Myrna Loy, born Myrna Adele Williams on August 2, 1905 in Helena, Montana, was only thirteen when her father died of influenza in 1918. Her family subsequently moved to Los Angeles and already learning to dance it wasn’t long before she also took up acting. In 1923 she started dancing at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre and after being noticed by Rudolph Valentino and his wife Natacha Rambova they helped her get her first role (albeit uncredited) in the 1925 film What Price Beauty? In the same year she appeared in Pretty Ladies along with Joan Crawford. She became one of the few stars who appeared in silent movies and make a successful transition into the sound era. Although in most of her early films she played what were called ‘exotic’ roles including Ham and Eggs at the Front (1927) where she literally blacked up. Her last role in this vein was when she played Fah Lo See in the Mask of Fu Manchu (1932). By this point she was more than fed up being typecast in these roles. The film critic Farran Smith Nehme wrote of when Loy initially read the script:
Immediately after Thirteen Women, Loy did The Mask of Fu Manchu, and found herself confronted with a script that asked her to whip a man “while uttering gleefully suggestive sounds.” She’d had it with this sort of stuff, and furthermore she’d been reading Freud and picked up a thing or two. She went to producer Hunt Stromberg and refused to film it: “I’ve done a lot of terrible things in films, but this girl’s a sadistic nymphomaniac.” Stromberg said, “What’s that?”, which lack of familiarity with less-conventional sexuality makes you wonder how Hunt Stromberg ever got anywhere as a Hollywood producer, but never mind. Loy replied, “Well, you better find out, because that’s what she is and I won’t play her that way.” Studio contracts being what they were, she did play her that way, but she succeeded in getting Stromberg to trim some excesses. “She wasn’t Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” said Miss Loy, “but, as I remember, she just watched while others did the whipping.”
Only two years later she was chosen to play along side William Powell in The Thin Man. Myrna Loy once said that “I never enjoyed my work more than when I worked with William Powell. He was a brilliant actor, a delightful companion, a great friend and, above all, a true gentleman.” Director W. S. Van Dyke chose Loy after he detected a wit and sense of humor at a Hollywood party that her previous films had not revealed. Although Louis B. Mayer initially thought her unsuitable, Van Dyke insisted and the film went on to become one of the year’s biggest hits – even nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Loy received excellent reviews and was acclaimed for her comedic skills. William Powell and Myrna Loy became one of Hollywood’s most popular screen couples and appeared in 14 films together. Loy later referred to The Thin Man as the film:
That finally made me … after more than 80 films.” . . . Nora had a gorgeous sense of humor; she appreciated the distinctive grace of her husband’s wit. She laughed . . . at him and with him when he was funny. What’s more, she laughed at herself. Besides having tolerance, she was a good guy. She was courageous and interested in living and she enjoyed doing all the things she did. You understand, she had a good time, always.
According to the film critic Philip French her greatest performance came in William Wyler’s The Best Years of our Lives (1946), about returning war veterans. Her scenes with husband Fredric March – putting him to bed after a drunken reunion, discussing the nature of what makes a marriage survive with their daughter – constitute a masterclass in screen acting.
During World War Two Loy raised millions of dollars in war bonds and worked tirelessly for the Red Cross. A friend of Eleanor Roosevelt she became active in liberal politics and an unabashed supporter of the Civil Rights Movement. She also spoke out against the House Un-American Activities Committee.
By the time Loy died in 1993, at the age of 88, and two years after being awarded an honorary Oscar she had appeared in an incredible 129 movies.