Myrna Loy – Being and Becoming

Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming
by James Kotsilbas-Davis and Myrna Loy
372 Pages
Alfred Knopf, Publisher, November 1987
ISBN 13-978-0394555935

Do you read a lot of biographies? I don’t. Especially those from the classic movie actors I love and admire so much. I know. It’s just that I’m terrified that they’ll disappoint me and I hate disappointment. I am a chicken when it comes to these things. God forbid these people don’t live up to their characters we’ve grown to love so much, right? Well, Myrna Loy is my all-time favorite actress and this was a problem when I discovered her autobiography years ago. Because I adore her so much, hers was the last autobiography I ever wanted to read. I read it anyway. Four times now since the late 2000s…and counting. As it turns out, it ALWAYS feels good to “be around” Myrna and her thoughts with this book. Her down-to-earth honesty and genuine enthusiasm shine through here, just like it does when she’s on screen. Not only does she live up to Nora Charles and all the other parts she played, she illustrates what a wonderful human she was. Not by bragging about it mind you, but by simply documenting all she’s lived through and experienced. This is one autobiography that’s worth reading again and again. And I do.

Being and Becoming is Myrna Loy’s autobiography. It’s a chronological book with four sections of black and white photographs that come from her early life in Montana to the apex of her acting career in Hollywood to her life in New York City. Her voice in her writing here is what I have always thought of as ‘typical Myrna,’ – thank God – entertaining, intelligent, kind, thoughtful and down-to-earth. This is an inspiring story of a Montana farm girl who conquered Hollywood and ruled it for years as the “perfect wife” and “queen of the movies.” Seriously, moviegoers voted for Myrna in 1936 as “Queen of the Movies,” the same year they proclaimed Clark Gable “King.” That seems right.

Being and Becoming feels like an honest account of a life that just happened to occur in the middle of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The story takes the reader on quite a ride filled with names we all recognize and details that are fun to know. From Hollywood History to an account of her activism and charity work during World War II, this is a perfect read not only for a Myrna Loy fan, but a history buff too.

Myrna shares thoughts and anecdotes about a lot of her movies and many of her costars. There’s some especially interesting stories about William Powell, James Stewart, Jean Harlow, Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy and more. There’s quite a few quotes from them about Myrna sprinkled throughout the book too:

“…When we did a scene together, we forgot about technique, camera angles and microphones. We weren’t acting We were just two people in perfect harmony. Many times I’ve played with an actress who seemed to be separated from me by a plate-glass window; there was no contact at all. But Myrna, unlike some actresses who think only of themselves, has the happy faculty of being able to listen while the other fellow says his lines. She has the give and take of acting that brings out the best…” – William Powell

I love knowing that’s how William Powell felt about her. He oughta know, he made 14 movies with Myrna, including all six The Thin Man movies. There’s no question that Myrna’s career was built on playing the “perfect wife” to Powell and several others. Though she played wives before them it was the Thin Man series with William Powell that solidified the perfect wife persona:

Nick Charles (Powell): “You don’t scold, you don’t nag and you’re far too pretty in the morning.”

Nora Charles (Loy): “All right, I’ll remember: must scold, must nag, musn’t be too pretty in the morning.”

Myrna says about the perfect wife moniker she carried:

“Some perfect wife I am, I’ve been married four times, divorced four times, have no children and can’t boil an egg.”

Everything in this book is spirited and enjoyable to read. She’s never upset about anything as she tells her story, even though there were tough times. She never gossips, never complains, never shows any vindictiveness. In fact, she points out that she “never had time for such things.” She simply tells it like it was. In Being and Becoming Myrna has given us a front row seat to what was going on during the studio era as the movies we love were being made. It is exactly what I hoped it would be and so much more. When I reread it now, it’s a place for me to be that feels good, just like every one of her movies, and I cherish that.

“One of the great charms of cinema” – from Myrna’s New York Times obituary on December 15, 1993.

and

“A woman who has the courage to stand up for her convictions.” – said Senator Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio when he read a W magazine interview with Myrna into the Congressional Record.

