he brought a romantic and witty side to the heavy, marked the peak of Powell's silent-era villain portrayals, and he was never less than top-billed for the rest of his career. Powell worked in some of the best movies of the late silent era, including early versions of The Great Gatsby (1926), Beau Geste (also 1926), and The Four Feathers (1928), and was among the top stars at Paramount -- but he had an even bigger future ahead of him with the dawn of the sound era.
The arrival of synchronized sound hit Hollywood like an earthquake, wiping out the careers of an entire generation of stars, but Powell -- as an experienced stage actor -- was more than equal to the challenge at hand. It was during this period that he made the transition from villainous to heroic parts, and his breakthrough came when he was cast as Philo Vance, the detective created by author S.S. Van Dine. The Canary Murder Case (1929), starring Powell and Louise Brooks, was started as a silent but converted to a talkie after shooting was completed; Brooks refused to return to dub her voice and ended her Hollywood career as a result, but Powell proved even more charismatic with his voice than he had seemed in the silents. He sounded the way he looked, sophisticated, with excellent but natural diction, and was very appealing in the part of the detective, essentially carrying the movie when another actress was forced to voice Brook's part.
Powell was cast in a multitude of roles over the next few years at Paramount, and was successful in all of them, becoming one of the studio's most reliable leading men and a serious box-office draw. In 1931, Powell and his first wife, Eileen, divorced, and that same year he married Carole Lombard, then an up-and-coming young leading lady with whom he appeared in Man of the World and Ladies' Man (both 1931); they were divorced two years later but always remained on friendly terms. When he moved over to Warner Bros. briefly during the early '30s, Powell took on an even greater diversity of parts, however, including one part that even decades later seems a total surprise, the role of a Lower East Side attorney and first-generation American who challenges the prejudices and exclusivity of New York's upscale legal profession, in Lawyer Man (1933) -- and he pulled it off. But Powell's best role at Warner Bros. was in The Kennel Murder Case that same year, in which he returned to the part of Philo Vance in one of the finest mystery films of its period. In 1934, Powell moved over to MGM -- then the Tiffany's of Hollywood studios and ascending to the peak of its artistic and commercial success -- joining an array of stars that included Greta Garbo, Wallace Beery, John Barrymore, Marie Dressler, and Clark Gable.
Powell was cast with Gable, playing opposite Myrna Loy, in a crime drama called Manhattan Melodrama (1934), directed by W.S. Van Dyke, one of the studio's top hands, and during shooting Van Dyke noticed how unusually well Powell and Loy seemed to get along when they were off the set, awaiting their cues. There was a natural chemistry between the two, a shared wry wit that others enjoyed seeing, and he felt that this was something to pursue in another movie. Manhattan Melodrama went on to become a huge hit and achieved footnote status in the annals of American crime lore as the movie playing at the Biograph Theatre in Chicago when authorities shot and killed notorious bank robber John Dillinger as he was leaving the theater (though speculation has also been raised by a tiny faction of revisionist crime scholars that it wasn't, in fact, Dillinger, who was killed that night but some unknown man and that the FBI, seeking to burnish its image and cover up a mistake, simply claimed the kill).
With that success under his belt, Van Dyke was able to convince MGM to let him try pairing Powell off with Loy in a vehicle of their own, an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's recent best-selling mystery novel The Thin Man. The management had so little interest or faith in this "experiment" by Van Dyke that he was given just 12 days in which to shoot the movie, however, where four weeks would have been a more normal shooting time for a film that was 93 minutes in its final cut. Cast as Nick and Nora Charles, a fun-loving independently wealthy couple -- she a wealthy heiress and he an attorney looking forward to retirement -- who solve a murder that has the police baffled, they delighted audiences with their banter and the obvious pleasure they took in their work with each other. Viewers actually could believe them as a married couple, and also as a very special type of married couple. The mystery at the center of the movie was intriguing enough, and the supporting cast, including Maureen O'Sullivan, was fun, but it was the vision of marriage that made the movie something new. Up until that time, marriage, when it was depicted onscreen, had usually been shown in either overly sentimental or comically slapstick terms. Powell and Loy, and the script they worked from by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, presented a sometimes passionate, sometimes tart (but always loving) vision of marriage, and for the first time in a talking picture presented an image of marriage that made the institution look like it was fun. It was charming enough to get Powell a Best Actor nomination in the Academy Awards for that year.
