Myrna Loy

The Early Years

When David Franklin Williams was travelling by train in early 1905, he went through a small station called 'Myrna'. He loved the name and when a daughter was born to him and his wife Della Mae on August 2nd 1905 they named her Myrna Adele Williams. Myrna's Scottish and Welsh grandmothers were both strong, pioneering women who made comfortable lives for their children. Myrna's father went into politics at the age of 23, and a few years later into real estate and banking. Myrna's mother was very artistic and studied music at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. Myrna spent her early years on a ranch and in the town of Helena, Montana, which was also the home of Gary Cooper.

1916, in self choreographed dance based on 'The Blue Bird'

A visit to the theatre to see Maeterlinck's 'The Blue Bird', dressed in a blue silk dress and matching feather fan, left a lasting impression on Myrna and she decided against becoming a nun or a nurse and dreamed of going on the stage from then on.

In November 1918, Myrna was devastated by the death of her father and felt she should take on responsibility for her mother and her brother David. Shortly after her husband's death, Della Mae moved the family to Culver City, California where she held musical and artistic soirees. Myrna and her friends staged dance recitals on the front lawn. As well as normal schooling, she also took additional music and ballet lessons which she loved. However, when the very nice and proper ladies who ran the school she attended discovered that, horror of horrors, one of their delicate pupils wanted to go on the stage, they were horrified. Myrna left the school in disgust and enrolled at Venice High School - a school which later named its annual speech and drama awards 'Myrnas'.

From Stage to Screen

At the age of 18, Myrna left school and was hired as a dancer at Sid Grauman's Egyptian Movie House. In the days of the silents, movies were often shown after a prologue - a troupe of dancers setting the scene for the movie itself. Her first role was in the prologue for Cecil B DeMille's first Ten Commandments. Rudolph Valentino spotted some publicity photos for the Egyptian Movie House, in which Myrna featured. At the time, he and his wife Winifred Shaunessy - better and more exotically known as Natacha Rambova - were looking for a leading lady for their film Cobra and Myrna was tested for the part. Although she was unsuccessful, the experience piqued her interest in films and she began to haunt the gates of MGM. She was finally spotted and, in a blonde wig, tested for the part of The Virgin Mary in the silent version of Ben Hur. Again, she didn't get the part but she did win another role in the film - as an extra, in a black wig this time, playing the part of a mistress to a Roman senator.

In 1925 she changed her name to Myrna Loy and also signed up for a 7 year contract with Warner Brothers, starting at $75 a week. She was put into role after role, generally as a vamp. Her first relatively major role was in Across the Pacific which led to her being cast in exotic and oriental roles. Her first speaking role was in State Street Sadie - originally a silent movie, it had a dialogue sequence added to take advantage of the new medium of sound. In 1929 she was cast in the first all-sound movie The Desert Song as native girl Azuri.

John Ford said of her at the time "Wouldn't you know, the kid they pick to play tramps is the only good girl in Hollywood".

 

Azuri in 'The Desert Song' , 1929

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 led to Myrna being 'let go' by Warners and for a while she worked freelance, having been signed up by an agency run by Minna Wallis. Sent over to the Goldwyn studios, production supervisor Arthur Hornblow, later to become her first husband, cast her in The Devil To Pay with Ronald Colman. This was a role unlike her usual exotic roles and came as a welcome break. From 1925 to 1931 Myrna worked on a mostly freelance basis. she appeared in around 60 films, either in an exotic role or, more frequently, as a vamp, a mistress or a bad girl - including such films as Arrowsmith and Consolation Marriage. In late 1931, Irving Thalberg signed Myrna to MGM where she played her first comedy role - Valentine in Mamoulian's Love Me Tonight with Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier. Her next role - a Javanese Indian half-caste (back to the exotics!) in Thirteen Women had her killing off her ex-schoolmates. The only one to escape her murderous clutches was Irene Dunne and Myrna was later to say that she regretted NOT killing Irene, every time she got the parts Myrna wanted!