Her response to the Senator:

“Well, I guess I was raised to do that by pioneers who valued such attributes. I could ask for no greater tribute.” – last paragraph of book.

Mr. Blanding’s Builds His Dream House, 1948 – Based On the Book By Eric Hodgins

“Oh this was a joy, sheer heaven from beginning to end,” Myrna Loy said about Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House in her autobiography, Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming

“Acting is like playing ball. You toss the ball and some people don’t toss it back; some people don’t even catch it. When you get somebody [like Myrna] who catches it and tosses it back, that’s really what acting is all about. Myrna kept that spontaneity in her acting, a supreme naturalness that had the effect of distilled dynamite,” Cary Grant for Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming.

The reason I love this movie SO much is the pairing of Cary Grant (Jim Blandings)and Myrna Loy (Muriel Blandings). They’re magical together. (See Wings in the Dark, 1935 and The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer, 1947) They play off each other so well that I never want a story to end when they’re in it. Their mutual respect shows on screen and its feels good to see that displayed effortlessly and authentically like this. Together, they make us laugh, and laugh some more. Mr. Blandings is my version of a perfect movie-watching experience. I only wish I could have seen it on the big screen.

Both the book and movie follow Mr. and Mrs. Blandings as they pursue their dream of moving to the country to raise their girls in the clean air and peaceful atmosphere. He’s a New York City advertising executive that’s stressed out with his job and the cramped quarters of their city apartment. She does her best to make it comfortable for all of them. A peaceful existence in the rural landscape calls to them both. They find what Mr. Blandings calls their “dream home” in a decrepit “antique” house. They can afford it, if they put some work into it.

They buy it. It immediately becomes a money pit with problems. It’s a chaotic, stressful project that causes more grief than they ever imagined it would when they first saw the house and fantasized about their life in it. And the bills. There’s so many bills!

Grant and Loy play their roles so well that all we have to do now is get lost in the story and smile at the way they handle it all. His funny facial expressions expertly show his passion and frustrations, and, as usual, her presence is comforting, beautiful and strong…to BOTH Mr. Blandings and us viewers.

Add Melvyn Douglas to the mix and, boom, MORE smart comedic timing. The script for the film was written by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank. The dialogue and banter is an improvement from that in the book. I’m glad I read the book after I saw the movie. Placing the faces of Cary Grant and Myrna Loy into the characters of the book, I think, made it an easier read.

The Blandings with their architect, Simms (Reginald Denny).

Bottom line: The movie script, the actor’s abilities  and the setting of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is nothing short of brilliant. It’s funny and uplifting despite the turmoil that comes with building a new house.

There are some differences in the characters from book to movie. Notably, Bill Cole (Douglas), who is a smaller character in the book. narrates and plays a bigger part in the movie. You could say he anchors the whole thing with his narrative observations. Gussie (Louise Beavers), the housekeeper, is an entirely new, and enjoyable character in the movie. Spoiler alert:

Gussie (Louise Beavers) with Betsy (Connie Marshall) and Joan (Sharyn Moffett) Blandings.

She ends up saving the day.

Eric Hodgins published the book in 1946 after he wrote a short story about the home-building process for Fortune Magazine in 1946. Hodgins had a career in magazine publishing starting with the Atlantic in 1926. He was an Associate Editor at Redbook, a Vice President at Time and the publisher at Fortune. This is the only novel he ever wrote.

Each chapter of the book coincides with the chronological steps of the process of buying and rebuilding a dream house. It starts with Mr. and Mrs. Blanding discovering their dream property in Lansdale County, Connecticut (the movie starts in their New York City apartment) and takes us all the way to life in the house after it’s done.  The chaos in between is what both the movie and book are all about. In the book, that chaotic process is trying and full of details. It reads more like a diary than a story. In fact, Hodgins uses Mrs. Blanding’s diary entries to tell a chunk of the story.

The movie treats the chaos with humor and it’s perfect.

