I’ve been thinking long and hard about penning a profile of Myrna Loy on the anniversary of her birth, but the problem arises – what can I possibly add to the debate that hasn’t already been said? Is it actually possible to write about Myrna Loy without using the phrases “Queen of Hollywood”, “Perfect Wife” or “Thin Man”? Myrna Loy is one of those great, pure film stars, an absolute distillation of the ethos of MGM studios in their prime. Witty, urbane, independent and beautiful, her performances largely hold up very well these days, but of course we all know that. She is loved by those in the know yet mostly overlooked, and even perhaps taken for granted by modern film fans, but again this fact is nothing particularly new. In the end I got to thinking not so much about what drew me to Myrna Loy and her films, but what it was that kept me a fan once I had I had a few under my belt. What was it that made me trek to the other side of the world (in the pre Ebay days) to find a copy of her autobiography and that elusive tome The Films of Myrna Loy by Lawrence J. Quirk?
What it comes down to is Myrna’s long rise to the top. It’s amazing that she had made almost 80 film appearances and been in movies almost a decade before getting her big break as a star in her own right (and all before she was thirty). Not for her the instant stardom and hype of a new Broadway or European import. Nor did she arrive on screen with a fully formed persona. In comparison to my two other favourite leading ladies, Joan Blondell and Kay Francis, Myrna certainly took the long road to fame. Blondell and Francis were from virtually day one at the top of the bills with more or less the screen persona they would become famous for already established (Kay Francis moved from villainous roles to the more sympathetic leads, but her almost patrician bearing remained essentially unchanged) In contrast Myrna Loy pulled herself up from the chorus lines, moving into bit parts and minor featured roles, then slowly rising to secondary leads and eventually to emerge miraculously as a star in her own right. On this journey she played all manner of exotic and frankly ridiculous characters, which really makes the eventual creation of the well known Loy persona positively miraculous. One would have expected a degree of schizophrenia and uncertainly about playing herself as a leading actress after constantly having to don silly wigs and pretend to be people of undisclosed foreign origin for so many years.
However, for me part of the fun of Myrna Loy is to watch her as she travels from studio to studio, clawing her way up the ladder of fame, gaining experience and trying to make the best of often awful material and bad casting. The strange thing is that she’s not one of those actresses who steals the show in a minor role, and from viewing her early parts there is often, in truth little glimmer of the talent and charisma that was to come. In fact her early films are really only interesting if you are aware of what she would eventually become. If for example she had (heaven forbid) died or retired before 1931, I feel few would be writing about her much today other than for features about forgotten starlets. Even right up until her breakout performance in Manhattan Melodrama in 1934, she was still to be found as an occasionally solid yet uninspiring female lead (Vanity Fair and Consolation Marriage, are both particularly bland parts for her). Maybe all she needed was the chemistry that William Powell provided her to truly find her feet? Possibly, but that’s a thought for another day…
As I said, the fun is to be found in seeing the debonair and delightful Miss Loy we all know and love thrust into the most ridiculous of roles. Thanks to her early tag as a go-to for exotic parts, (something she would not really fully shake until taking on the part of Nora Charles in The Thin Man) even as late as 1932 she was still donning oriental makeup to look Chinese, exotic and ultimately evil. Sadly, many of her early sound films do not seem to exist any more (and, to my eternal shame never having seen any of her silent films – call myself a fan?? – I can’t comment on those either) and though I’ve managed to get hold of the majority of her pre-fame appearances though there are still some elusive gaps (and here’s the usual empty plea – anyone got The Great Divide, Evidence, Isle of Escape, Under a Texas Moon, Skyline or Body and Soul to name but a few? I’ll gladly swap any of them for my cat). Moving on…
Some random highlights (or lowlights, depending on your view) from her early work include –
The Squall (1929) – Myrna plays Nubi, a gypsy girl with a large dark frizzy wig and accent of the “You feelthee peeg!” variety. It’s actually a pretty decent movie for a film where the top three key words on IMDb are “Gypsy”, “Hungary” and “Farming”. She enlivens the proceedings considerably by doing quite a lot of seductive writhing, which is more often than not a good thing in my book. Especially in films about Hungarian Gypsy farmers.
Last of the Duanes (1930) – Myrna Loy did a number of westerns in this era, which isn’t quite a shocking as say, Louise Brooks in a western but is still an initial “huh?’ moment. Okay, she’s not quite a rootin’ tootin’ cowgirl here, in fact the opposite, the appropriately named Lola Bland, but she gets to be evil (the caucasian type this time). Which swiftly leads us to…
Rogue of the Rio Grande (1930) – Another western but this time one of those all singing, all dancing borderland and bandits type of affairs. Myrna gets into the spirit of things a bit more here playing Carmita, a saloon girl with dubious morals and even more dubious accent, though she redeems herself by dancing a mean tango. So mean in fact that she literally has men fighting over her on the dance floor. Ole!