Myrna was an object of desire for many of the stars of the time, including John Barrymore, Leslie Howard and Clark Gable. In fact, one night when Gable and his wife at the time dropped her off at her house after a night out, he tried to kiss her. Myrna, outraged - not least by the fact that Gable's wife was only a few feet away - shoved him off her porch and into the bushes! At the time Myrna was very much involved with Arthur Hornblow who kept assuring her that he was trying to get a divorce from his wife.

In 1934 she starred in the gangster movie Manhattan Melodrama - a movie made famous by John Dillinger who had sneaked out of hiding to see the movie and was gunned down by FBI agents as he left the Biograph Theatre in Chicago.

 

The Ideal Wife

The big change of direction for Myrna Loy came in 1934 when she was cast opposite William Powell in The Thin Man, based on Dashiell Hammett's novel. It was an immediate success, and unbelievably filmed in only 16 days! Myrna's introduction into the film was as Nora Charles, laden with packages and Asta the dog, falling flat on her face in the Ritz Bar. It was the start of a great movie pairing and a great friendship for Powell and Loy. They starred in 14 films together, 6 of them in the Thin Man series. From the start Powell and Loy felt in perfect harmony when acting together and this showed on the screen, making them one of the most popular screen couples of the time. They were the quintessential 1930's couple.

After 80 roles as exotics and vamps, Myrna became 'the perfect wife'. Men-Must-Marry-Myrna Clubs were formed and James Stewart apparently said "I shall only marry Myrna Loy"! As for Myrna's own marriage plans, she was still waiting for Arthur Hornblow to get a divorce. However, despite her new found success, Myrna felt that MGM were not looking after her interests. Her salary was half of the $3,000 a week earned by William Powell and Myrna felt that although the studio were publicising she and Powell as a team, they were not treating them as one. She took off to Europe with Arthur Hornblow and when she returned to the US it was to New York, not Hollywood. Eventually, after almost a year off screen, LB Mayer gave in and Myrna was given what she wanted, plus a $25,000 bonus. This was an unheard of result given the power and threats of the studio and Mayer's well documented tricks for getting his own way. Myrna was immediately put to work in a number of films in quick succession including Whipsaw with Spencer Tracy, Wife vs. Secretary with Clark Gable and The Great Ziegfeld with William Powell.

Arthur Hornblow finally obtained a divorce and he and Myrna married in Mexico on June 27th, 1936. They built a beautiful home in Coldwater Canyon, Hollywood where they entertained actors, writers, producers, musicians. In her autobiography 'Being and Becoming', Myrna Loy describes an evening when Richard Rogers, Jerome Kern and George and Ira Gershwin fought over who was to play the piano. One of Myrna's most treasured companions of this time was Arthur's son Terry who was around 6 when they first met and who came to love Myrna very much.

 

Queen of Hollywood

Between 1934 and 1939 Myrna Loy made 21 movies, including Parnell with Clark Gable. During the release of Parnell, Clark Gable and Myrna Loy were voted King and Queen of the Movies. Over 20 million people were polled by 53 newspapers all over the country. Some of these 20 million people discovered that Myrna was shopping in Macys in New York one day and poured into the store to see her. Two security guards rushed her out of a side entrance and told her never to come back! Myrna was paired with Clark Gable in Test Pilot and Too Hot to Handle, both in 1938, to capitalize on their popularity.

In 1937 Myrna had a narrow escape when her horse bolted during the filming of The Rains Came with Tyrone Power and she was nearly killed.

 

The War Years

In the summer of 1939 Myrna and Arthur Hornblow went to Europe for 3 weeks. There they found the threat of war over everywhere they went. When war broke out, Myrna took an active part in the money raising activities that Hollywood held for War Relief, and The Red Cross, amongst others. She was also going through her own personal crisis at the time and she and Arthur separated a number of times until she finally left him for good in March 1942. Arthur Hornblow was a perfectionist and very difficult to live with, a demanding man who had to be in absolute control.

The bombing of Pearl Harbour increased the war effort in Hollywood. California was felt to be vulnerable and the airport and studios were painted with camouflage paint. Myrna Loy donned a uniform when she joined the Hollywood Chapter of 'Bundles for Bluejackets' - helping to run a Naval Auxiliary Canteen and going on fund raising tours.

