Myrna Loy (August 2, 1905 – December 14, 1993) was an American film, television and stage actress.
Trained as a dancer, Loy devoted herself fully to an acting career following a few minor roles in silent films. She was originally typecast in exotic roles, often as a vamp or a woman of Asian descent, but her career prospects improved greatly following her portrayal of Nora Charles in The Thin Man(1934).
Loy was born Myrna Adele Williams in Helena, Montana, to Adelle Mae (née Johnson) and rancher David Franklin Williams, in nearbyRadersburg. Her paternal grandparents were natives of Wales, and her maternal grandparents were Swedish and Scottish. Her first name came from a whistle stop near Broken Bow, Nebraska whose name her father liked. Her father was also a banker and real estate developer and the youngest man ever elected to the Montana state legislature. Her mother studied music at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago.
During the winter of 1912, Loy's mother nearly died from pneumonia, and her father sent his wife and daughter to La Jolla, California. Loy's mother saw great potential in Southern California, and during one of her husband's visits she encouraged him to purchase real estate there. Among the properties he bought was land he later sold at a considerable profit to Charlie Chaplin so the filmmaker could construct his studio there. Although Loy's mother tried to persuade her husband to move to California permanently, he preferred ranch life and the three eventually returned to Montana. Soon afterward, Loy's mother needed a hysterectomy and insisted Los Angeles was a safer place to have it done, so she, Loy, and Loy's brother David moved toOcean Park, where Loy began to take dancing lessons. After the family returned to Montana, Loy continued her dancing lessons, and at the age of 12, Myrna Williams made her stage debut performing a dance she had choreographed based on The Blue Bird from the Rose Dream Operetta at Helena's Marlow Theater.
Loy's father died on November 7, 1918, of Spanish influenza, and Loy's mother was finally able to realize her dream to permanently relocate her family to California, where they settled in Culver City. Loy attended the exclusive Westlake School for Girls in Holmby Hills and continued to study dance in Downtown Los Angeles. When her teachers objected to her participating in theatrical arts, her mother enrolled her in Venice High School, and at 15, she began appearing in local stage productions.
In 1921, Loy posed for Harry Winebrenner's statue titled "Spiritual," which remained in front of Venice High School throughout the 20th century and can be seen in the opening scenes of the 1978 film Grease. The statue was vandalized several times, and at one point was removed from display. However it has been recreated in bronze (the original was concrete with a coating of marble dust), and is on display again, surrounded by some thorny rosebushes to protect it.
Loy left school at the age of 18 to help with the family's finances. She obtained work at Grauman's Egyptian Theatre, where she performed in elaborate musical sequences that were related to and served as prologues for the feature film. During this period she saw Eleonora Duse in the play Thy Will Be Done, and the simple acting techniques she employed made such an impact on Loy she tried to emulate them throughout her career.
Loy in the 1926 film Across the Pacific
Portrait photographer Henry Waxman had taken several pictures of Loy, and they were noticed by Rudolph Valentino when the actor went to Waxman's studio for a sitting. He was looking for a leading lady for Cobra, the first independent project he and his wife Natacha Rambova were producing. She tested for the role, which went to Gertrude Olmstead instead, but soon after she was hired as an extra for Pretty Ladies, in which she and fellow newcomer Joan Crawford were among a bevy of chorus girls dangling from an elaborate chandelier.
Rambova recommended Loy for a small but showy role opposite Nita Naldi in What Price Beauty? Although the film remained unreleased for three years, stills of Loy in her exotic makeup and costume appeared in a fan magazine and led to a contract with Warner Bros., where her surname was changed to Loy.
Loy's silent film roles were mainly those of vamps or femme fatales, and she frequently portrayed characters of Asian or Eurasian background in films such asAcross the Pacific, A Girl in Every Port, The Crimson City, The Black Watch, and The Desert Song, which she later recalled "...kind of solidified my exotic non-American image." It took years for her to overcome this stereotype, and as late as 1932 she was cast as a villainous Eurasian half-breed in Thirteen Women. She also played a sadistic Chinese princess in The Mask of Fu Manchu, opposite Boris Karloff. Prior to that, she appeared in small roles in The Jazz Singer and a number of early lavish Technicolor musicals, including The Show of Shows, The Bride of the Regiment, and Under A Texas Moon. As a result, she became associated with musical roles, and when they began to lose favor with the public, her career went into a slump.
