Tag Archives: myrna loy

The Activism of Myrna Loy

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In 1947, Myrna Loy sued the Hollywood Reporter for $1 million.

The charge was an accusation printed in the then right-wing paper that Loy was a Communist, an accusation fueled in part by the actress having been vocal and active in left-wing politics since the 1930s. In addition, Loy’s role in William Wyler’s 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives had implicated her in the United States’ growing anti-Communist fervor that was threatening livelihoods in Hollywood and beyond.

After Loy brought suit against the Hollywood Reporter, the paper was forced to print a retraction, but Loy didn’t stop there. She sent off a missive to the House Un-American Activities Committee, the governmental body investigating alleged Communist infiltration into the United States, that had subpoenaed many of her colleagues in the entertainment industry. The message read simply “I DARE YOU TO CALL ME TO TESTIFY.”

They didn’t dare, and Loy was left alone from then on.

Such was the dynamism of Myrna Loy. Born on August 2, 1905, from her earliest days in Radersburg, Montana where she was born Myrna Williams, she was surrounded by passionate left-wing personalities and progressive politics. After her mother moved the family to Los Angeles following the death of Myrna’s father, the young girl became involved in the film industry when Cecil B. DeMille found her dancing at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and cast her in a small role in The Ten Commandments. Her career was rocky at first, but by the late 1920s and with the help of a name change, Myrna Loy became an established star. As she became familiar with the Hollywood landscape, she noticed the inequality afforded to black actors in Hollywood, and began to advocate for their rights within the industry. At one point, she approached her bosses at MGM with the issue. “Why does every Negro in a film have to play a servant?” she asked. “How about just a black person walking up the steps of a courthouse with a briefcase?”

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An early portrait of Myrna Loy.

In 1932, Loy was active in the election campaign of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and remained a champion of his ABC programs throughout his presidency. Onscreen, she became known as the witty and intelligent Nora Charles in The Thin Man series and her screen image quickly became that of the “perfect wife.” But Loy never identified with that characterization and spent her time offscreen tirelessly advocating for the New Deal. She never personally met Roosevelt, something she deeply regretted, though she made many trips to the White House and developed a close and lasting friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt. In later life, faced with Reagan’s election and the undoing of much of Roosevelt’s legacy, she wrote in her autobiography, Being and Becoming: “Can you imagine how all of us who worked for years with Mrs. Roosevelt and her socialist programs feel now, to see them wiped off the map?”

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Later in life, with Eleanor Roosevelt.

Loy invoked the ire of Adolf Hitler by speaking out publicly against him in 1938, to the point that Hitler banned all her movies in Germany. Between 1941 and 1945, she worked full time for the Red Cross, entertained the troops, appeared at war bond rallies, and essentially retired from Hollywood. Loy only made one movie during the war period–The Thin Man Goes Home. She continued to work with the Roosevelts on reforms, and in 1945 Loy was invited to the meeting to ratify the United Nations Charter in San Francisco.

The following year was an important one for her–she went back to working regularly after her wartime hiatus and made The Best Years of Our Lives, considered to be one of the greatest films of the 1940s and also the impetus for the Hollywood Reporter to accuse her of communism. Managing to stave off those accusations, that same year, she was appointed to UNESCO, the United Nations department of culture, as the US ambassador. Over the next few years she became increasingly involved, attending conferences all over the world and representing UNESCO on official radio programs, then also signing on with the American Association for the United Nations where she spoke at conferences on behalf of women’s rights.

By the time the 1960s rolled around, Loy had been working with UNESCO for more than a decade. She had managed to balance her career in Hollywood with her political work, and begin a new chapter of her career on the stage while at the same time throwing her support behind Adlai Stevenson in his presidential campaigns. When Stevenson didn’t run in 1960, Loy worked hard to stump for Kennedy. During the Kennedy campaign, he invited her to be part of his Conference on Constitutional Rights and American Freedom, where she met Hubert Humphrey and immediately befriended him. After Kennedy’s election, her closeness with Humphrey led to Loy’s involvement with the National Council Against Discrimination in Housing, where she worked throughout the Civil Rights Movement.

