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Powell, William (1892-1984)

Actor William Powell, who lived to the age of 92, retired from the screen in 1955 having made 94 films, beginning with the role of Moriarty in the 1922 silent version of Sherlock Holmes (1922) starring John Barrymore. He was never more than a supporting player, generally a villain of some kind or another during the 1920s, until his accomplished performance in a featured role in Von Sternberg's The Last Command (1928) brought him attention. It was, however, the coming of sound, which ruined the career of many a silent star unable to deliver lines, that gradually elevated him to stardom as the quintessential screen sophisticate of the glamorous 1930s—immacu-lately tailored, impeccably spoken, witty, occasionally attractively caddish, and sometimes cynical. He was as much the perfect embodiment of the type as Gary Cooper was the archetypal emblem of honor, or Clark Gable the prototype of brash and unbridled masculinity. With the later change in styles and trends, Powell was in danger of sharing the obscurity of many of his forgotten films. He escaped such a fate thanks to The Thin Man (1934), which has defined his image ever since, despite the fact that the "thin man" of the title was not Powell, but some mysterious stranger.

The debonair, urbane, and amusing Powell persona that brightened the lives of moviegoers during the Depression era was famously blended into the perfect screen incarnation of Dashiell Hammett's cocktail-sipping sophisticate-cum-detective, Nick Charles, who, with his wife Nora (Myrna Loy) and their dog Asta, beguiled audiences in The Thin Man with such hugely profitable results for MGM, that six more "Thin Man" films followed, ending with the inferior Song of the Thin Man in 1945. Powell and the glamorous Loy, both needing a bit of a career boost, found it together when director W.S. Van Dyke paired them in Manhattan Melodrama (1934), Powell's first for MGM. There followed The Thin Man, in which the stars joyously impersonated a couple to whom marriage was clearly an equal and thoroughly enjoyable partnership—a then innovative concept. They were teamed, too, in Evelyn Prentice (1934), a melodrama of adultery and blackmail, and in the screwy comedy Double Wedding (1937), but it was as Nick and Nora Charles that, after Astaire and Rogers, the Powell-Loy combination was perhaps the most successful star team of the 1930s. As film historian David Thomson puts it, "The match was perfect: two slender sophisticates, smiling haughtily at each other through a mist of wisecracks."

William H. Powell was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on July 29, 1892, the son of an accountant who intended that he should go into the law. However, he became an avid playgoer, in love with the theater from an early age, and dropped out of the University of Kansas after a week or two to pursue a stage career in New York. He studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (with such talented classmates as Edward G. Robinson and Joseph Schildkraut) and, after a couple of years of struggle, began to find work in vaudeville and stock and on Broadway from 1912. He worked steadily but without particular distinction until 1920 when his performance in a play called Spanish Love brought him some notice and led to the beginning of his film career. By then he had honed his craft through performances in some 200 plays.

Powell was under contract to Paramount for seven years from 1924 to 1931, where, as well as The Last Command, he made Dragnet (1928) for Von Sternberg, and where he made the transition to sound, appearing in Interference (1929), a drama whose only distinction lay in being the studio's first all-talkie. In 1929, however, he was cast as S.S. Van Dine's gentleman detective, Philo Vance in The Canary Murder Case, establishing the image that was to grow familiar and paving the way for Nick Charles. He played Vance in three more (the last at Warner Bros.), was paired with Kay Francis in three, and made two comedies—Man of the World and Ladies Man —with Carole Lombard in 1931, the year his first, 15-year marriage to Eileen Wilson ended and his second, two-year marriage to Lombard began.

The actor's professional marriage to Paramount, however, was faltering, and along with Kay Francis, he left the studio for Warner Bros., who revived his pairing with Francis in One Way Passage (1932), he a condemned criminal, she the doomed object of his affections. As well as his fourth Philo Vance outing, The Kennel Murder Case (1933), directed by Michael Curtiz, he made The Key (1934) for the same director, but Warner was proving no more satisfactory than Paramount and he departed the studio. En route to Columbia, he was intercepted by Van Dyke and MGM for Manhattan Melodrama (the movie John Dillinger had been viewing just before being gunned down by the FBI), and put under contract to the studio where his talents would be best employed. Powell's next film with Loy was The Thin Man, breezily directed by W. S. ("One-Take Woody") Van Dyke, which earned Powell an Oscar nomination and, more importantly, set the tone for many of his romantic comedies to follow. "Few images so succinctly convey the essence of thirties comedy," asserts critic Tom Shales, "as a scene from … The Thin Man in which Powell's Nick Charles, reclining on the couch, shoots the ornaments off a Christmas tree with the new gun his wife has given him."

Now one of the brightest lights at MGM, Powell brought his impeccable flair to such comedy-dramas as Reckless (1935) with Jean Harlow and Libeled Lady (1936) with Harlow, Loy, and Spencer Tracy, and the title role in the biographical extravaganza, The Great Ziegfeld (1936), which won the Best Picture Oscar. (He again played impresario Florenz Ziegfeld in The Ziegfeld Follies in 1946). On loan to Universal, Powell co-starred with his ex-wife, Carole Lombard, in one of the most exemplary of "screwball" comedies, My Man Godfrey (1936), and earned his second Oscar nomination. Ever the gentleman in life as well as art, he had insisted that Lombard be cast, explaining, "Just because we couldn't live together doesn't mean we shouldn't work together." As film columnist Robert Osborne has commented, "For a man with such a perpetual twinkle in his eye, always seemingly in good humor, his personal life was surrounded with a surprising number of tragedies." Among these were the sudden death in 1937 of Jean Harlow, with whom Powell was deeply in love and was planning to marry; the bout with cancer that kept the actor off the screen for almost two years and hastened his retirement; and the suicide of his son from his first marriage. In 1940, Diana Lewis became his third and last wife in a union that lasted until his death.

As Powell began to get on in years, he effected a smooth transition to character parts, chiefly by giving an Oscar-nominated and New York Critics' Award-winning performance in the plum role of the elder Clarence Day in Life with Father (1947) opposite Irene Dunne. On stage, Day had peppered his pronouncements with profanity; denied these choice words for the film version, Powell put so much persuasive power into his tirades that the epithets were never missed. The way in which Powell bypassed the censors by making "Gad!" sound as profane as "God!" was a true lesson in the actor's craft. He made The Senator Was Indiscreet, a political satire, that same year, and played half the title role in a wistful, rueful fantasy, Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid. The actor, who had begun his film career in the days of the silents, continued working into the era of Cinema Scope, essaying a key part in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) with Marilyn Monroe and Lauren Bacall. He bowed out as Doc in the film version of Mister Roberts (1955) opposite Henry Fonda, giving a performance every bit as expert as his Nick Charles or his Ziegfeld. The three-time Oscar nominee, resting on his laurels as one of the legends of Hollywood's golden era, finally passed away at the age of 92 in his Palm Springs home.

—Preston Neal Jones

Further Reading:

Baxt, George. The William Powell and Myrna Loy Murder Case. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1996.

Francisco, Charles. Gentleman: The William Powell Story, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1985.

Morella, Joe. Gable & Lombard & Powell & Harlow. New York, Dell, 1975.

Parish, James Robert. The Debonairs. New Rochelle, New York, Arlington House, 1975.

Thomson, David. A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

Quirk, Lawrence J. The Complete Films of William Powell. Secaucus, New Jersey, Citadel Press, 1986.

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Powell, William (1892-1984)

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