In 1934, Loy appeared in Manhattan Melodrama with Clark Gable and William Powell. When gangster John Dillinger was shot to death after leaving a screening of the film at the Biograph Theater in Chicago, the film received widespread publicity, with some newspapers reporting that Loy had been Dillinger's favorite actress.
Rise to stardom
After appearing with Ramón Novarro in The Barbarian, Loy was cast as Nora Charles in the 1934 film The Thin Man. Director W. S. Van Dyke chose Loy after he detected a wit and sense of humor that her previous films had not revealed. At a Hollywood party, he pushed her into a swimming pool to test her reaction, and felt that her aplomb in handling the situation was exactly what he envisioned for Nora. Louis B. Mayer at first refused to allow Loy to play the part because he felt she was a dramatic actress, but Van Dyke insisted. Mayer finally relented on the condition filming be completed within three weeks, as Loy was committed to start filmingStamboul Quest. The Thin Man became one of the year's biggest hits, and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Film. Loy received excellent reviews and was acclaimed for her comedic skills. She and her costar William Powell proved to be a popular screen couple and appeared in 14 films together, one of the most prolific pairings in Hollywood history. Loy later referred to The Thin Man as the film "that finally made me... after more than 80 films".
Her successes in Manhattan Melodrama and The Thin Man marked a turning point in her career and she was cast in more important pictures. Such films as Wife vs. Secretary (1936) with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow and Petticoat Fever (1936) with Robert Montgomery gave her opportunity to develop comedic skills. She made four films in close succession with William Powell: Libeled Lady (1936), which also starred Jean Harlow andSpencer Tracy, The Great Ziegfeld (1936), in which she played Billie Burke opposite Powell's Florenz Ziegfeld, the second "Thin Man" film, After the Thin Man with Powell and James Stewart, and the romantic comedy Double Wedding (1937). She also made three more films with Clark Gable. Parnell was a historical drama and one of the most poorly received film of either Loy's or Gable's careers, but their other pairings in Test Pilot and Too Hot to Handle (both 1938) were successes.
During this period, Loy was one of Hollywood's busiest and highest paid actresses, and in 1937 and 1938 she was listed in the annual "Quigley Poll of the Top Ten Money Making Stars", which was compiled from the votes of movie exhibitors throughout the U.S. for the stars that had generated the most revenue in their theaters over the previous year.
By this time Loy was highly regarded for her performances in romantic comedies and she was anxious to demonstrate her dramatic ability, and was cast in the lead female role in The Rains Came (1939) opposite Tyrone Power. She filmed Third Finger, Left Hand (1940) with Melvyn Douglas and appeared in I Love You Again (1940),Love Crazy (1941) and Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), all with William Powell.
With the outbreak of World War II, Loy all but abandoned her acting career to focus on the war effort and work closely with the Red Cross. She was so fiercely outspoken against Adolf Hitler that her name appeared on his blacklist. She helped run a Naval Auxiliary Canteen and toured frequently to raise funds.
She returned to films with The Thin Man Goes Home (1945). In 1946 she played the wife of returning serviceman Fredric March in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). In later years, she considered this her proudest acting achievement. Throughout her career, she championed the rights of black actors and characters to be depicted with dignity on film.
Loy was paired with Cary Grant in David O. Selznick's comedy film The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947). The film co-starred a teenage Shirley Temple. Following its success she appeared again with Grant in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), and with Clifton Webb in Cheaper by the Dozen (1950).
After 1950, Loy's film career continued sporadically. In 1952 she starred in the Cheaper by the Dozen sequel, Belles on Their Toes. In 1960, she appeared in Midnight Lace and From the Terrace, but was not in another film until 1969 in The April Fools. In 1965 Loy won the Sarah Siddons Award for her work in Chicago theatre.
In 1978 she appeared in the film The End as the mother of the main character played by Burt Reynolds. Her last motion picture performance was 1980 in Sidney Lumet's Just Tell Me What You Want. She also returned to the stage, making her Broadway debut in a short-lived 1973 revival of Clare Boothe Luce's The Women.
In 1981 she appeared in the television drama Summer Solstice which was Henry Fonda's last performance. Her last acting role was a guest spot on the sitcomLove, Sidney, in 1982.