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Being interviewed at the UN, 1950.

Loy made huge strides in the organization. She found that though President Kennedy had signed the Housing Act of 1961, “we had uncovered massive evidence that eighty percent of federally sponsored housing was operated on a segregated basis.” Though Kennedy was never able to fulfill the promises of the Housing Act, Loy’s work led directly to Lyndon B. Johnson addressing the matter in the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

Having finally seen some measure of success in the fight against housing discrimination, 1968 saw Loy back in Hollywood to make April Fools, and also to fight for Eugene McCarthy’s campaign. She was unable to make the Democratic National Convention because of work, but she had fought hard for his nomination, especially in Oregon. She wrote: “I flew into every nook and cranny of Oregon…I shared so many meals with so many civic groups and political organizations that Eleanor Roosevelt’s wistful complaint haunted me: ‘I get so tired of all those chicken dinners.’” When Humphrey, her old friend who had gotten her involved in the NCDH, got the nomination, she found herself campaigning for him too. Not only because she liked him as a person, but also because she was worried about “the attack by Nixon and the Republicans on the judiciary.”

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With Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

On the subject of the Vietnam War, Loy identified with the college students who protested against the war and considered herself to be getting “more radical” as she aged. She said that if work commitments with April Fools hadn’t prevented her from going to the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention, she surely would have been arrested along with the antiwar protesters outside.

As Loy reached her upper 70’s, she started to receive honors for her tremendous career onscreen. From time to time, reporters would also ask her about her political activities, and one such response from Loy in 1980 simply sums up Loy’s political philosophy: “Politics is part of my life…It’s everybody’s privilege to choose party, to be a part of government…and I’m seriously interested in solving our problems. Also, I believe in the U.N. It has seen some rough times, but it’s still surviving.”

Myrna Loy died at the age of 88 in 1993, but she was a political fighter to the end. As we live in these political tumultuous times, it is tempting to think what she would be doing today. We can be sure that she would be campaigning for the Democratic nominees, and vocally denouncing current White House policies on immigration and human rights. As an actress, she was among the best there was. But it was as an activist that Myrna Loy had her most lasting impact on the world, and I believe that it is as an activist she would like to be best remembered.

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At a UNESCO conference in Florence, Italy.

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Oscars Through the Years: Historic Winners and Oscar Overlooks

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Olivia de Havilland accepts her Best Actress Oscar for The Heiress (1949).

Tonight is Oscar night. As Los Angeles prepares for an evening of glamor, style, and nightmarish street closures (it once took me an hour to walk to the store one block away when I was in Hollywood on Oscar night), we look back on the films and performances that most moved us this year, and honor them with the industry’s highest award.

This year’s Oscar lineup has had its fair share of criticism, and a shakeup of Academy voting rules in the face of this criticism has further rocked the industry. This is a post all its own, and a very worthy topic for analysis on a classic film blog due to the members the new rules affect, but I would like to save that discussion for after the Oscars. Today, I would like to focus on celebrating the history of the awards, historic wins, historic snubs, and those for whom Oscar was always just out of reach.

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JANET GAYNOR: The first performer to win Best Actress

At the first Academy Award ceremony in 1929, held in the Blossom Room at the Roosevelt Hotel, Janet Gaynor was named the Academy’s first Best Actress for her work in three films–Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, Seventh Heaven, and Street Angel. The entire ceremony, hosted by Douglas Fairbanks, lasted for 15 minutes and all the awards had been announced ahead of time.

Here is Janet Gaynor in those three films.

 

Notice that this first Oscar ceremony came right on the cusp of sound technology. The Jazz Singer, the first film to have a synchronized dialogue track, was disqualified from the ceremony because the organizers felt that it was unfair to have sound films compete with silents.

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Historic win

HATTIE MCDANIEL: The first African-American to win an Oscar

For her performance as Mammy in Gone With the Wind (1939), Hattie McDaniel won the first Academy Award presented to an African-American performer. The aftermath of Gone With the Wind had not been easy for McDaniel. Jim Crow laws had been raging in the South for over 40 years, and Hattie McDaniel had suffered huge amounts of discrimination based around where and how she could travel with the film. She was unable to attend the gala premiere in Atlanta, and even at the Oscars ceremony where she was an odds-on favorite to win, she was unable to sit with the rest of her Gone With the Wind co-stars, instead having to walk from the back of the room to accept her award.

