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.

The Thin Man, 1934

The Thin Man (1934, MGM) is a movie that doesn’t need another review or description written about it. Heck, even here on this blog I’ve already written about it here, and here and the blog is only a few months old.  Classic movie bloggers have read and/or written so many articles about it over the years, and I’ll never get tired of reading them. I just needed to say a little something about it here (again) because it is the one movie, along with its 5 sequels, that I will think about constantly for the rest of my life. Just the thought of these movies overwhelms me with happiness. It’s exactly the kind of thing I need right now. The Thin Man has always had the power to move my mood to a happier place. It never disappoints, always keeps me riveted no matter how many times I’ve seen it and never fails to provide me a happy place to escape to. Right now, it seems I need these things more than ever before, and I can vouch for the fact that Bill and Myrna can provide them.

The Thin Man wasn’t the first “old” movie I ever saw, His Girl Friday was. Hell, it wasn’t even the first Thin Man movie I ever saw, but it was the movie that got me hooked on all six of them for a lifetime. Finding it was a happy accident; I was a teenager and my Grandmother had just introduced me to Jimmy Stewart with Anatomy of a Murder. I loved it, and immediately began a quest to watch every Jimmy Stewart movie I could find because…..Jimmy Stewart! Duh! I checked out several of his movies at the library that same week. The first one I watched? After The Thin Man,1936 – the second movie in the six movie Thin Man series.  At that moment, I totally forgot about the quest to see every Jimmy Stewart movie.

“I’m a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune,” Mr. Charles said.
“I read you were shot 5 times in the tabloids,” Mrs. Charles said.
“That’s not true, he didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.”

That kind of banter continues through the film. It’s fun and funny. Oh yes, there’s a murder investigation going on too, but for my money it’s the chemistry between Myrna Loy and William Powell that is the main attraction. It’s the star of every movie they’ve done together (14 of them total). When I see them together in a movie I ache for more. The love and respect they have for each other is always on display and it feels good to be in the presence of it.

There’s no doubt that the script of The Thin Man is helped by having the married couple Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich adapt Dashiell Hammett’s book to the screen for it, but it seems like so much of the dialogue is naturally Loy and Powell. Great lines in a movie are one thing, but real chemistry between the actors like this is something else altogether. In my opinion, that’s what takes the movie to a higher level. Together, Bill and Myrna put their chemistry to work in creating an environment I crave to be in. The Thin Man still makes me laugh out loud even after seeing it dozens of times. Spending 90 minutes with this movie is the easiest way I can think of to cheer me up,. Today, being able to gain that from something as simple as a 90 minute, 86-year-old movie means more than it ever did before.

While it’s obvious the Loy and Powell friendship off screen (they were never romantically involved according to Myrna Loy’s autobiography) enhanced their ability to create this kind of magic on screen, it is also a testament to the talent they both possess. They play off of each other with an ease that I’ve never seen in any other onscreen couple (sorry Bogey and Bacall, Hepburn and Tracy). It’s effortless every time and a joy to watch.

I always say I was born 50 years too late because it seems like I would feel so much more comfortable back in the day of Loy, Powell and The Thin Man but then I remember that I wouldn’t be able to watch them over and over again as many times as I want to like I can today. Would I really want to give that up? Probably.

“Those were the good old days,” –party guest
“Don’t kid yourself, these are the good old days.” –Nick Charles to his party guests.

I’m writing this in the middle of a long overdue racial uprising and the Covid-19 pandemic, so it’s hard to absorb this line the way I did the first time I heard Nick say it. I remember the hopeful feeling that came over me back then, but it’s hard to let myself feel that right now.  Honestly, I’m currently leading more toward the “those were the good old days” line from the party guest. . At the very least, Nick and Nora will always be here to make it all better for at least an hour or two and don’t think I’m not relying heavily on them for that right now.  So yeah, more posts about The Thin Man are always welcome. Please post a link to yours below.

“How many drinks have you had?” – Nora to Nick
“This will make six Martinis.” – Nick replies.
“Fine”>[to the waiter] All right. Will you bring me five more Martinis, Leo? Line them right up here.

It couldn’t hurt.

Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming by Myrna Loy
iMDB

Frank McHugh and I Love You Again, 1940

Frank McHugh

It’s Frank McHugh‘s birthday today! I suppose I could honor him by listing all of his movies, plays and TV shows, but we can get that list here. Instead, I wanted to write about the fun of watching him along side my all-time favorite onscreen pair, William Powell and Myrna Loy, in I Love You Again, 1940. I’m crazy about this movie. Powell and Loy’s, witty chemistry, combined with the genuinely lovable character McHugh brings to ‘Doc’ Ryan, makes this a perfect movie to me.

Birthday boy Francis Curray McHugh was born May 23, 1898 in Homestead, Pennsylvania. His life was devoted to acting from an early age. At 10, he started performing in his parent’s theater troupe with his sister Kitty and brother, Matt. At 17, he left his parent’s company to join the Marguerite Bryant Players. From there, he went on to be the juvenile and stage manager at the Empire Theater in Pittsburgh. He then joined the Keith and Orpheum circuits and in 1925, he debuted on Broadway in The Fall Guy.” In 1929 Frank McHugh married actress Dorothy Spencer. They had three children and remained married until his death on September 11, 1981.

