Behind every 'Thin Man' was a talented woman RETROSPECTIVE

December 16, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Nobody could say "darling" like Myrna Loy, who died Tuesday at 88 after a long illness.

In the six "Thin Man" films that made her a star, Myrna Loy infused that word with such possibility that she seemed almost to invent a whole new language, rich in meaning and poetry, although it consisted of a single word.

"Darling," she'd say brusquely, eyebrows taut, lips pursed, meaning, "You idiot."

Or she'd say, "Darling," eyes merry, a single brow cocked, in a voice plummy with irony; she was saying, "It's so absurd."

Or, still again, "Darling," this time in a tone radiant with love, fixing her brilliant eyes on him in a gaze of adoration so intense it could melt Hershey Bars.

Or even, "Darling," arch and self-pleased, smugly self-assured, as if to say, "Aren't we amusing?"

And, of course, they were.

With her co-star William Powell as private detective Nick Charles, she was the ineffable Nora -- wife, confidant and co-conspirator and occasional antagonist. Invented by Dashiell Hammett as a kind of best-of-all-worlds fantasy version of himself and his close personal friend (and lover) Lillian Hellman, Nick and Nora moved suavely through a beautifully photographed black-and-white Manhattan, issuing bon mots as well as figuring out crimes. They just had a swell old time, usually with a glass of champagne or a cigarette in hand.

They were swank, casually beautiful, unself-conscious and very glamorous; they looked great in evening clothes; they helped invent a cosmopolitan style that lasts to this day. They were the jet set before jets were even invented. And there was one other thing often overlooked about them: She was every bit his equal.

This was an astonishment, though it was something their original director, W. S. VanDyne, must have instinctively understood when he insisted that MGM cast the young actress opposite the great star Powell in 1934.

Because of her sharp cheekbones and dark, powerful eyes, she had until then mainly been assigned Oriental vamp roles; these were the days when actual Asians were not allowed to play themselves. She had been discovered by Rudolf Valentino dancing in the chorus line at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles and even took the screen name "Loy," which sounded vaguely Asian -- certainly more so than the pedestrian "Williams" under which she was born -- as a way of playing up her look. She labored through the late days of the silents and the early days of sound, but she can't have loved it, being the daughter of a cowboy who'd grown up in Montana. She soldiered on through films such as "The Mask of Fu Manchu" and "Thirteen Women," until Van Dyke gave her the break of her career, over the objections of Louis B. Mayer, the patriarch who ran MGM.

Naturally, it was a smash.

It wasn't merely that the chemistry between Loy and Powell was so good, though it was. Part of it was the spontaneity of her presence. She was not stage trained, and so did not bring to the screen the baggage of an exaggerated range of gesture and expression. Part of it was the sheer accident of genetics: The camera loved the planes of her face and the size of her eyes.

And she made a uniquely perfect physical match with the urbane and handsome but not physically prepossessing Powell; both were small, with big heads and widely spaced, expressive eyes.

vTC But a great deal of it was sheer character, for the camera read in Loy that which was really there: her fundamental decency.

She was able to ride this persona in the late '30s to the point where she was voted the "Queen of Hollywood," opposite Clark Gable's "King." She also appeared with Gable in a variety of films, always holding her own with his raffish machismo. Besides the six "Thin Man" films, she made seven other films with Powell.

Like others of her time -- Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, Ginger Rogers -- she was doing spadework for a new definition of feminity: not a clinger or a cringer or a fainter, but a tough, smart, hard-charging personality who could give as well as take. Yet without surrendering her erotic charms.

But her grit was real, too, not just a conceit of the studio movie mills. For example, alone among the great female stars of the '40s, she gave up her career for four years to work for the Red Cross during World War II. Among the male stars, only Jimmy Stewart, who became a bomber pilot, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who became a naval officer, so willingly put country before career.

Thus, when she appeared in her third film after her return -- William Wyler's great "The Best Years of Our Lives" in 1946 -- her appearance carried with it a certain poignant irony. But that film also somewhat modified her image for all time.

No longer drop-dead beautiful, she went from perfect wife to perfect mother: her postwar persona was as a kind of sagacious, witty mother, a steadying influence on a perhaps-not-so-steady husband. Instead of saying "Darling," her new signature phrase became, "Oh, dear," as she responded to the adventures of a slightly dotty husband, as in "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" with Jimmy Stewart or "Cheaper By the Dozen" with Clifton Webb.

In her private life, she stayed active, too: She married four men, divorced them all, was a co-founder of one of the first anti-McCarthyism groups, and later was a U.S. representative to UNESCO in the '50s.

She finished her career as a TV character actress, modestly explaining that being an actress was more fun than being a star. She was given an honorary Oscar in 1991 to make up for the one she'd deserved but never won in the '30s and '40s.

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