I have to admit, much to my eternal shame, that I haven’t seen any of his silent films. I can’t comment on him as a silent actor though he had obviously established himself as a fairly big star by the time sound was introduced. Like Ronald Colman, it’s a testament to his immediate success in sound that his silent triumphs have been virtually forgotten but Powell had a voice that perfectly matched his persona and he seems to have taken to the new technology straight away.
It’s really his Paramount and Warner Brothers films that I find most rewarding to watch. Here, his screen character is a shade darker and more serious and he shows his ability to he a compelling and confident leading man. This, combined with his criminally overlooked partnership with Kay Francis (six films in total) set him out as a heavyweight star of dramas and romances. And if anyone out there hasn’t seen One Way Passage, stop what you are doing and go and watch it NOW! Beg, borrow and steal to get hold of it because it needs to be seen!
Of course, the eventual move to MGM propelled him into the upper echelon of stars and resulted in one of the best screen partnerships in film history so it’s not like it was a step down. The Powell-Loy partnership really is cinematic gold and one of the reasons why I’m proud to be a fan of classic movies. Regardless of entertainment value they also show Powell’s range and amazing gift for light (and sometimes quite bizarre) comedy.
Unfortunately I find that his late ‘30s and ‘40s films without Loy lack a certain ‘something’. Often it’s the fault of the film itself (the uninspiring Crossroads for example) and other times it’s due to his co-star merely being a Myrna Loy surrogate because she wasn’t available for the film (The Ex-Mrs. Bradford take a bow). Despite this I must admit to a fondness for Mr Peabody and the Mermaid and its threadbare charm and heartily recommend it.
In the end, though teaming with Loy was a great career move, it ultimately worked out better for her. She continued to be a star in her own right whereas Powell started to become defined primarily by the partnership and the character he developed with her. Their films may well be cinematic gold but they started to limit his career and the types of roles given to him. Of course, another explanation for his career lull could be the unfortunate death of Jean Harlow and his own later health problems. However, on the whole he has a filmography to be proud of, and unlike a lot of his contemporaries, he knew when to quit and managed to go out on top and in a dignified manner.
However, the best thing about William Powell is the emotions he evokes. He’s one of those stars that always bring a smile to my face and for whom I like so many others, hold real affection for. There’s something very genuine in him and his performances, a real and infectious sense of fun and enjoyment. As I find myself saying all too often, he is one of those stars that make it look all so effortless and easy, but this just shows what a huge talent he was. Like all great film stars, besides being a good actor he represents an ideal and an aspiration, and to me he represents warmth, sophistication and good humour (as well as tuxedos, cocktails and crime solving but that goes without saying). In fact, most importantly he represents everything I enjoy about Hollywood films in the 1930s.