It was in 1930 that Frank was hired as a contract player at Warner Brothers. From this point forward, he almost always played a version of the role he played in I Love You Again – a sweet, funny, likable sidekick to the leading actor’s character. He was pals on and off screen with dozens of actors like Humphrey Bogart, Pat O’Brien and James Cagney  McHugh holds his own with all of them, and generally steals the scenes he’s in with his comedic delivery. He does that here too.

Lobby Card, I Love You Again, 1940

I Love You Again was directed by W.S. Van Dyke II (yes, the same W.S. Van Dyke that directed the first four Thin Man Movies) for MGM in 1940. Three of my all-time favorite actors, together in a W.S. Van Dyke-directed movie is paradise for me!

Larry Wilson (Powell) is a teetotaling, stuffed-shirt, do-gooder who gets on everyone’s nerves with his cheapskate ways. We meet him as he’s sailing home on the S.S. Falkness from a business trip. He’s insufferable and we’re already sick of him a few minutes into the movie when an extremely drunk Doc Ryan (McHugh) rescues us. Ryan, clearly a troublemaker, antagonizes Wilson in the ship’s bar. Ryan is really drunk and desperate to prove to Wilson that he isn’t. To do this, he decides to walk the “tightrope” atop the railing of the ship “blindfolded.” Oh boy. Wilson tries to stop him, reminding him that he’s “inebriated” but Ryan is determined to prove he’s fine and ends up falling overboard anyway.

Larry Wilson jumps in to save Ryan’s life. When rescuers come to bring them both back aboard the ship, one of them slams an oar onto Wilson’s head. That conk on the head turns Wilson back into George Carey – the man he really is AND was before he took another blow to the head in a fight nine years earlier. Once George Carey is back, he doesn’t remember one second of his life as Larry Wilson. Meanwhile, Doc Ryan is with him and so grateful to Wilson for saving his life that he’s decided to “go straight” and commit himself to Wilson for life. Wilson, now Carey, has no idea what Ryan is talking about. Thankfully, they figure it out together for all of us…

“I’ve had amnesia. A blow to the head can make you forget your entire past. You can live on for years, maybe the rest of your life as somebody else, unless a shock or another blow brings you back to your right self.” – George Carey (William Powell)

….and once they do, they realize how much they had in common nine years ago, before that first bump on the head. As it turns out they have a grifter’s life in common and they love it. With this new common ground, they come up with a plan to milk everything they can out of Larry Wilson’s life. All those bank accounts they discovered in Larry Wilson’s wallet provoked them to get moving on to Wilson’s beloved Habersville where they planned to get away with Wilson’s fortune.

Until Kay meets them at the dock when the ship gets home. Kay is Larry Wilson’s wife. She had heard about the rescue, and even though she plans to divorce Larry and marry Herbert (Donald Douglas), she meets him to bring him home anyway. She doesn’t realize Larry doesn’t exist anymore. And George Carey doesn’t realize she’s his wife. He is stunned to learn he’s really married to her at all. Doc Ryan’s and Carey’s plan hits a wall before it ever gets started.

They rethink everything, all while Carey is trying to convince Kay to stay married to him.

Herbert (Donald Douglas), Kay (Myrna Loy), Kay’s Mother (Nella Walker), Larry/George (William Powell), Doc Ryan (Frank McHugh), Mayor Carver (Harlan Briggs)

I Love You Again is a screwball comedy. Powell and Loy are as good together as ever. Frank McHugh is fantastic. The way he smoothly delivers his lines along side the engaging chemistry of Bill and Myrna makes this movie pure joy.

I really don’t want to give away any more of the story. I Love You Again is a fun movie to discover, especially the first time. I find it so satisfying. It makes me feel good and laugh out loud and Frank McHugh is a big reason why.

I can’t love it enough!

Sources:

Frank McHugh’s New York Times Obituary
IMDb
TV Guide
TCM
New York Public Library

Frank McHugh, born on this day, 122 years ago,  in 1898

 

 

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

The Hats of Nora Charles

Speaking of The Thin Man….we were, right?

I’ve always been attracted to Nora Charles’s hats. As near as I can tell, she had 15 different hats throughout the entire Thin Man series, with a few extra thrown in for promotional items like lobby cards and movie posters. They were all fabulous, um, in there own way. Nora (Myrna Loy) had a new hat or two for every one of the six movies. And some, like Shadow of the Thin Man, had five.

They were all a lesson in 20th century hat style:

The Thin Man, 1934

Nora (Myrna Loy), Nick (William Powell) and Dorothy Wynant (Maureen O’Sullivan)

Nora was so stylish in this plaid beret. It had a matching scarf AND skirt.

I’m not so crazy about what they did with the color of it for the lobby card however.

After Thin Man, 1936

Arriving home to San Francisco after that exhausting caper in The Thin Man!

For some reason, this one always reminded me of one of those terra cotta planters. But, she wears it well. Of course!