Additional Source:

Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming by Myrna Loy

Love, Lucy – Lucille Ball

Love, Lucy
by Lucille Ball
@1996 Desilu, Too, LLC
printed by Berkley Publishing Group (division of Penquin)
ISBN: 978-0-425-17731-0
Paperback, 253 pages

Amazon 

I loved Lucy.  

After reading this, I quickly became aware of where my love for so many things came from – comedy, cities, black and white photography, classic movies & TV, mid-century style, etc. – they came from watching I Love Lucy reruns every day after school for literally a decade. This was 20-30 years after the show had its run in the 1950s (I’m old), but there’s no doubt that watching it every day led to my attachment to these things today.

As Lucie Arnaz says in the prologue, “Instead of over-dramatizing what happened in her life, she seems to be trying to understand what her life was all about.”

Yes! That is exactly how this book reads and feels. It’s informal and conversational and feels like you’re sitting next to Lucy while she tells you about her life. What a pleasure for a fan like me. 

This is Lucille Ball’s autobiography. It covers the genealogy of her family up until about 1966. Lucy didn’t write this, rather she taped interviews with Betty Hannah Hoffman who later transcribed them into the manuscript for this book. That transcript, according to Lucie Arnaz, wound up in an old file box that Lucy’s attorney, Ed Perlstein, found after her death when he was searching her boxes for any old contracts. Thanks to them, and to Lucie and Desi Jr., we have this book. Lucy’s life, in Lucy’s words. I feel like I know her, Desi and Hollywood a lot better now. 

She doesn’t go into great detail about everything but it gives us just enough for insight into how she felt as life trodded along for her in New York and California. Unlike today’s “tell all” biographies, Lucy keeps the gory details of life out of it. Refreshing, but spoiler alert: not much about the Lucy and Desi troubles some readers are probably looking for. Lucy tells her story here in a kind way. You do notice that she hops over things so as not to hurt anyone. Mainly Desi. It seemed more important to leave the past behind her and go on living. I believe that attitude is a big reason she was so successful.

Lucy probably didn’t realize when she recorded the tapes for this book just how much hearing these things from her would mean to everyone who knew her personally, and to those of us that didn’t. Her words about her need for independence, her need for love and her outlook on life and laughter are a treasure. 

Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew – Book Review

Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew
by John Oller
Limelight Editions
August 1, 2004, 358 pages

Amazon

I first read this book back when it was released and have recently read it again for the third time, because I love Jean Arthur. More The Merrier (1943), The Whole Town’s Talking (1935) and Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936) have always been some of my favorite classic movies. You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Only Angels Have Wings (1939)  and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939) are favorites too. Jean would star in 89 movies  and several theater productions during her career.

Oh, how she loved to act.

“when I’m in front of the camera, I lose my identity, my timidity,” Jean Arthur

Jean Arthur was born Gladys Georgianna Greene on October 17, 1900 in Plattsburgh, New York. She would be the youngest child in a family that already had three boys. The family was Lutheran, of Norwegian and English descent and of modest means. Before Gladys was born, the family had settled and resettled across the country and back again, chasing jobs for Hubert Greene (her father). Gladys was born October 17, 1900. She didn’t have much education until high school, but dropped out of that too so she could help the family financially. It was while she was working as a model in New York that the Fox studio “discovered” her in a commercial. In 1923 Gladys officially changed her name to Jean Arthur, based on the name of her hero, the French Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) and King Arthur and began a decades-long acting career. Jean Arthur made her first film with Fox in a 1923 silent film called Cameo Kirby, directed by John Ford.

There would be 88 more movies plus theater productions to come.

“I guess I became an actress because I didn’t want to be myself,” Jean Arthur.

In 1928 Jean filed her first “sound” movie, Warming Up.  It was billed as Paramount’s first sound (not talkie) film. By all critical accounts, it wasn’t good, but Jean Arthur stood out and was given a three-year-contract at $150 per week.  During the same year, she made her first “talkie,” The Canary Murder Case, with William Powell. In 1929, she did The Green Murder Case, again with William Powell. In 1930, a David Selznick movie, Street of Chance, also with William Powell. People were taking notice.