Hattie McDaniel’s legendary Oscar has since been lost. After her death, she willed the statue to Howard University, where it was rumored to have been stolen and thrown in the Potomac River during civil rights protests in the 1960s. But an investigation into its whereabouts gives more credence to the idea that inadequate intake procedures at the university during the time of its arrival was responsible for its being misplaced.

JOAN FONTAINE: Wins for Suspicion

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After having been defeated by Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle the previous year when she was nominated for Rebecca, Joan Fontaine ended up winning for Suspicion (1941) during the Academy Award ceremony in 1942. She was up against her sister, Olivia de Havilland, nominated for Hold Back the Dawn.

Fontaine’s win for Suspicion is historic in several ways. With her win, she became the sole person who has ever won an acting Oscar for a Hitchcock film. In addition, she and Olivia de Havilland are the only siblings who have ever won lead acting Oscars. Olivia won her first Oscar just a few years later, for To Each His Own, and a second three years later for The Heiress.

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Olivia de Havilland hugs sister Joan Fontaine on Oscar night when Joan won for Suspicion.

Oscar Overlooks

BARBARA STANWYCK

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Though nominated four times for the Academy Award, Barbara Stanwyck never won a competitive Oscar. One of the most chameleonic actresses on the screen, her nominations reflected her versatility and range, but each time she lost out to another actress. Here are some clips from each of Barbara Stanwyck’s nominated performances, along with the winning performances.

1937: Barbara Stanwyck nominated for Stella Dallas

LOST TO: Luise Rainer, The Good Earth

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1941: Barbara Stanwyck nominated for Ball of Fire

LOST TO: Joan Fontaine, Suspicion

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1944: Barbara Stanwyck nominated for Double Indemnity

LOST TO: Ingrid Bergman, Gaslight

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1948: Barbara Stanwyck nominated for Sorry Wrong Number

LOST TO: Jane Wyman, Johnny Belinda

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Finally, in 1982, she got her due.

MYRNA LOY

While Stanwyck was at least given the honor of being nominated, the great Myrna Loy never even received a nomination. It is considered one of the Academy’s greatest oversights, considering Myrna Loy’s long and illustrious career, and especially her role in the huge Oscar winner The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946, and her much-beloved portrayal of Nora Charles in The Thin Man.

The Academy finally gave Myrna an honorary award, at least 70 years late, which she accepted with a simple “You’ve made me very happy. Thank you very much.”

Thanks for reading, and be sure to watch the Oscars this evening at 5 PM Pacific time! And if you’re in Los Angeles, stay off those roads.

 

FASCINATING PEOPLE: Professor Alan Greenberg

A portion of an interview with Claudette Colbert, conducted by Professor Alan Greenberg.

Having had the enviable privilege of getting to know some of the biggest stars of classic Hollywood and possessing hundreds of hours of interviews that he conducted with such luminaries as Barbara Stanwyck, Claudette Colbert, Jack Lemmon, Lillian Gish, and Greer Garson, Professor Alan Greenberg is perhaps one of the greatest sources of classic film information around. During his time as leader of a community service program in San Diego focusing on teaching foreign students about American culture, Professor Greenberg was able to conduct lengthy interviews with the legendary stars and directors of classic Hollywood, recording on tape these rare and intimate glimpses into their lives and careers.

Gregory Peck on Alfred Hitchcock.

Professor Greenberg has a very interesting background. Upon a move to La Quinta, CA that would ultimately prove to be quite fortuitous, he found himself living in the same city as the legendary director Frank Capra who had recently published an autobiography. Always interested in the films of the 1930s and 1940s, Greenberg took it upon himself to write Capra a letter to ask if they might be able to meet. He agreed, and this was the beginning of a long friendship that also gave Greenberg the opportunity to meet some of Capra’s friends who, of course, were often giant figures in classic Hollywood. This ultimately led to a huge network of prominent friends who were always glad to help out when Greenberg’s students at Orco Development, the community service program he established in the 1980s, had a research need. In the following Q&A, Greenberg discusses Orco Development more in detail and gives you more information on what it is all about.

