If you were to ask the average person to name an actress from old Hollywood, you’re likely to hear the same handful of names: Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, maybe even Ginger Rogers. If you’re a classic film fan, you know that while these ladies are incredible representations of Hollywood’s Golden Age, there are many, many more women who also deserve to be recognized. One such woman is the irreplaceable Myrna Loy.
She didn’t possess the unattainable glamour of, say, Lana Turner, or the obvious dramatic talents of someone like Bette Davis. What Loy had in abundance was subtlety and an earthiness that gradually established her as one of the silver screen’s most natural actors. “Inauthentic” is not a word that has ever been used to describe Loy because she was always completely herself. Her heyday may have been in the 1930s and ’40s, but there is something unavoidably modern about her. Regardless of the leading man, Loy effortlessly demonstrated that she was his equal, an idea that will forever be reflected in her iconic partnership with William Powell.
This Thursday will mark the 24th anniversary of Ms. Loy’s passing, so to celebrate this magnificent woman, I thought I’d recommend six of her films that are not only my own personal favorites, but also good illustrations of what she had that continues to make audiences fall in love with her.
The Thin Man series: The Thin Man (1934), After the Thin Man (1936), Another Thin Man (1939), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), The Thin Man Goes Home (1945), Song of the Thin Man (1947)
This is cheating, I know, but I couldn’t resist. A lot of people will tell you that the first and second Thin Man films are the only truly good ones — I think that’s silly. I agree that those two are masterpieces, but I will never, never turn down spending two hours with Nick and Nora Charles. The charming Charleses did the radical thing of making marriage look like tons of fun as they solved murders, drank copious amounts of booze, and lovingly traded barbs.
It’s easy to see why these are the movies that cemented Loy and Powell as a team, and why they led to Loy being given the moniker “the perfect wife.” Nora isn’t the nagging wife stereotype, but rather something more realistic: a lively woman who adores her husband and has no problem forging her own identity. The chemistry between Loy and Powell is so intense, it makes you giddy just watching it. Ridiculously urbane, hysterically funny, and whip-smart, Loy and Powell were a match made in cinematic heaven, and The Thin Man films are a joyful expression of the unique, warm relationship the two friends had.
I Love You Again (1940)
I adore a good screwball comedy and this movie, the ninth of Powell and Loy’s fourteen collaborations, is one of the best. Powell plays Larry, an insufferable businessman who is returning from a trip by boat when he goes overboard and hits his head. Upon waking up, he realizes that he is actually George, a smooth con man who has had amnesia for the past decade! George is more than ready to go back to his old tricks and leave old Larry behind… until he meets Kay (Loy), Larry’s estranged wife.
He immediately becomes smitten and sets out to win her back, something that proves very confusing for Kay as she finds her husband a completely different man. I Love You Again isn’t just one amusing situation after the next — thanks to Loy and Powell, it has a sweet, romantic charm with more than one poignant moment as their characters deal with their crumbling marriage.
Third Finger, Left Hand (1940)
Loy made another winsome comedy in 1940, except this time her love interest was played by a mischievous Melvyn Douglas. Loy is a magazine editor who pretends to be married in order to fend off unwanted suitors and to help keep her job. (The last two female editors were fired because of the publisher’s jealous wife.) When she meets Douglas’s character, the two share a spark, but then he figures out the truth about Loy’s fictitious marriage. To mess with her, Douglas shows up at her family’s home and announces that he is Loy’s never-seen husband. Classic Hollywood comedies were often comprised of mistaken identity plots, but not everyone did them as exceptionally as Myrna and Melvyn.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Although I cherish Loy’s comedies, she starred in many fine dramas, such as Test Pilot (1938) with Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy and From the Terrace (1960) with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. However, there is one that stands out from the rest: The Best Years of Our Lives. This will probably cause a disagreement, but I’m just going to say it… it’s a perfect movie. William Wyler’s opus is heartbreaking in its honest portrayal of soldiers readjusting to life after WWII. Every scene packs some kind of a punch as you watch Dana Andrews, Harold Russell, and Fredric March come to terms with a world that no longer feels familiar to them.
As March’s wife, Loy is exquisite. Just look at her when March first returns home. They don’t even have to be in the same room for her to feel his presence. With sudden hope on her face, she rushes to the hallway. They lock eyes and slowly, wordlessly, they embrace. It’s just one example of the beautifully delicate work Loy could do.
Libeled Lady (1936)
Spencer Tracy is a newspaper editor who accidentally runs a false story about an heiress (Loy) breaking up a marriage. When threatened with a lawsuit, Tracy hires Bill Powell’s character, a kind of Mr. Fix-It whose employment comes from turning false stories like Loy’s into true ones. All Powell needs to do is get married, seduce Loy, and then have his wife publicly accuse her of stealing him, thus making the lawsuit disappear. Powell and Tracy’s first mistake is convincing Tracy’s perpetual fiancée, Jean Harlow, to marry Powell. Their second mistake is underestimating how sharp (and alluring) Loy is.
Libeled Lady is without a doubt one of the most splendid films ever made. It has a dazzling cast, a script so clever you can’t believe it, fast-paced direction, and plenty of other adjectives. It’s simply a wonderful comedy, a movie that we will sadly never see the likes of again.
The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer (1947)
Cary Grant and Myrna Loy made three films together, the final and most beloved one being Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948). While I do enjoy that one, I would have to say that I prefer The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer instead. At first glance, it sounds like an icky premise. A playboy artist is forced by a judge to play along with the teenage crush of the judge’s 17-year-old sister; comedy ensues. Thankfully, The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer is a delightful and hilarious film that is handled expertly by the likes of Grant (never more charming), Loy (gorgeously wry), Shirley Temple (doe-eyed perfection), and the Oscar-winning script of Sidney Sheldon (so much fun).
This film is all about giving the audience a good time, but it also doesn’t feel the need to constantly compromise its wit in favor for a cheap laugh. That can be rare when it comes to films with a teenage lead, which often seem to think that it has to connect to teens only and can’t offer anything for the adult audience. With Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, you get a sophisticated presence that can also handle the silliness with an enchanting grace.
For another appreciation of Ms. Loy, check out this great tribute Julianne Moore did for Turner Classic Movies some years ago:
The Best Years of Our Lives previously screened at the IU Cinema in 2013 as part of the Celebrating Hoagy Carmichael series. The Cinema also screens classic Hollywood films in the City Lights Film Series and Monday Matinee Classics Series.
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture, Michaela has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn.