For appreciative American audiences of the ’30s and ’40s, no Hollywood actor more personified the urbane and polished leading man who kept his insouciant wit as dry as his martinis. Born in Pittsburgh in 1892, William Horatio Powell shrugged off the legal career that his accountant father had planned for him and headed for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York upon his high school graduation. Powell would have to hustle through the teens, refining his skills through vaudeville and legitimate theater.
He was 30 when William Powell got his first screen opportunity in John Barrymore’s 1922 Sherlock Holmes, and would amass several dozen supporting credits for Paramount through the waning years of the silents. During this period, Powell was primarily relegated to playing the heavy; noteworthy is his turn as the arrogant director in von Sternberg’s The Last Command. His rich speaking voice insured his transition to the talkies, and he received his name-making opportunity as the sophisticated sleuth Philo Vance in three films for Paramount and Warners, culminating with The Kennel Murder Case, the most entertaining of the series.
In 1932, Powell starred with Kay Francis in one of his most popular vehicles, One Way Passage, and in 1933 he starred with Ann Harding in RKO’s Double Harness, before shifting to MGM in 1934. At that studio where he made his home as well as his biggest successes, he soon found himself in another crowd-pleasing mystery franchise. When the fortuitous pairing with Myrna Loy in the low-budget adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man became a huge hit, Powell and Loy’s palpable chemistry as the glamorous sleuthing marrieds Nick and Nora Charles inspired five sequels; the duo would co-star in 14 projects overall.
The Powell-Loy films were big money makers for MGM but more importantly, audiences fell in love with this dynamic duo. In the same year of their success in The Thin Man, they appeared with Clark Gable in Manhattan Melodrama, which became famous as the film that lured bank robbing criminal John Dillinger to his demise.
Other notables from his output in the ’30s include the screwball classic My Man Godfrey with ex-wife Carole Lombard, and the title role in the 1936 Best Picture Oscar winner, The Great Ziegfeld. Although he and Lombard divorced in 1933, they remained close friends until her untimely death in 1942.
Tragedy was no stranger to Powell, when at the top of his game, he met and starred with platinum blonde sensation Jean Harlow in Reckless (1935). Their relationship immediately clicked both on screen and off and the two became engaged. It’s been said that he bought a sapphire engagement ring for Harlow that weighed in at 150 carats, which at the time sold for $20,000. It was speculated that they didn’t marry according to the wishes of Louis B. Mayer, who thought it better if they remained single.
They worked together in Libeled Lady (1937) and when the film wrapped, they each moved on to their next projects. Powell had just finished a historical thriller with his former co-star Luise Rainer, The Emperor’s Candlesticks, and was in the midst of filming Double Wedding. Harlow became ill on another MGM soundstage filming Saratoga with Clark Gable and she was taken to the hospital, where she died at age 26.
Harlow’s mother wanted Powell to pay the expenses for Jean’s funeral, reported to be $30,000. At first, he refused to pay but always the gentleman, and trying to avoid negative publicity, he did so. After Harlow’s death, Powell had flowers delivered to her grave for many years.
Powell and his good friend Myrna Loy were devastated by Jean’s death; their film was shut down for six weeks so that Powell could come to terms with her passing. He traveled and couldn’t bring himself to go back to MGM for a year. When he returned to work, his streak of hit films continued into the ’40s with I Love You Again in 1940 and Love Crazy in ’41, both with Loy. In 1942, he paired with gorgeous Hedy Lamarr as husband and wife in Crossroads and again in 1943 in the comedy, The Heavenly Body. In 1945, he recreated his turn as Flo Ziegfeld, this time looking down to Earth from above, imagining what it would be like producing just one more show in the Technicolor hit, Ziegfeld Follies. Always dapper and trim, when asked about his fit appearance, he quipped, “I highly recommend worrying. It’s much more effective than dieting.”
By the late ’40s, Powell had left MGM to freelance, and continued to bring his fine touch to comic classics like Life With Father with Irene Dunne, The Senator Was Indiscreet and Mr. Peabody And The Mermaid.
After a short absence, he returned to Hollywood for a role in How To Marry A Millionaire and rendered a worthy capper to his fine career with his final film performance as Doc in Mister Roberts for director John Ford in 1955. William Powell continued to resist all efforts to coax him from a lengthy retirement and stayed away from the headlines until his passing in 1984 at age 91.
He summed it all up when he said, “My friends have stood by me marvelously in the ups and downs of my career. I don’t believe there is anything more worthwhile in life than friendship…”
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If you are a fan, let us know your favorite William Powell movie. It’s too difficult for us to choose just one.
And now, get a feel for the genius of William Powell in the trailer for 1937’s Libeled Lady: