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John Farr

John Farr

Posted: July 15, 2009 01:01 PM

A Wistful Champagne Toast to William Powell


One of the finest actors and leading men from Hollywood's Golden Age, William Powell was born towards the end of this month way back in 1892. It's unlikely most people under 30 would even recognize his name, which is sad, but also easily remedied.

Whatever your age, there's good reason to re-acquaint yourself with him, since no other American performer came even close to matching his unique brand of effortless, sophisticated charm.

Surveying the field of male stars today offers not one successor to Powell's authentically debonair yet wholly likeable swell. It's a sad statement indeed if his appeal has simply gone out of style in what seems a blunter, coarser world. But it may well be so.

Ironically, when he began in the silent era of film, Powell's swarthy looks often found him cast as the villain. But in 1929, with the dawning of sound, the actor's mellifluous, cultivated voice would quickly turn him into a protagonist -- and star. Powell did three pictures as suave detective Philo Vance between 1929 and 1933, films which would cement his credentials for his true break-out feature the following year -- the part he is still best remembered for.

The Thin Man (1934): Nick Charles and his wealthy wife, Nora, seem to care more for witty repartee and tippling at odd hours than they do for honest-to-god sleuthing, but a worried daughter named Dorothy (played by Maureen O'Sullivan, Mia Farrow's real-life mom) convinces the effervescent newlyweds to join the hunt for her missing scientist father. The investigation that follows (between cocktails) keeps the viewer guessing right up to its suspenseful conclusion. Director W.S. Van Dyke's filming of Dashiell Hammett's saucy detective novel features the second inspired teaming of Oscar-nominated Powell and Myrna Loy (after 1934's "Manhattan Melodrama", infamous as the film that gangster John Dillinger saw right before he was shot outside Chicago's Biograph Theatre). The two stars are note-perfect as the high-living detective couple. This film's enormous success spawned five sequels over twelve years. A deft mix of comedy and mystery, with a heady dose of glamour thrown in, The Thin Man remains top-flight entertainment.

The Great Ziegfeld (1936): This enchanting film traces the colorful life of early twentieth century showman Florenz Ziegfeld from carnival side-show barker to producer of the immortal Ziegfeld Follies, the most glamorous and elaborate stage show ever mounted, including the world's prettiest chorus girls and the country's top vaudeville acts, like comedienne Fanny Brice and hoofer Ray Bolger (who both appear in the film). This top MGM musical recreates the glory days of the musical theatre, before movies overtook Broadway as our primary form of entertainment. The charming Powell reflects ideal casting for Ziegfeld, and frequent co-star Myrna Loy is also on hand playing second wife Billie Burke. Winner of that year's Best Picture Oscar, Luise Rainer also won a statuette for her portrayal of "Ziggy"'s first wife Anna Held (her culminating phone scene is justly famous). Long but dazzling, Ziegfeld combines backstage drama with on-stage spectacle -- in particular, don't miss that immortal "Pretty Girl" musical number.

My Man Godfrey (1936): Through a contest only the idle rich could invent, the daffy Bullock family hires a forgotten man from skid row to become the new butler in their zany household. Stranger still, younger daughter Irene (Carole Lombard) proceeds to fall in love with him. Butler Godfrey (Powell), however, is not precisely who, or what, he seems. Gregory La Cava's sublime "Godfrey" blends screwball elements with more serious overtones on Depression-era class injustice, to create a wildly entertaining yet thought-provoking movie that holds up beautifully. The term debonair was indeed coined for Powell, and Lombard makes for an adorable ditz. (Trivia note: the two stars had been married briefly several years earlier, but had divorced amicably, and remained good friends). Highlights: comic actor Mischa Auer as Mrs. Bullock's "protégé", along with the rotund Eugene Pallette as Mr. Bullock, the family's frustrated industrialist father, who appears more like an impotent keeper at an asylum.

Libeled Lady (1936):The ever-smooth Powell plays Bill Chandler, a freelance journalist hired by his old newspaper to squelch a libel suit brought by society heiress Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy). To do this, Bill must make Connie fall in love with him and then place her in a compromising position. Ultimately, he melts her icy exterior, but ends up falling in love himself. What's a smitten newspaperman to do? Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 1936, Jack Conway's underexposed screwball comedy is a raucous farce buzzing with zany humor, thanks to a flurry of impeccable one-liners delivered by Powell and Loy, reunited from their pairing in The Thin Man. Playing Haggerty, the newspaper's frantic editor, and Gladys, his continually jilted fiancée, Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow round out a stellar foursome in this fast-paced, ingenious laugh-fest.

Powell had hit his career peak at this point: Between 1934 and 1936, he'd been twice nominated for Best Actor, with three of his films nominated for Best Picture. He was also in love with and engaged to Libeled Lady co-star Jean Harlow. However, 1937 would usher in a tragic juncture when the bubble burst on Powell's life: Jean Harlow died suddenly of uremic poisoning at the age of twenty-six. Powell was inconsolable, paid for all the funeral expenses, and for the rest of his life, sent fresh flowers to her grave each week. He would only re-marry three years later, eloping with actress Diana Lewis. (Though the two had not known each other long before tying the knot, this marriage was for keeps.)

The 1940s kept Powell busy with his Thin Man series, and he made one other classic film adapted from a hit play, Life With Father (1947). Set in New York City's late nineteenth century, the actor portrayed the role of authoritarian but soft-hearted Clarence Day with just the right balance of bluster and befuddlement (after all, he and wife Irene Dunne have six red haired children-all boys!). This entry garnered Powell yet another Oscar nomination. (The sole reason I can't recommend this picture is that the title has entered the public domain; thus the quality of available DVDs is sub-par).

Powell was the shrewdest of men, and with advancing age, knew just when to leave the Hollywood party. He chose to play a few parts in the late forties and early fifties before retiring from the screen at the age of sixty-three after filming the indelible Mister Roberts (1955). Though not the film's star, in his last role, as a wartime ship doctor known simply as "Doc", even among stars Henry Fonda, James Cagney, and a young Jack Lemmon, Powell lends an understated gravitas and wisdom to every scene he's in, a quality this actor could display like noone else, with the exception of colleague Spencer Tracy. So I close on this, the legendary William Powell's swan song:

Mister Roberts (1955): Adapted from Josh Logan's Broadway hit, this service drama tells of Lt. Doug Roberts (Fonda), an officer on a WWII cargo ship, desperate to see action, who instead has to cope with irascible, by-the-book Captain Morton (Cagney). Roberts is frustrated by life aboard the SS "Reluctant," but thankfully Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon) -- "in charge of laundry and morale" -- is on board to provide him and the crew with some much-needed laughs and sympathy. Returning to the big screen after an eight-year absence, Fonda successfully recreated his signature stage role here, and the still fairly green Lemmon must have been humbled by the cast line-up: Fonda, Cagney, and Powell- all on the same boat!

William Powell and wife Diana would ultimately retire to Palm Springs where the actor would live out his days quietly and comfortably, passing away just shy of his 92nd birthday...in all, a richly deserved happy ending.

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