I became acquainted with Professor Greenberg a few weeks ago and found his story so fascinating that I asked if he would like to do a Q&A on the blog so that my readers could become introduced to him and his work. I was thrilled when he agreed. So please enjoy this Q&A that I conducted with Professor Alan Greenberg, friend to the stars!

You have had the great privilege to interview some of the most well-known, best-loved, and highly respected people in classic Hollywood. Tell our readers a bit about your background, and how you came to befriend so many of these veritable Hollywood legends.

A couple things in my background prepared me for interviewing and sharing adventures with some of the great legends from the Golden Age of Hollywood. I was always attracted to programs like Edward R. Murrow’s Person To Person and other interview shows where Murrow would talk to Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, etc. about their backgrounds and careers while being taken on a tour of their homes. This fascinated me, the ability to go to their house and talk to them about their work and lives. Secondly, I was bullied a great deal in high school due to a bad case of acne. Looking for a solution, I noticed an ad in the paper talking about boxing lessons at a gym in downtown Manhattan. Of all things, the instructor that day was the 5 time former middleweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson. He was having financial difficulties at the time, and wanted to make some money while helping young people. He became a friend and mentor to me over time and this experience taught me how to become comfortable talking to my heroes from an early age. Also, many people I interviewed over the years were fans of boxing including Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, and the actress/director Ida Lupino. Ms. Lupino was a boxing enthusiast and you can see a picture of her, Sugar Ray Robinson, and myself taken during dinner in the gallery of my website.

I also had become friends with the late director Frank Capra after moving to California in the 1970’s. He was retired at the time and was impressed with my knowledge of his career. At one point he told me “You know more about me than I do”. One day we were having lunch at a restaurant, when a group of Japanese students asked if he was in fact the director Frank Capra. He said yes and we all had a friendly conversation about American film and American history. After the conversation was over, Capra and I realized the student’s knowledge of American film and history was lacking. This bothered Capra in particular because he had directed a series of documentaries called Why We Fight which explained America’s involvement in WWII. He and I eventually came up with the idea of creating a Community Service Program called Orco Development, the purpose of which was educating foreign-born students about American film, politics, and the military. I suggested it would be more engaging for the students if we spoke to the people involved in what we were studying. Capra used his vast connections in Hollywood to get subjects who I would then interview and eventually get to know on a personal level. So it was really Capra’s reputation and mentoring that allowed me to befriend all these Hollywood legends, there was nothing special about me that attracted them to the course, other than the depth of knowledge I had about their work.

Professor Greenberg with his friend, director Frank Capra.

Professor Greenberg with his friend, director Frank Capra.

Who was your first interviewee, and how did that experience prepare you for the many dozens more of these interviews you would go on to complete?

Although I met a number of famous people before getting to know Frank Capra, I would say he probably is the first formal interview I did. Fortunately when I contacted him and he wrote me back, he gave me 3 weeks time before we could actually meet. I had a copy of his autobiography The Name Above The Title which I read it in total and made numerous notes on index cards preparing for it. I then sat down and began to memorize my questions. When I arrived at his home in La Quinta I just had one index card with a keyword from each topic. He was so impressed with this breadth of knowledge on his life and career that it initiated this friendship. I think it also flattered him that someone so young would be interested in someone 50 years older.

I learned that one way to impress these people and get to know them personally was to do this kind of thing. Also I learned about eye contact, the worst thing you can do is sit there with your subject and have your eyes dart back and forth between them and your notes, studying the questions. It says you didn’t prepare. This experience taught me to be overly prepared and in some cases it can really impress people. Afterward Capra and I began speaking every weekend for 2 years and he basically schooled me in classic movies. He was one of the top 5 directors of all time and he was my mentor. So that was quite an experience.