This book includes a lot of information about Arthur’s genealogy, family as well as her acting history. She was married just twice, once for only a day and had no children. There are interesting stories here from the many movies and theater productions. But it’s the background of her life that intrigues me and is so well-researched here. Her childhood plays a big part in the behavior that so many called “difficult.” Oller takes great care and patience in describing it. It really hit home for me. I didn’t know anything about Jean’s life before I read this book, but it has provided layers of sympathy and empathy for her that weren’t there before I did.  As one that was also raised a Lutheran, and of Norwegian and English descent, I could relate to a lot of the stories about family turmoil here. In a strange way, it did me good to see this might be a pattern among us Protestants? Maybe not, but it sure made me feel less alone.

When I read Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew, so many things fell into place for me. The more I read, the more my neck hurt from shaking my head “yes.” I believe that the insecurity and nervous anxiousness borne of her childhood caused the behavior that brought so many of the “she’s difficult” comments over the years.  Yes, she had outbursts and seemingly unexplained tantrums and disappearances, but anxiety attacks, insecurity and a massive inferiority complex can do this to a person! Jean was afraid. She was lonely. She wanted to be accepted and loved. Period. Thanks to the way she was brought up she was always afraid that by just being herself that that could not happen.

I truly believe after reading this, the inferiority complex and crippling insecurity that caused this “difficult” behavior came from always seeing the world differently than everyone else. I admire her strength for pushing through it anyway, honoring herself and becoming successful despite it all. That’s inspiring. Her determination in fighting it brought her success in one of the ways she could escape it all, acting. Jean also immersed herself in intellectual inspiration. She loved nature and animals. There’s more than one story in the book about her finding peace in these things. She took comfort in her garden and any animal she crossed paths with.

Even on the movie sets she believed:

“animals are the world’s most trustworthy inhabitants. There’s no chips on their shoulders, they’re never mad at you and they never misunderstand you.”—-Jean Arthur.

Amen.

The book is filled with quotes that give the reader real insight to how Jean thought and how she lived.  Again, inspiring.

In 1936, with several movies under her belt, Frank Capra hired her for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.  It was the beginning of international stardom. Capra would hire her again for You Can’t Take it With You” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. 

“Never have I seen a performer plagued with such a chronic case of state jitters,” Capra wrote in his autobiography. “She was my favorite actress,” he admitted.

Escape from Freedom by Erich Fromm was published in 1941 and became important to Arthur. The book won international acclaim and seemed to hit a chord with Jean, who was a noted non-conformist.

“Compulsive conforming,” Fromm wrote,” is when the individual ceases to be himself; he adopts entirely the kind of personality offered to him by cultural patter….and becomes exactly as all others are and as they expect him to be. That person gives up his individual self and becomes an automation, identical with millions of other automatons around him, he need not feel alone and anxious anymore. But the price he pays is high; it is the loss of his self.”

It’s easy to see how Fromm’s deductions validated the way Jean was leading her life. She ended up studying with him and being the subject of his analysis which she later described as:

“the finest experience I ever had–the most constructive, in fact the only thing that makes sense…The greatest thing he did for me was teach me to laugh at myself,” Jean Arthur.

She was fighting her way through the insecurity and inferiority complex, she was finding ways to cope. Fromm’s writings could not completely help her explain what was wrong with her though. That came from Karen Horney, a colleague of Fromm’s.

“Horney’s essential theses was that all neuroses derive from the ‘basic anxiety’ of childhood, and the child’s attempts to cope with conflicting feelings of helplessness, fear and hostility generated out of uncaring or inadequate parenting. As a means of resolving these conflicts the child adopts various character strategies, or ‘neurotic trends.’ She described these as falling into one of three principal categoies: moving ‘towards,’ ‘against,’ or ‘away from’ people.”

Arthur fit into the third category – she moved away from people.