Another The Thin Man, 1939

Ready for a relaxing weekend in the country with a fantastic hat!

Left to right: Patric Knowles, Virginia Grey, C. Aubrey Smith, Tom Neal, Myrna Loy and William Powell.

The hat STILL plays well, even among all these movie stars.

Shadow of the Thin Man, 1941

The hat doesn’t help him get out of the speeding ticket, but it still looks good.

And, my all-time favorite Nora Charles hat: The Screwy Hat.

It’s the only time in The Thin Man series that a hat has it’s own part.

Three characters in this movie have a comment for this hat as Mrs. Charles wears it through the night. All of them used the word “screwy” to describe it and it’s hilarious.

Nora’s final straw with the “screwy hat”:

Security Guard at the arena at the end of a long night at the fights: “That’s quite a hat isn’t it Mrs. Charles? Where did you get a hat like that?” he says, laughing.

Nora: “Do you like it?”

Security Guard, still laughing: “You bet, screwy isn’t it?”

Nora: “You can have it,” she says as she throws it at him.”

I love the lobby card that shows it in blue!

Yep, Shadow of The Thin Man has the most….

…and best, hats.

 

Well, it’s more of a headband with a ribbon than a hat but I’m counting it. Only Nora could make this work. Obviously.

The Thin Man Goes Home, 1944

I know I said the “screwy hat” of Shadow of the Thin Man was my favorite, but this derby is a close second. There was at least one more hat Nora  wore in The Thin Man Goes Home, but I couldn’t find a good picture of it. If you have one, I’d love a copy for my collection!

Song of The Thin Man, 1947

Perfect

Nora had quite the style didn’t she?

What’s your favorite?

The Thin Man – Based on the Book By Dashiell Hammett

The Thin Man – 1934, MGM – Directed by W.S. Van Dyke, starring Myrna Loy  & WIlliam Powell

A scene from the movie:

Nick: “I’m a hero. I was shot twice in the Tribune.”

Nora: “I read where you were shot five times in the tabloids.”

Nick: “It’s not true. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.”

Same scene from the book:

“We had the afternoon papers sent up. Morelli, it seemed, had shot me — twice for one of the papers and three times for another–when I tried to arrest him for Julia Wolf’s murder, and I was too near death to see anybody or be moved to a hospital.”

And that perfectly illustrates the difference between the book and the movie.

I saw The Thin Man movie a gazillion times before I read the book.  It was one of the first classic movies I ever saw when my Grandmother had it on on her tiny black and white TV one day and made me watch it because she was a huge Myrna Loy fan. It wasn’t the first classic film I ever saw, His Girl Friday gets that honor (also with Grandma), but it is my favorite one. I immediately fell in love with Nick Charles and his wife, Nora……(and WIlliam Powell and Myrna Loy)….and still watch this movie again and again after all these years. My love for all six of these films continually grows, but the first one has its own special place in the corner of my heart and I’ll never get enough of it.

The 1943 paperback my Grandfather gave me. Oh how I treasure this! (The original story was published in 1933 in Redbook)

I’m not so sure I would have seen the movie if I’d read the book first. It’s good, it’s just nothing at all like the movie and would appeal to a different audience. The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett and its movie both have the same plot: a retired detective is roped into a murder investigation while he’s on vacation. The movie’s funny, the book isn’t. The writers Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich  turned the book into a movie filled with a lot of laughs and feel-good moments that the book just doesn’t have. The movie is a cosmopolitan 1930’s murder-mystery, with light-hearted moments that can make your heart melt and muscles relax. Yeah, it’s that good.

Depending on what you’re in the mood for, the movie or the book has you covered. Though there are some smiles in the book, it’s more of a hard-boiled crime story that suspense novel fans would be attracted to. In the book laughs are few and far between, and most of them feel forced to me, unlike the movie where I still find myself giggling at the banter between the characters even after all these years of watching it. The organization of the book is completely different than the movie, scenes are in a different order and there are quite a few scenes we don’t even see in the movie. The Jorgensen family is so much more annoying in the book, (probably because they play a bigger role) especially Dorothy. Ugh! Other characters like Morelli and Studsy have a bigger presence too. Nick’s drinking is front and center in the book, just like the movie…

…and spoiler alert:

Asta is a girl in the book.

I’m still not over that.

There’s some merit to each version, but in this case I think the movie is more entertaining. That script is hilarious!  I will always, always, always love the movie and it’s five sequels. They are my go-to classic movies whenever I need to laugh and feel good. Bill and Myrna never let me down. The movie is a more concise, organized version of the story in the book, which leaves lots of room for on-screen mystery, martinis and quips that make the movie so darn entertaining. The book is wonderful if you’re in need of a good crime-drama. I read a lot of those too, but in this case I find the movie to be exactly what I need every time I see it.

I can’t honestly say that if you loved the book you’ll love the movie, or vice versa. But, I’m sure glad I’ve done both. Have you read it? What do you think?

Next on my reading list is The Maltese Falcon by Hammett.  I’m looking forward to reading the book that another one of my favorite movies is based on. Have you read the book or seen the movie? What do you think?