Your prior knowledge coming into these interviews is vast. I recall one interview in which you provide your subject with the name of Melvyn Douglas’ wife with barely a pause. Were you a classic film fan before your association with these figures?

I would say I was a classic film fan but on a very superficial level. My good friend and fraternity brother Philip Wuntch, who was the former film critic for the Dallas Morning News and author of Marty Jurow Seein’ Stars, had a much deeper appreciation for classic films than I did before I was mentored by Mr. Capra. So I did enjoy the movies before, but it was the interaction with these people, getting to know them, that made me enjoy classic films on a new level.

Of all the Hollywood people you came to know, who left the biggest impression on you, and why?
I think the person who left the biggest impression on me was Burt Lancaster. He was exactly as energetic and charismatic in real life as he was on film. But that’s not what impressed me the most about him. One day he called me up and asked me if I knew anything about Cesar Chavez and the work he was doing with the farm workers. I said I only knew about it from reading stories in the newspaper. He then invited me up for the day to check out Chavez’s operation and see the kind of struggles they were going through. Burt’s personality was as big as they come, but when we went up to see Chavez and the farm workers he was as respectful, polite, and attentive as anyone I’d ever seen. He completely put his ego aside to listen to everyone he came into contact with. Not that Burt had ever been dismissive with people before, but most of the time his personality could really take over the room. Not in this case. That showed me how much he really cared about the issues that were important to him. There were no camera crews, no reporters, just two guys trying to understand the lives of people that were fighting for their rights.
What was the most memorable moment to come out of the interviews you conducted with the Hollywood stars?
When you’ve done literally hundreds of interviews, many moments stay with you over the years. I think one your readers might enjoy hearing is the interview I did with Myrna Loy. For those who don’t know, Myrna Loy was one of the most popular stars of the 1930’s with movies like The Thin Man , Manhattan Melodrama, and The Best Years Of Our Lives which incidentally, Capra once told me was the perfect movie in his opinion. She had starred with just about every leading man in Hollywood, and could do comedy as well as drama. I think on a list of the most popular classic film actresses, she could definitely make the top 10 along with Hepburn, Stanwyck, Davis, etc. With that in mind, she proceeded to tell me that she had made it as an actress, “in a very small way” and when I responded to her that she was in fact one of the most popular screen actresses of all time she said, “Good God I don’t believe that, but then that’s alright. I was just a little punk girl trying to be a movie star, there were a lot of us around”. When I asked her if she got a lot of fan mail she replied, “Oh I got hardly any at all, they didn’t even know who I was”. She absolutely refused to see herself as a big star, and she had this attitude every time we spoke, it wasn’t false modesty. She felt she was a good actress, but when it came to stardom, she not only wouldn’t acknowledge it, she honestly didn’t believe she was popular at all. I was very surprised given all the incredible films I had seen her in.
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You have had a truly fascinating career, and possess hundreds of hours of audio recordings from some of the most popular figures in the Golden Age of Hollywood, something unique indeed. Do you have any plans to write a book or put together a project related to your experiences interviewing these stars and directors?

I was very encouraged by the response I’ve been receiving from my website. For example we recently put a portion of my interview with Barbara Stanwyck on YouTube, and I think within a few days we had almost 500 people listen to it and many of them left comments, begging to hear the whole interview.

A portion of an interview that Professor Greenberg conducted with Barbara Stanwyck, in which she discusses her directors and her love of her older sister.

So I’d like to begin some speaking engagements, talking about these unique experiences because there is clearly an interest. Turner Classic Movies has millions of viewers and whenever Robert Osborne gives the background to a picture before they play it, I’ve been told it’s enthusiastically received. One thing that I think sets my interviews apart from the usual Hollywood interviews is these stars were much more candid with me, knowing I had no intention to gossip about them or pass the info on to the media, or take their words out of context. We had an understanding between us and I was sincere in my curiosity about them.

As far as a book is concerned, I’ve been approached by publishers in the past, but to be frank, they asked me if these famous people had revealed any personal sexual details about their lives. I was disheartened by this and the publishers told me the book wouldn’t sell well without these details. That certainly wasn’t the path I wanted to go down so I politely refused and put the idea of a book behind me.

