In December, Turner Classic Movies chose William Powell as their Star of the Month. Every Thursday night TCM ran a marathon of Powell-led films from 20 of his 30-year film career. The marathons excluded all of his silent pictures except the 1922 Sherlock Holmes starring John Barrymore.
Thanks to the TCM marathon, I’ve now seen 39 William Powell pictures. Not all in one go. If you’ve followed me on Twitter or Facebook, you’re aware that I’ve been a Powell fan for quite some time. Most of my viewings have been scattered throughout the past two years. Many on TCM, accompanied by commentary by Robert Osbourne. Bobby O tells us which studio Bill Powell was working for and with whom he was involved at the time. Bobby O really likes to regale us with studio trivia. The recent string of marathons allowed me to fill in some gaps and see some lesser shown Powell films.
(An aside: I watch a lot of TCM. So much that I’ve taken to calling Robert Osbourne pet names. And when I watch any movie on some other platform, I’m always let down when he doesn’t appear at the end with follow up commentary.)
As you might guess, when one actor appears in dozens upon dozens of films, the quality is a bit hit-and-miss. So many misses. And so many misses. General audiences may only think of William Powell paired with Myrna Loy since they worked together in the six Thin Man movies and eight others. Even audiences of the time believed Powell and Loy to be married in real life (they were never romantically involved, to public knowledge). But Bill Powell played leading man to many leading ladies, including Rosalind Russell, Bette Davis, Hedy Lamarr, and real life lady loves Carole Lombard and Jean Harlow. The Powell-Loy pairings make for higher quality hits.
The great thing about William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles is they dispense with all that jealous spouse nonsense so that we can enjoy the whole cocktail-fueled mystery story. She may get in the way sometimes, but Nora is supportive and helpful of Nick’s detective career. She doesn’t huff and pout because her husband isn’t paying strict attention to her at all moments. Perhaps he spends too much time doting on her in between cases, so Nora encourages Nick to take a case just to get him out and about for a while. We don’t see a lot of happy couples on the screen. Very often there must also be an inter-relationship conflict to be resolved in addition to the plot conflicts, which gets very tiresome. Breaking up couples just to put them back together again is a thread-bare trope. But it was still fresh in the 1930s movie world and Powell and Loy certainly played that drama once or twice in other roles.
Powell rarely gave a bad performance, though he was dealt many bad scripts. He was at his best as a smooth-talking con man or someone with slippery morals. When given a steady daytime job or put in a more fatherly role, Powell becomes a tad less sparkly and charming. The transition in the late 1940s to more mature roles put Powell in a different light (not to mention Technicolor). The tone of films changed, making Powell seem dated or out of place. Soapy dramas like The Girl Who Had Everything replaced screwball comedies. There was no place for smooth fast-talkers. Powell was right to retire after Mister Roberts. He was already in his 60s and in danger of, as he put it, “being cast as Elvis Presley’s grandfather.”
Youngsters looking to escape the three-dimensional noise-fests that get passed off as movies today—and aren’t put off by something simply because it’s black and white and produced in the early 20th century—would do well to take in a couple of movies from The Thin Man series. All of them are watchable and enjoyable in their way. Even Song of the Thin Man, which feels less like a Nick and Nora story than cheap noir, will provide some hep jazz lingo to lay on a new generation.
My favourite entry in the Powell-Loy oeuvre is Double Wedding. It’s silly, with a nice mix of romance and comedy and art deco sets. (I haven’t even mentioned art director Cedric Gibbons…so many obsessions, so little time.) Double Wedding doesn’t make demands of your intellect or leave you questioning plot holes after Bobby O’s talks about goings-on at the MGM lot during filming.
Film aficionados will insist that you watch My Man Godfrey and Life with Father, Powell’s other memorable movies. I will insist that you watch The Great Ziegfeld and Fashions of 1934, but for inappropriate reasons. Powell’s “I’ve got to have more stairs.” at the end of The Great Ziegfeld is to me what Orson Welles’ “Rosebud” is to everyone else. If you’ve developed an obsessive crush on William Powell, I’ve taken note that he appears shirtless in High Pressure, Lawyer Man, and Star of Midnight Star Of Midnight . I’ve also noted when he plays a lawyer, a con man, or a high-ranking official and when Frank McHugh appears as Powell’s conniving sidekick. Someday Jeopardy will dedicate a category to this topic and I will be well-prepared. I don’t know all the countries in Africa and have no clue how any of my internal organs function, but I can tell you that if Frank McHugh and William Powell are in the opening credits, they play men of questionable morals.
Please tell Robert Osbourne that his job is safe from me.