BOOKS NOVEMBER 28, 2011
by Emily W. Leider
University of California Press, 411 pp., $34.95
BEFORE THERE WERE desperate housewives, real housewives, and Good Housewives, there were witty housewives. Or there was one, anyway: Myrna Loy, whose role in The Thin Man as Nora Charles made her a household name and gave her a moniker, “The Perfect Wife,” which she grew to hate. If William Powell, who played Nora’s husband Nick, the martini-drinking gumshoe, was the star of the amusing (and profitable) franchise that MGM first pushed onto the scene in 1934—maybe the real star was their adorable dog, Asta—Loy was the woman behind the man. Based on the detective story by Dashiell Hammett, (and supposedly modeled on his repartee with Lillian Hellman) The Thin Man and its sequels cast Loy as a modern, charming, and yet long-suffering spouse.
As many film scholars have noted, at the time there were hardly any cinematic marriages where the husband and the wife enjoyed each other’s company, much less romped through cities, bars, and even bedrooms (albeit with chaste twin beds) to solve crimes. And yet Nora is not exactly a feminist heroine. Nora, whose family money allowed Nick to solve crimes in the first place, pitches in sometimes, but more frequently she swans around in floor-length peignoirs and gorgeous hats. She looks the other way when Nick’s eye roves or when his kidding hits the mean spot.
Emily W. Leider intends to rescue the star from Nora Charles, an admirable effort. But this is harder than it looks. One problem with Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood, as Leider titles her book, after the nickname that John Ford gave the star who didn’t sleep around, is that it is a strain to make the good girl interesting for 411 pages. In fact, The Only Good Girl sometimes feels padded, like one of those early Hollywood epics with too many bit players, improbable plot twists, and hoary special effects. And although Leider is thankfully not the sort of writer to fill in the gaps with scenes imagining what Loy was thinking, she does fall back on the Where’s Waldo school of biography, asking about one of Loy’s early boyfriends: “Was he a failure as a lover?”
Yet since Loy was nearly Garboesque in her penchant for privacy, it is easy to see why Leider is driven to such measures in the first place. Except for her autobiography, Being and Becoming, published in 1987 when she was eighty-two, Loy did not inspire any other book. The silence about Loy is in sharp contrast to her better-known contemporaries, such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Katharine Hepburn, who enjoyed similarly long runs, attracted many biographies and critical studies, and made off with many awards. Loy never won an Oscar for her roles.
To prove that her subject is in the same rank as the other “legendary ladies,” Leider goes into great detail about Loy’s adaptability as a performer. In the 1920s, Loy played dancing girls, vixens, vamps, and flappers, in films like the Thief of Baghdad and Satan in Sables. Stills from this time show her as a sadder Clara Bow. Then in the 1930s and ’40s, after the Talkies’ take-over, Loy switched to leading and character roles in films as various as The Great Ziegfeld, Too Hot to Handle, Cheaper by the Dozen, and even The Best Years of Our Lives, a solemn drama about men coming back from the war. Sometimes she even played liberated women.
But Loy could never escape Nora Charles. Part of her success in that franchise was her rapport with Powell, with whom she made fourteen films, although as Pauline Kael pointed out, the pair were too much like brother and sister to ever truly capture the popular imagination as a romantic couple. And part of her success was playing a wife whom women could admire.
How Loy arrived at that role is the most gripping part of the story. She was born Myrna Williams in 1905 in a ranch in Montana. Her ancestors were pioneers. Her father enlisted in 1918, but when he died of the flu before he could set sail, the family moved to California. Loy supported her mother and brother, first as a dancer, and then an actress, appearing in over eighty films before The Thin Man. “I never wavered in my conviction that I was the man in the family,” she once said. Loy also embraced the modern era. At the age of seventeen, in 1921, she encouraged a Jewish friend to marry a non-Jew, over the family’s protestations. And she talked about sexuality without any Victorian prudery.
In contrast to the cheerful wives she tended to play, Loy’s real romantic life was a disaster: four husbands included a married man, a nut job, and a chronic philanderer. Although MGM eventually gave the Charles’s a son, Loy never had children. Perhaps even more irritating to read is the truth about how hard Loy had to struggle to avoid the traps the studios tried to set for her. Loy had the good sense to decline MGM’s attempt to cast her as a woman who marries a midget in Tod Browning’s Freaks. And she had the courage, after discovering she made half of what Powell did, to go on strike and eventually win.
But it all must have been tiring. By the 1940s, Loy had become less interested in acting and more interested in devoting herself to liberal causes. There are some fascinating nuggets in the second half of the book, such as the account of Loy’s psychoanalysis after her second marriage failed. Leider also details Loy’s friendships with people such as Eleanor Roosevelt, and her forays into the theater, including in Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women. Leider is less good at providing a critical perspective on Loy’s work and life. So many of her films counseled a sentimental approach to life—an approach that today seems not just unfashionable but unimaginable. These films, which believed that romance was possible, that hanging on to what you had was good, seem less than iconic today.
Describing what made Loy great, Leider praises the actress’s naturalism and quick instincts, noting that in the first scene of The Thin Man, she trips, drops her packages on the floor, and then pops up and greets Nick in the hotel bar for a martini-drinking binge. She did it all in one take. (The Thin Man was shot in sixteen days.)
All of the actors Loy worked with—not just Powell but Cary Grant and Clark Gable, Frederick March and Ramon Navarro—talked about what a great scene partner she was. Loy endured, in other words, not by her work ethic and star quality, but by her talent for making leading men look great. That may not have given her the impenetrable gleam of other female stars of her era, but it was, after all, what wives were supposed to do.
Rachel Shteir is the author of three books, most recently, The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting.