For appreciative American audiences of the 1930s and ’40s, no Hollywood actor more personified the urbane and polished leading man than William Powell, whose characters always kept their insouciant wit as dry as their martinis. Born in Pittsburgh in 1892, William Horatio Powell moved with his family to Kansas City, Missouri as a teen (he was a classmate of baseball icon Casey Stengel and lived in the same neighborhood as Jean Harlow’s family, although the two never met until their Hollywood days). Shrugging off the legal career that his accountant father had planned for him, William 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 Powell received 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 are his turns as the arrogant director in von Sternberg’s The Last Command and a fake doctor in the comedy Feel My Pulse, both from 1928. His rich speaking voice insured his transition to the talkies, and he received his name-making opportunity as S.S. Van Dine’s stylish sleuth Philo Vance in five films for Paramount and Warner Bros., culminating with 1933’s The Kennel Murder Case, the most entertaining of the series.
From 1930 to 1932, Powell was paired six times at Paramount and Warners with leading lady Kay Francis, including such films as For the Defense (where he was a slick criminal lawyer), One Way Passage (as a condemned prisoner) and Jewel Robbery (as a gentleman thief), and the following year he co-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.
The fortuitous pairing with Myrna Loy in the low-budget ’34 adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man lead to the first of William’s three Best Actor Oscar nominations (he never won). Powell and Loy’s palpable chemistry as the glamorous sleuthing marrieds Nick and Nora Charles, however, was a hit with audiences and 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 mid-’30s include the whodunit Star of Midnight (1935); The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936) with Jean Arthur; the title role in the 1936 Best Picture Oscar-winner, The Great Ziegfeld, and the screwball classic My Man Godfrey (also ’36) with ex-wife Carole Lombard. Although the couple divorced in 1933 after a two-year marriage, they remained close friends until Lombard’s 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 1935’s Reckless. 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 and at the time sold for $20,000, and the speculation is that they didn’t wed due to the wishes of MGM chief Louis B. Mayer, who thought it better if they remained single.
The pair worked together again in the lively farce 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 Great Ziegfeld co-star Luise Rainer, The Emperor’s Candlesticks, and was in the midst of filming Double Wedding opposite Loy. Harlow became ill on another MGM soundstage filming Saratoga with Gable when 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 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. Around the same time, the actor was diagnosed with colorectal cancer and underwent a successful experimental treatment with radium. These dual crises kept him away from the studio for a year. When he returned to work, his streak of hit films continued into the 1940s, starting 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 the following year in the astrological comedy The Heavenly Body. 1945 saw him reprise his turn as Flo Ziegfeld, this time looking down to Earth from Heaven and imagining what it would be like producing just one more show, in the Technicolor hit Ziegfeld Follies.
By the late ’40s, Powell had left MGM to freelance, and continued to bring his fine touch to comic classics like Life with Father (1947), which brought him his third Oscar nomination, with Irene Dunne; the political satire The Senator Was Indiscreet (also ’47); and the 1948 aquatic romp Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid. Always dapper and trim, when asked about his fit appearance, he once quipped, “I highly recommend worrying. It’s much more effective than dieting.”
After a short absence, he returned to Hollywood for a key role in 1953’s 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. Living a quiet retirement with his third wife, actress Diana Lewis, Powell adamantly resisted all efforts to coax him back onto the screen 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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