In 1929, director John Ford said of Myrna Loy, 'Wouldn't you know, the kid they pick to play tramps is the only good girl in Hollywood.'
David Franklin Williams traveled through a train station named Myrna, and he liked the name so much he bestowed it on his daughter. Myrna Adele Williams was born Aug. 2, 1905 in Raidersburg, a town near Helena, Montana, which was also the home of Gary Cooper.
Mr. Williams was a banker and real estate developer, and the youngest man ever elected to the Montana state legislature. His creative wife Della Mae had studied at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. Growing up on a ranch amid the natural beauty of her surroundings, Myrna wanted to become a nun or a nurse. One day, she saw a production of The Blue Bird, and the show left such an impression on her that she decided instead that the theater was her future.
When David died of influenza in November of 1918, Della Mae moved her family to Culver City, Calif., where Myrna took ballet and music lessons. She attended Venice High School, and, years later when Myrna became a star, the school named their annual drama and speech awards 'Myrnas'
At 18, the pretty, dark-haired and green-eyed young girl was hired as a dancer at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Performing in a prologue before the showing of Cecil B. DeMille's silent version of The Ten Commandments, she suddenly developed an interest in film. Mrs. Rudolph Valentino noticed her dancing and, with her help, Myrna landed a small part in What Price Beauty, a film shot in 1925, and released three years later. Myrna tested for the role as the virgin in the silent version of Ben Hur (1925), but due to her unusual beauty she instead was cast as a mistress to a Roman senator. In roles to follow, she was generally chosen to play an exotic temptress, an Asian seductress, beautiful Spanish women, gypsies, slave girls, and mysterious spies. The following year she won a seven-year contract with Warner Brothers Studios.
When her reputation began gathering momentum, Myrna changed her last name to the Oriental-sounding Loy. Her first major role was in Across The Pacific (1927); her first speaking role was in State Street Sadie (1929), which was originally a silent movie but had sound and dialogue added when 'talkies' suddenly changed Hollywood. She was then appearing in an average of nine films per year.
The Wall Street crash of 1929 forced Warner Brothers to let her go in 1931, and for a while she worked freelance, but not for long. Later that year she was signed by the great MGM Studios, and Myrna's career became more illustrious than ever.
In 1932 Loy played the role of gorgeous, sadistic Fah Lo See, the daughter of the wicked Fu Manchu in the film The Mask of Fu Manchu. Of her role Loy said, 'Not only was I supposed to have a pet python, but I had my father's male victims turned over to me for torture, stripped: I then whipped them myself, uttering sadistic, gleeful cries.' The film made Loy famous. That same year she played a homicidal maniac killing off her friends in Thirteen Women.
Better film roles followed. In 1933 Myrna made Topaz with John Barrymore, and in 1934 she appeared with Clark Gable and William Powell in Manhattan Melodrama, a movie famous for being the last film seen by notorious criminal John Dillinger at Chicago's Biograph Theater before he was shot to death in the alley next door.
The chemistry seen on screen between Loy and Powell led them to being cast together as Nick and Nora Charles on The Thin Man (1934), a highly sophisticated, well-written comedy-crime drama in which the two stars made marriage glamorous with their unsentimental mutual love and admiration, all the while outbantering and outdrinking each other while solving a murder case. Highly likeable, tuxedo-clad, private detective Nick and his sensationally gowned wife Nora, rarely seen in a kitchen, lived in a gorgeous apartment along with their intelligent dog Asta. The pair also solved murder cases in five Thin Man sequels. In all, Loy and Powell made 14 films together. After 80 movies playing mostly bad girls, Loy was now 'the perfect wife.' 'Men Must Marry Myrna Loy' clubs were formed around the country.
In 1937, Myrna Loy and Clark Gable, in a poll conducted by radio star Ed Sullivan, were voted by 20 million of the nation's moviegoers as The King and Queen of Hollywood.
During World War II, Myrna worked full time for the Red Cross, and agreed to make only one film The Thin Man Goes Home (1944). In 1946 she made one of the best movies of her career, The Best Years of Our Lives, which won several academy awards including Best Picture. Myrna followed with hit movies that included The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), and Cheaper By The Dozen (1950).
Loy was a staunch Democrat, and this made her one of the first in line to be attacked in the Communist witch hunt, along with dozens of other Hollywood luminaries. Myrna and others responded by forming The Committee for the First Amendment. She defended herself successfully and in 1960 campaigned diligently for John Kennedy.
In 1963, Myrna went into live theater work, and made her Broadway debut in 1973 in a revival of The Women. Myrna's last film appearance was in The End (1978), with Burt Reynolds. Her final television movie was Summer Solstice (1981).
Other great films Myrna Loy appeared in are When Ladies Meet (1933) with Joan Crawford, Evelyn Prentice (1934), The Great Ziegfeld (1936) with William Powell, Wife Vs. Secretary (1936) with Jean Harlow, Test Pilot (1938) with Clark Gable, Love Crazy (1941), Belles On Their Toes (1952), Lonelyhearts (1959), From The Terrace (1960), Midnight Lace (1960) with Doris Day, and Airport '75 (1974).
In 1990, Myrna Loy was awarded an honorary Oscar. She died from surgical complications Dec. 14, 1993.
The Great Movie Stars, by David Shipman
The New York Times Directory of the Film
Myrna Loy Web sites
Steve Starr is the author of Picture PerfectArt Deco Photo Frames 1926-1946, published by Rizzoli International Publications. A designer and an artist, he is the owner of Steve Starr Studios, specializing in original Art Deco photo frames, jewelry, and furnishings, and celebrating its 36th anniversary in 2003.
Visit the studio at 2779 N. Lincoln Avenue in Chicago where adorning the walls is Steve Starr's personal collection of over 950 gorgeous frames filled with photos of Hollywood's most glamorous stars.
The STARRLIGHT column appears the first week of each month in the Windy City Times. Photo of Steve Starr July 25, 2002, by Albert Aguilar.