Six days after her divorce from Arthur Hornblow she married John Hertz junior on impulse. He was a New York advertising executive from a very rich family who had been courting her since she left Arthur, and who played somewhat on her vulnerability at the time. Her marriage and the war effort kept her out of the studio. Her new husband didn't want her to work and for a while she was happy to comply. She did, however, continue with her war work in New York, where they were living at the time. Myrna set up entertainment programs for military hospitals in the Eastern United States, visiting many hospitals herself, where she was very moved by the plight of the soldiers she saw there.

It soon became clear that Hertz was neurotic, possessive and abusive. They parted and Myrna Loy returned to Hollywood where she began work on The Thin Man Goes Home.

 

Leaving MGM

In 1945 Myrna started to date commander Gene Markey, a great charmer who had previously been married to Joan Bennett and Hedy Lamarr. They married in 1946 and in the same year Myrna left MGM after 15 years. She felt that the upper echelons of the studio were displeased with her for her lack of films during the war and were, therefore, not offering her any interesting roles.

Her first role after leaving MGM was the role Myrna felt was her best - that of Milly in The Best Years of Our Lives. In the movie she was not afraid to play the mother of a grown up daughter. Cary Grant, working with Myrna in both Bachelor and The Bobbysoxer and Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House said that all the leading men agreed that Myrna was the wife they all wanted.

As a staunch Democrat, Myrna was one of the first in the firing line for the Communist witch hunt. In 1946, while working on Bachelor and The Bobbysoxer she found herself listed in the Hollywood Reporter along with other luminaries such as Edward G Robinson, Orson Welles and Jimmy Cagney. The threat of a $1 million lawsuit led to a retraction by the newspaper.

Bachelor and The Bobbysoxer

Myrna and others retaliated to the House Un-American Activities Committee attacks on Hollywood by forming The Committee for The First Amendment. Those that were found to be un-American also became unemployable. While fighting against the Communist witch hunt at home, Myrna was a friend of Jan Masaryk, the Czechoslovakian democrat leader whose country was slowly but surely being taken over by the Communists. After his death - a supposed suicide that later turned out to be murder, Myrna Loy began working for the American Association for The United Nations - an organisation which served as a link between the new UN and the public. She also became involved in UNESCO - the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, throwing herself into these new roles with the same enthusiasm she put into her movie roles. She and Gene also started their own film and TV production company at the end of the 1940's - Charter Films. Unfortunately, the marriage was not working too well, due to Gene's numerous affairs and they later separated, finally divorcing in 1950.

After making If This Be Sin in Europe for Alexander Korda in 1949, Myrna remained in Europe travelling and carrying out UNESCO business, before finally returning to Hollywood to make Cheaper By The Dozen. She then left for Europe again, where she became involved with Howland Sargeant who was part of a UNESCO delegation. Returning to the US in June 1950, Myrna settled in Washington and New York, resumed her hospital visits and married Sargeant on June 1st 1951. With the occasional breaks for films and TV, Myrna concentrated on her United Nations work. she became involved in politics, campaigning for Adlai Stevenson and, later, for John F Kennedy. She and Howland divorced after eight years together.

 

The Later Years

After years of persuasion, in 1963 Myrna Loy eventually went into theatre, doing summer stock in New England. The play was Marriage-go-Round and Myrna was petrified. But it led to a whole new outlet for her talents and she appeared on stage often in later years. She made her Broadway debut in 1973 in a revival of 'The Women' She also became a founder member of the American Place Theatre, a non-profit theatre set up to help new writers develop. She continued to work until a few years before her death on December 14th 1993. Like Cary Grant, she did not receive an Oscar for her roles in any of the movies she had made, but in 1990 she received and honorary Oscar in recognition of her "extraordinary qualities, both onscreen and off, with appreciation for a lifetime's worth of indelible performances". Myrna Loy packed so much into her life, and everything she did, she did with enthusiasm and love. She was never half-hearted, but was hard-working, loyal to her friends and the causes she believed in - a great and glamorous 'star' but also a great human being.

 

 

 

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