Thursday, December 23, 2010

My Favorite '30s Actors: #7

The dapper William Powell had a rich voice for the talkies and a smooth manner to match.

If he gained popularity playing detectives in several series of films, Powell certainly went beyond that. His chemistry with frequent co-star Myrna Loy was so complete that people assumed they were married in real life. He was a welcome addition to MGM’s stable of stars. That studio made Powell a household name when he became frustrated elsewhere.

But before Hollywood he went to school to pursue a possible law career – and he would have stayed there if Powell’s father had his way. However, Powell was drawn to acting and went to New York. He spent 10 years on Broadway before making his film debut in John Barrymore’s “Sherlock Holmes” in 1922. Surprisingly, Powell played many villains during his years in silents, including a domineering movie director in “The Last Command.”

In 1929, he began playing detective Philo Vance and made the transition to talking films. But he became frustrated at Paramount Pictures and went to Warner Brothers. He still wasn’t getting the material he wanted, although he did make his first true gem of the decade – “One Way Passage.” This improbable tearjerker on a cruise ship between Powell’s convicted killer and Kay Francis’ terminally ill socialite sounds corny, but it’s one of the most beautiful romances of the early 1930s, thanks to Powell and Francis’ lovely performances.

He made “The Kennel Murder Case,” the best Philo Vance movie, in 1933 before heading to MGM. One of his first assignments there was “Manhattan Melodrama” opposite Loy and Clark Gable. If not a great film, it’s certainly enjoyable and one of the year’s top hits. It pushed Powell’s career into high gear and established him and Loy (below) as a viable screen couple.

And that couple really hit the stratosphere as Nick and Nora Charles in “The Thin Man,” the terrific adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s book. This movie combines mystery, drama and comedy, as the two stars display a sophisticated ease in their roles. It was followed by five more “Thin Man” movies, three in the 1930s. Powell received his first well-deserved Oscar nod for “The Thin Man,” and it’s as fresh today as it was then.

In 1936, he had five roles. “After the Thin Man” was the second in that series and was another success for Powell as Nick Charles. “The Ex-Mrs. Bradford” was a screwball comedy with Jean Arthur. “Libeled Lady” was a much better screwball with Spencer Tracy, Jean Harlow and Loy again. He plays a Don Juan with gusto in this fun movie.

It was another screwball comedy, “My Man Godfrey,” with Carole Lombard (below), that allowed him to shine as a “common” man found by Lombard on a scavenger hunt and invited to be her family’s butler. Powell’s droll wit and deadpan deliveries are wonderful as is the film. Another Oscar nomination came his way.
That same year he played Flo Ziegfeld in MGM’s mammoth musical “The Great Ziegfeld.” If the script didn’t dive deep enough into Ziegfeld’s life, Powell captures the impresario’s zest for living and the knack for knowing what an audience wants, which eventually was Broadway shows filled with beautiful women.

What a year for the popular Powell. He was also engaged to Harlow, whom he met when making “Reckless” in 1935. However, when she died in 1937, he was devastated, and he took a break from movies. Although his filmwork continued into the 1940s, it definitely slowed after Harlow’s death. He never had another run like he did during the mid-1930s.

Still, Powell was a charming, highly likable actor. The creation of Nick Charles and Godfrey alone earns him a spot as one of Hollywood’s most delightful leading men.


  1. Powell is my favorite actor of all time. There's just something about his intelligence, his style, his urbane way of inhabiting a role whether comedic or dramatic.

    Let us not forget that before his ill-fated romance with Harlow, he was married to Lombard, another Hollywood goddess; while it ended in divorce after slightly more than two years, they remained on good terms. (In fact, it was Powell who insisted Lombard get the female lead in "My Man Godfrey" when Universal initially targeted Constance Bennett, whom Powell deemed too flighty.)

    And after Harlow's death, when Powell had a serious illness that sidelined him for a while (and prevented him from getting the male lead in "Ninotchka" -- nothing against Melvyn Douglas, but imagine Powell opposite Greta Garbo, directed by Ernst Lubitsch!), Lombard was among the friends who guided his recovery.

  2. Hihi - I should have guessed that Mr. W. Powell would have been in this Top Ten. (He would be in mine, too. :")
    I am eager to see him as a meanie in a silent film.

  3. Powell was a wonderful actor and also one of my favorites. You chose the perfect word to describe his onscreen manner--"dapper." I've never seen him playing a villain, and it's hard to imagine his as one. My own favorite performances by him in the 30s are, of course, in "My Man Godfrey" and "The Thin Man" also "Libeled Lady." I recently saw "Manhattan Melodrama" for the first time and thought Gable gave a knockout performance but found Powell and Loy rather stiff, although admittedly this was down to the script and not the actors. One early (Warners) gem that just floored me was an obscurity called "Jewel Robbery" (with Kay Francis, his costar in "One Way Passage") directed with atypical comic flair by William Dieterle. TCM showed it a time or two. Anyone who likes Powell and hasn't seen it should be on the lookout for it.

  4. Hi VP: Thank you for the added biography of Powell. Hi Irene: I also need to see more of this silent work. HI R.D.: Once again you recommend a film I haven't seen. I'll have to look for "Jewel Robbery."

  5. Powell was a great actor as well as a great personality.his movies are really awesome.He got less fame but after a time gone he got fame for all his movies.His biography is inspiring.He faced some difficulties but he remain good.Thanks for posting his story.

  6. Yeah, "Jewel Robbery" is a gem (no pun intended). Another great favorite of mine, "The Kennel Murder Case", is one of my favorite movies of the 1930s. Often as I'm sitting through a current bloatathon during the summer months, I think to how much character and incident was packed in 73 minutes into that film - not a wasted scene anywhere.

    "My Man Godfrey" is a problematic film for me. I should like it - I like the genre and I like everyone in the cast, but I've never warmed to it, and Lord knows I've tried. I guess we all have films like that - we should like but some reason we don't. But he is wonderful in the film, and he's probably my favorite part of it.

  7. I've always liked "The Kennel Murder Case." It took a few viewings of "My Man Godfrey" to warm up to it, and now I really enjoy it. Originally I felt like Godfrey, wondering who these creazy people were and why am I stuck with them. But it's charms finally won me over, particularly Powell and Lombard. The more I see of Lombard's work, the more I was able to appreciate "Godfrey."