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Jewish World Review
July 18, 2008
/ 15 Tamuz 5768
William Powell: Debonair and Delightful
The wonderful thing about cable television and DVD's is it enables us to be exposed to things that ordinarily we would know very little about. I've always been a big fan of classic movies, even as a kid, so becoming more familiar with them for me wasn't a huge jump. Turner Classic Movies in particular shows all the great classics, plus the second stringers, two-reelers, and obscure programmers and shows them totally commercial-free. Thanks to TCM I've seen pictures that I never knew existed, and what a treat to discover a brand new (for me) Bogart or Tracy or Jimmy Stewart film.
I want to spotlight a star that may have been one of Hollywood's most underestimated actors but has become one of my all-time favorites, William Powell. For anyone who is not familiar with Powell, well, you don't know what you're missing. Graduating from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1912, he played over 200 stage roles, including Shakespeare and the classics, before getting into the movies in the 1920's.
He had a film career that spanned silent films to talkies and included more than 95 pictures between 1922 and 1955. He played an amazing number of character types including nasty cads, out and out villains, lovable rogues, goofy bohemians, and romantic leading men. He did screwball comedy, drama, even musicals and with everything he did he is best remembered to this day as Nick Charles, the urbane playboy detective, oozing with charm, elegance, sophistication, and poise who along with beautiful Myrna Loy teamed for six "Thin Man" films.
He was nominated for Academy Awards three times, in 1934, 1936 and 1947, but never took home an Oscar. He did win The New York Film Critics Award for his excellent portrayal of Clarence Day, the cantankerous but deeply human patriarch of an 1880's family in the heartwarming movie adaptation of the successful stage play, "Life With Father."
Bill Powell appeared opposite some of Hollywood's most notable (and beautiful) actresses including thirteen times with Myrna Loy, twice with Hedy Lamarr, three times with Luise Rainer, three times with Carole Lombard (who was to be the second of his three wives), twice with Jean Harlow (one of the great loves of his life), Kay Francis, Irene Dunne, Ruth Chatterton, Ginger Rogers, Jean Arthur, Rosalind Russell, Ann Harding, Donna Reed, and Joan Crawford.
In the beginning of his movie career he was teamed with such stars as Bebe Daniels, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Marion Davies, and Evelyn Brent. Toward the end he played opposite Esther Williams, Angela Lansbury, Lauren Becall, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marilyn Monroe. Quite a range of actresses, to say the least.
Among his male co-stars were John Barrymore, Richard Barthelmess, Ronald Colman, Gary Cooper, Emil Jannings, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Robert Montgomery, Henry Fonda, James Cagney, and Jack Lemmon. He worked with many of the great directors including John Ford, W.S. Van Dyke, Mervyn LeRoy, Jack Conway, William K. Howard, Irving Pichel, Michael Curtiz, Victor Fleming, Gregory LaCava, Josef Von Sternberg, and Henry King.
"Chemistry" is the term used to describe what happens when an actor and an actress blend perfectly in a film. William Powell and Myrna Loy had that chemistry. Myrna Loy once told an interviewer, "From the very first scene we did together in "Manhattan Melodrama" (1934), we felt that particular magic between us. There was this feeling of rhythm, of complete understanding, and an instinct of how each of us could bring out the best in the other." You bet they had chemistry - it positively jumps off the screen when you watch them together.
Besides being a charismatic personality and a powerful performer, Powell had another commodity as an actor that is worth noting. He was a great listener. Watch him in a scene when someone else is talking and you'll see what I mean. He is listening as if he is hearing the words for the first time. His expressions, his body language, his comportment are perfect. He never is a distraction when the spotlight is on another performer, never attempts to upstage, but he is in the moment completely. His reactions are wonderful. Watch his eyebrows, his mouth, and his head gestures.
His performances in "My Man Godfrey," "The Great Ziegfeld," "Libeled Lady," as well as "Life With Father," and "The Thin Man" pictures are all first rate and considered among his best. But I find that nearly any film that William Powell is in is eminently watchable and great fun. And his last part, that of Doc in "Mister Roberts" was a wonderful way for him to retire at the top of his form in 1955. He was 63 when he did that last role. He retired to Palm Springs and died in 1984 at the age of 91.
William Powell was a movie star when being a movie star was really something. He was also a gentleman when being a gentleman was what most men strived for and most women appreciated. William Powell. A great actor and a really good listener!
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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. A freelance writer in Southern California, you may contact him by clicking here.
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