Where can readers learn more about you, and follow any project you may be working on?

People can find out more about me and the program utilizing our website: www.orcodevelopment.org and also keep an eye out for my lectures where I reminisce, tell anecdotes, play interviews and show pictures of my friends Jack Lemmon, Burt Lancaster, Claudette Colbert, Katharine Hepburn, James Cagney, Barbara Stanwyck, Jimmy Stewart and more. You can find most of them in the gallery section of our website with me during the 25 or so years I taught this course. I have some personal and never before heard stories about my friendship with these venerated actors. If any colleges, senior centers, organizations, etc. would like to contact me. They can do so through phone or email and I’ll be happy to reply.

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Thank you so much to Professor Greenberg for this marvelous Q&A. See you next time!

Backlots to Cover Warner Bros. VIP Studio Tour

As I write to you, dear readers, I am on Highway 5 heading from my home in Oakland down to Los Angeles. The purpose of my visit, this time, is to blog for the Warner Bros. 90th Anniversary VIP tour which is happening tomorrow. I was invited along with several other classic film bloggers to be among 10 featured writers on the tour.

A brief history of the company: Warner Bros. was founded by four brothers, Albert, Sam, Harry and Jack Warner who had been collecting and distributing films for many years, in 1923. It remained a fledgling studio until Warner Bros. had the foresight to see that the future of movies was based in sound. In 1927, the studio released The Jazz Singer and Warner Bros. became a household name.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Warner Bros. had under contract some of the most gifted and eminent stars in the business. Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Errol Flynn, Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, and directors such as Michael Curtiz, Busby Berkeley, Mervyn LeRoy and William Wellman all called Warner Bros. home at seminal points in their careers. Such diverse films as The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, A Star is Born, My Fair Lady, Cool Hand Luke, and The Exorcist were all shot at Warner Bros., securing the studio a reputation for staggering versatility.

Today, Warner Bros. is known and appreciated by classic film fans for the incredibly vast library of films available in the Warner Archive. Previously unreleased or rare films get a new audience with the Warner Archive Collection, and it has proven to be a very valuable resource to those researching classic film. It recently procured a license to release Paramount pictures under the Warner name, so the releases from the Warner Archive will continue to grow exponentially as time goes on.

The Warner Archive release of Thirteen Women.

In recent times, many high profile television shows have been shot at the studio, and on the tour I expect to see the sets of modern television shows like ER and Friends, both shot at Warner Bros. in the 1990s. I will be taking pictures and live-tweeting, and at the end of the day I will make a blog post here about my experience and some information about the Warner Bros. tours themselves, should you want to go on one.

See you soon!

THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936): A Fitting Epic

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

Between the years 1907 and 1931, the Ziegfeld Follies were the toast of New York. The lavish entertainment spectacle that featured beautiful girls in beautiful gowns was wildly popular among New York’s high society, as was its creator, Florenz Ziegfeld, whose life was as decadent as his shows.

How fitting that in 1936, at the height of the Great Depression, Metro-Goldwyn Mayer (known for removing its audience from their current financial woes with its own lavish musical productions) decided to create a large-scale biopic about the lavish and luxurious life of Florenz Ziegfeld. The 3-hour exploration of Ziegfeld’s loves and losses simultaneously reminds viewers of what life was like when people had money to spare, and acknowledges the problems of the present. Several former Ziegfeld performers appear as themselves in the film, notably Ray Bolger and the legendary Fanny Brice (from whom we hear a few measures of her signature song, “My Man,” but the camera cuts away and the rest of the song is lost. A disappointing cinematic choice, in my opinion!) A reminder that Florenz Ziegfeld was essentially left for broke when the stock market crashed in 1929 resonated with audiences in 1936, still reeling from the stock market crash 7 years prior, as well as audiences of the present day. Ultimately we are reminded that our luxuries are temporary, and that we should not take anything for granted.

William Powell and Luise Rainer as Florenz Ziegfeld and Anna Held.