Ironically for Powell -- who was just a bit portly -- the name "the Thin Man" (which had actually referred to a character played by Edward Ellis in the first film) stuck to his character of Nick Charles. Whereas Hammett's novel was billed as "A Nick Charles Mystery" (and the only Nick Charles mystery), the inevitable sequels ordered by the studio all used the "Thin Man" name, and he and Loy acquitted themselves beautifully through the first two, After the Thin Man (1936) and Another Thin Man (1939), under the direction of Van Dyke. In the interim, Powell made many more movies, among them the delightful 1936 screwball comedies Libeled Lady and My Man Godfrey, the former teaming him once again with Loy while the latter (done on loan-out to Universal) played beautifully off of Powell's sophisticated image, and teamed him with Carole Lombard as successfully as he had been with Loy. He also played the title role in the studio's blockbuster biopic The Great Ziegfeld, a fanciful all-star tribute (also with Loy) to the late theatrical impresario Florenz Ziegfeld. In these and a couple dozen other movies, Powell proved himself a winning presence at the box office; audiences genuinely liked him, and the aura of unpretentious sophistication that he brought to his portrayals allowed him to elicit that sympathy, going all the way back to his villainous parts in the silents.
Powell was the third most popular actor in Hollywood, based on box-office receipts, in 1936, and 1937 seemed to bid to be just as successful when fate intervened. He had been teamed with Jean Harlow in two movies, Reckless and Libeled Lady, and the two were reportedly engaged to be married at the time of the actress' sudden death that year, an event that forced him to take a break from acting. And, in 1938, although it wasn't revealed until many years later when he began discussing his health issues openly as a way to help others, he was diagnosed with rectal cancer and forced to take a further leave. He was given a short time to live, but managed to confound the illness and the predictions with radiation treatments; he even kept his career going with one film each in 1938 and 1939, the latter the second Thin Man sequel, Another Thin Man. Powell was back working full-time if not keeping so heavy a schedule in the early '40s, when the studio revived the Thin Man movies anew, starting with Shadow of the Thin Man. With Van Dyke now gone, Powell and Loy proved that they could work their magic in the hands of other filmmakers, in scripts that carried them through World War II (The Thin Man Goes Home, 1944) and the postwar period (Song of the Thin Man, 1947). The Florenz Ziegfeld character was also revived for Powell once more in Ziegfeld Follies (1946), allowing him to reprise that part from a decade earlier.
The following year at Warner Bros., Powell got to realize his long-held wish to play Clarence Day in Life With Father. He'd been after the play as a film vehicle since 1942, when he'd convinced MGM to try and buy the film rights. When those proved too expensive and the studio declined to buy them, he waited until Warners had them and then auditioned successfully for the part. The result was the best of reviews of Powell's entire career, and another Oscar nomination as Best Actor (the award went to his old friend Ronald Colman for A Double Life). Instead, Powell won the New York Film Critics award for his work in that movie and the comedy The Senator Was Indiscreet, the latter directed by George S. Kaufman and featuring Loy in a gag appearance. Powell continued starring in movies such as Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948) and Dancing in the Dark (1949), and later settled into what amounted to starring character roles in films such as How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), closing out his career in the role of Doc in Mr. Roberts.
Powell retired happily and comfortably to his home in Palm Springs, CA, with his third wife, the former actress Diana Lewis, whom he married in 1940 and who survived him. Ironically, with the advent of the television era and the boom in repertory movie houses in the 1960s and '70s, and the advent of home video in the early '80s, Powell's popularity didn't wane after his retirement, as older viewers continually rediscovered The Thin Man and its sequels, as well as his other hits such as My Man Godfrey and Libeled Lady, and new generations came to know those movies as well. He was one of the most consistently popular of retired film stars among the ever growing audience attuned to older movies, his fame enduring for decades in a manner similar to that of his onetime friends the Gish sisters (with whom he'd gone to Italy in 1920s for the shooting of Romola). Powell never re-emerged to give celebrity interviews, apart from discussing his cancer, preferring to keep to himself and a tight coterie of friends (including Loy, who lived on the opposite coast, in New York). His personal life also had a tragic side, as his son, who had become a story editor and producer, took his own life in 1968. Loy became one of the better conduits to the public for what information there was about Powell, and later told interviewers that he was embarrassed by the gradual hearing loss that had overtaken him.