“Detached individuals avoid conformity for fear of becoming submerged in the amorphous mass of human beings. They crave privacy and prefer the pursuit of impersonal endeavors in the sphere of books, animals, art or nature….If the detached person is thrown into close contact with other, ‘he may readily go to pieces or to use the popular term, have a nervous breakdown.’ ” read Horney’s thesis.

Seems to me we’ve come across the reason for that “behavior” she’s known for.

While Arthur loved comedies and was well-known for “screwball” comedies like The Talk of the Town” she had a longing to be taken more seriously with dramatic roles. Eventually, she admitted that comedy is what she knew and did the best. I agree. Over the years there would be stage roles like her coveted Peter Pan and Joan of Arc roles, that would fill in the spots between movies and her fights with directors and studio heads. There were teaching positions and mentorships. There was even a short-lived TV show, thanks to inspiration from Lucille Ball, called The Jean Arthur Show in 1966She retired from all performing in 1973.

Despite it all, blockbusters were her specialty. She was an A-list actress that had found international acclaim. Though she suffered a great deal from anxiety and insecurity, Arthur turned to her books, nature and animals for solace. She was interested in the connection between mind and body and read a great deal about it an other intellectual subjects that kept her mind working on a level that gave her peace.

Author John Oller spends a great deal of this book describing all the ways Ms. Arthur’s timidity wreaked havoc on various movie and theater productions. I’ve seen many comments about her behavior over the years, but I’ve never seen such great care taken in trying to explain it. To get to know and understand the real Jean Arthur you have to, and Oller introduces us to her. None of her acting roles revealed any of these truths. After reading this book, I feel like I can know at least a little piece of the real Jean Arthur and that’s inspiring.

Jean Arthur died on June 19, 1991 at her home in Carmel, California.

 

Katharine Hepburn: Rebel Chic – Book Review

Katharine Hepburn: Rebel Chic
Published by Skira Rizzoli (2012)
Multiple essays by multiple authors from the world of fashion
176 pages

I get it now and it all makes sense! It’s official, I love Katharine Hepburn. That was my first thought when I read this eight years ago when it first came out. Reading it again recently, I’ve had the exact same feelings of admiration and inspiration I did then. This one’s worth reading more than once.

I have always enjoyed Katharine Hepburn’s movie performances, but there was always something different about her, from any other actress, that I didn’t quite feel comfortable with. I couldn’t put my finger on it, I could never really decide if I liked it or not..until I read this book. Now, I love that difference.

Rebel Chic by Jean Druesedow (with several other contributors) is a slim book from 2012 that’s available in our libraries, used bookstores and also from third party sellers on Amazon. I think it’s worth finding. While Rebel Chic is purely about Katharine Hepburn’s “style” – a fashion term in this case, it reveals so much more about her. Her independence, confidence and the individualism that is a result of both of them are truly an inspiration. She was not the kind of woman that let anyone’s opinion shape her style decision. Or any other decision.

Hepburn had an authentic style that was very much her own. She didn’t care what everyone else was doing or whether or not they approved of her OR her style. Her trademark trousers and “preppy” look were way out of the norm for actresses, and all women, back in the early days of her career. Hepburn wore them anyway. She’s probably one of the reasons why I can sit here today in jeans as I write this, instead of a corset and long, heavy dress. The simplicity of her unique style for the time had a marked individualism about it that revealed her personality -the real Kate – the woman who thrived on independence, comfort, hard work, and hard play. Through this book, I realized more and more the big part Kate played in making certain styles okay for women that came after her.

Overall, this is a style book and the photographs illustrating it are great, but, with every turn of the page, every photograph, I can clearly see the fierce individualism in Kate that I had a hard time identifying before I read this book. It’s inspiring. Boy oh boy, is SHE inspiring. Katharine Hepburn was definitely before her time when it comes to style and Rebel Chic highlights all of the reasons why. It also lets us in on the personality that made it all happen. It’s a wonderful book worth reading…and reading again.