The story hinges mostly on Ziegfeld’s common law marriage to Anna Held, a Polish-French stage performer, portrayed in the film by Luise Rainer. Ziegfeld (William Powell) is painted as a perpetual ladies’ man, and his line of work certainly doesn’t curtail his propensity for chasing women. Anna tolerates it to a point, but when Ziegfeld is seen kissing a drunk chorus girl, she leaves. Despite his indiscretions, the film makes it clear that she still loves him. Ziegfeld subsequently becomes involved with Billie Burke (Myrna Loy) and when he marries her, Anna is heartbroken.

Luise Rainer won the 1936 Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Anna, and it is widely said that her scene congratulating Ziegfeld on the telephone was what secured the award for her. Though it is a brilliant and beautiful scene with magnificent acting by Rainer, for me it is the few seconds just before she gets on the phone that stand out as the most emotional moment of the film. The character is miserable, anxious, and shaky, and the emotion exuded by Rainer is raw and shockingly real.

Ziegfeld’s romance and marriage Billie Burke is the most celebrated of all Ziegfeld’s exploits, but gets the least amount of attention in the film. The character of Billie Burke doesn’t come in until 2 hours into the movie, and the exploration of Burke and Ziegfeld gets about half an hour of screen time. The birth of their child is completely glossed over (suddenly the audience is confronted with a 4-year-old child who was never mentioned previously, and is left to the task of deducing that this is the child of Burke and Ziegfeld), and it seems that Metro was in a hurry to get this expensive picture wrapped at the expense of the continuity of the plot.

Nonetheless, the last few minutes of the film, depicting Ziegfeld in the throes of bankruptcy and severely ill, is full of poignancy and in itself a representation of the American identity in the 1930’s. Ziegfeld himself, in many ways, represented the 1920’s. Extravagant, joyous, devil-may-care, his attitude was reflected in the overarching sentiment of the country. The stock market crash ruined Ziegfeld just as it ruined the spirit of the 1920’s, and the vision of this symbol of extravagance and luxury lying on his deathbed is one that holds a double meaning for audiences. The film ends as Ziegfeld has a vision of his Follies for one last time–before the flower he is holding drops to the ground.

The film is extremely long, but doesn’t particularly feel that way until the plot begins to speed about 45 minutes before the film’s end. Beautiful performances all around, and I feel that Myrna Loy’s portrayal of Billie Burke could have been a lot more exposed had the studio taken the time to expand the end of the film a bit. Myrna Loy’s high, sweet voice with just a hint of the flitty quality to it that defined Billie Burke’s, it is clear to me why they chose Myrna for the role.

The year after her Academy Award win for The Great Ziegfeld, Luise Rainer starred in The Good Earth with Paul Muni, for which she was nominated for another Academy Award…and won again. This gives her the distinction of being the first person ever to win 2 consecutive Academy Awards. The feat is matched by only 3 other people in history: Spencer Tracy (Captains Courageous, Boys Town) Katharine Hepburn (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Lion in Winter), and Tom Hanks (Philadelphia, Forrest Gump). Rainer later remarked “It was the worst thing to ever happen to me!” Indeed, Rainer worked very little after her Oscar wins due to her refusal to be typecast, and left Hollywood in 1938
to work on the stage. She retired to London, England, where she still lives, having recently celebrated her 103rd birthday. She lives a semi-quiet retired life, but made an appearance at the first annual TCM Classic Film Festival, on the occasion of her 100th birthday.

Here are some pictures of the real Florenz Ziegfeld, Billie Burke and Anna Held. See you next time!

Anna Held.

Ziegfeld with Billie Burke

The real Billie Burke with Myrna Loy.

Summer Under the Stars Blogathon: “Libeled Lady” (1936)

For my first installment to the Summer Under the Stars blogathon, I have the pleasure of reviewing a truly delightful comedy by the name of Libeled Lady. The 5th of the 14 movies movies that teamed William Powell and Myrna Loy, the two possessed all the wit and charm in this movie that they are so widely known for. Add to that the talents of Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow, and you have yourself a real peach of a movie.