The Devil to Pay! (1930) – This is one of a number of films where Myrna Loy sports blonde hair. I say hair in the technical term. It is hair, just not her own hair. Nonetheless, like appearing in westerns, Myrna Loy with platinum blonde hair just isn’t right, but each to their own. I once overheard a woman at the museum at Elvis Presley’s birthplace in Tupelo, MS say that she only collected pictures of the young Elvis with his natural light brown hair and refused to have anything to do with him when he dyed it black. I though that was rather odd and a severely limiting condition to put on your hobby, but I’m sure it made her very happy. In that spirit I hereby declare that I am only going to write about Myrna Loy’s films where she doesn't show her legs. No other ones. Ever.
A Connecticut Yankee (1931) – Probably the real undiscovered gem of her early appearances, this Will Rogers vehicle goes all out to bring the viewer into the imaginary court of King Arthur. It’s full of castles, knights, wenches and jesters and all the trappings of medieval Merrie Olde England. In the middle of this is a delightfully sly Myrna Loy as the evil Morgan le Fay. Apart from the fact she looks absolutely stunning in her slinky frock and assortment of matching headdresses, as she spars with Rogers and plots her diabolical schemes there is for the first time a real and noticeable glint her eye, a stirring of the subtle touch and delicate delivery she would ultimately become known for. The whole film is incredibly silly and for once it seems she is aware of this, and the good dialogue gives her a previously unseen screen presence. Luckily she would swiftly follow this up with her marvelous turn in Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight, which although brief brought promise of definite potential in her given the right script.
Thirteen Women (1932) – Of course, after a couple of well-received performances, the studios must have started to pay attention to her, so what did Myrna end up doing next? How about a sinister half Asian, half Indian with strange hypnotic powers out for murderous revenge? Okay! Myrna has black hair, darkened eyes and upturned eyebrows to make her even more evil in a movie which has the decency to at least mention that she has been pushed into her killing spree due to racial intolerance, while sadly playing up as many stereotypical clichés as possible. Luckily, by this time in her career Myrna Loy was an actress with an upward progression, a gal going places so surely it was an unfortunate blip on the way to fame. Her next film would put her right on track…yeah, right on track.
The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) – Well, maybe not.
I could go on, but the point is that when you watch any of Myrna Loy’s pre 1934 movies, you just never know what you are going to get. Sometimes she’s just scenery dressing, sometimes she has good parts, and other times you feel she is being used as the butt of some studio producer’s joke. A glance at the previously mentioned The Films of Myrna Loy reveals a whole host of tantalizing Loy stills from forgotten movies and it makes you realize the sheer variety and absurdity of the roles she had to play in order to get to where she could have some control over her own career.
Another great thing about Myrna Loy is her brilliant autobiography Being and Becoming, which combines a pleasing level of detail (she makes sure to have a reminiscence of every movie she worked on, no matter how obscure), some outspoken opinion (Ronald Reagan’s ears must have been glowing when it was published) and a surprisingly honest account of her own flaws, mistakes and regrets. In terms of her early career, what is admirable is her never say die attitude whilst being passed from studio to studio and being offered ridiculous and demeaning roles. She charts her determination to succeed in Hollywood whilst avoiding the casting couch and the other all too familiar pitfalls, and to emerge with her morals and ethics intact. The title of her book is due to her misappropriation of a Matthew Arnold quote, which she remembers as “Life is not a having and a getting, but a being and becoming”. In terms of the narrative of her life the phrase rings true, but it is equally appropriate to describe her emergence as one of the great film stars of the golden age. She was not given her stardom, or groomed for a place at the top; neither was she the favourite of any producer foisted on the public, or ushered into Hollywood with months and months of press hype. She earned her place through hard work and by gaining the experience in her chosen field so that when her opportunity finally came she grabbed it with both hands and showed Hollywood, and the world what she had to offer.
In an era that has lost sight of the hard work it takes to succeed in any occupation, where stardom has lost its currency and a generation has grown up thinking fame is something to be handed out, not earned, Myrna Loy's example becomes all the more important. She needs to be remembered as an actress, a star and most of all as a decent hard working and principled woman who succeeded in a pretty rotten industry and emerged with her dignity (and sanity) intact.
Oh, and before I forget, Queen of Hollywood, Perfect Wife and Thin Man. Told you it couldn't be done.