The story deals with a wealthy woman, Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy) suing for libel after a newspaper article accuses her of breaking up a marriage. In order to counter the suit, the newspaper company hatches an elaborate scheme to make the story true–hiring a notorious ladies’ man by the name of Bill Chandler (William Powell) to woo her and eventually be caught alone with her when his wife walks in. The plan is complicated when the two actually fall in love.

The situation with the wife is a prominent and amusing supporting story. Played by the lovely Jean Harlow, the character of Gladys is the long-suffering fiancé of Warren Haggerty, the managing editor of the newspaper being sued for libel. When the idea is developed and it comes to light that Bill Chandler is not actually married, Warren volunteers Gladys to be the pretend wife for the scheme. Some of the funniest scenes are those in which William Powell and Jean Harlow pretend to be a devoted married couple when there are people around, and as soon as they leave, they are at each other’s throats. William Powell and Jean Harlow were very well matched onscreen, and their good friendship turned to romance in real life. The two became engaged in 1935, and dated for 2 years, despite Powell’s doubts about marrying another blonde movie star after his divorce from Carole Lombard a few years earlier. When Jean Harlow fell ill on the set of Saratoga, it was William Powell who left the set of his own movie in order to take her home. I think had Jean Harlow lived longer, she and William Powell would have become as beloved a screen pairing as Powell and Myrna Loy. However, it is hard to speculate about this, as Jean Harlow died during the filming of Saratoga at the peak of her career in 1937. She was only 26.

One of my favorite scenes is one in which Bill Chandler, pretending to be an expert fisherman in order to get on the good side of Connie’s fisherman father, actually finds himself having to go fishing. Watch what happens:

This is a truly hilarious movie, and if you haven’t seen it yet, you’ll be in for a treat.

Stay tuned for more posts during the month of August dedicated to TCM’s Summer Under the Stars programming!

Thirteen Women (1932)

This movie came to me by way of Marya over at Cinema Fanatic. While in line for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, we began to talk about Myrna Loy and it came out that I had never seen Thirteen Women. Marya had just gotten a copy from the Warner Archives, and brought it the next day for me to watch. I did so enthusiastically, and I will profile the movie here, along with some interesting facts and pieces of trivia.

Thirteen Women, a chilling tale of horoscopes and fate, is a very interesting film in a number of ways. First, it is one of the first female ensemble films to come out of Hollywood–7 years before the ultimate female ensemble film, The Women, Thirteen Women concerns itself with a woman by the name of Ursula Georgi, the assistant of a prominent “swami” (horoscope reader), who is bent on revenge against the women who bullied her throughout her school years due to her mixed-race heritage. As Ursula sends simple letters to these women predicting their deaths, their lives unravel, and they almost invariably meet the same grisly end predicted in the letters. It is unclear whether the effect is physical (does Ursula really have magical powers?) or psychological (her letters use the “power of suggestion” to make things happen), but whatever it is, every look that Ursula gives–through Myrna Loy’s mysterious and ethereal eyes–is deadly.

Unlike The Women, there are plenty of men IN this picture, but the focus, similarly, is all on the women and their interactions with each other. A bit of trivia on this movie–one of the lead women in the ensemble is Peg Entwistle, in her only film appearance before her much-sensationalized suicide, jumping off the Hollywoodland sign at the age of 24 in 1932, weeks before this film’s release.

When you watch this movie, keep a good eye on Myrna Loy (as though I need to be saying that, it’s an effort to look at anybody ELSE when she is onscreen!) At the beginning of Myrna Loy’s career, she was most often cast as Asian stereotypes or other exotic characters, and as her career began to take off in the early-mid 1930’s with the Thin Man series, she all too readily abandoned those roles (Myrna was known for loathing prejudice of any kind, and she often looked back at her early roles with regret and disappointment for having played them) and developed a new typecast–that of the loyal but witty and independent housewife, as popularized in The Thin Man. She hardly needed to display her flair for drama, the public was in love with her no matter what. However, in this role, take a good look at just how skilled she is. Watch her cold expression as she signs the letter in this clip:

For those of us who are used to her as Nora Charles, this character comes as quite a shock.

I enjoyed this movie immensely. As a Myrna Loy devotee, it was a movie I needed to see, and I’m glad I did.

Thanks for reading!