Posted by Susan Doll on July 29, 2013
To look at a photo of William Powell is to gaze upon a man with narrow shoulders, a lean physique, heavily lidded eyes, a large nose, and a weak chin. Like other male movie stars from the Golden Age, including Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, Van Heflin, and Fred Astaire, Powell is attractive despite his looks, not because of them. It is his cultivated charisma and his star image as an urbane gentleman that makes him a larger-than-life figure who exudes romance with a capital “R.” His cool sophistication and elegant courtliness are as appealing today as they were during the Golden Age, while his keen sense of humor prevents his characters from becoming too fussy or pompous. The Powell persona was introduced in his second talking film, The Canary Murder Case in which he played the dilettante detective Philo Vance. His smooth, cultured voice proved perfect for sound films and liberated him from a succession of villainous roles he had played in the silent era. Today, William Powell’s birthday affords me an opportunity to talk about one of my favorite Golden Age actors.
William Powell is best remembered for sharing the screen with Myrna Loy in the Thin Man series. In 1934, when the actor was 41 years old, the original Thin Man was released to great popularity, resurrecting Powell’s stagnant career. To take advantage of the Powell-Loy chemistry, the studio paired them for 12 more films, prompting some fans to believe they were a real-life couple. In 1936, while shooting exteriors for After the Thin Man in San Francisco, the hotel manager of the Fairmont booked them into the same suite because he assumed they were married.
The love of Nick Charles’s life may have been Nora, but the great love of William Powell’s life was Jean Harlow. An aura of fatalism surrounds many of the stories about Harlow and Powell as though they were meant to fall in love and yet destined for tragedy. Powell was born in Pittsburgh in 1892, and his family moved to Kansas City, Kansas, in 1907. Four years later, Harlow was born Harlean Harlow Carpenter in KC, growing up just a few blocks from the Powells. The twice-divorced Powell met the Blonde Bombshell around Hollywood circles during the early 1930s, but it was a chance visit by Harlow to the set of Manhattan Melodrama to visit Clark Gable in 1934 that ignited a spark between the two.
At the time, Harlow’s marriage to cinematographer Hal Rosson was on the verge of collapse, while Powell’s two-year marriage to Carole Lombard had ended in 1933. However, their path together would be a rocky one from the beginning. Rosson contracted polio, and Harlow remained in the marriage while he recuperated. The studio did not want her to visit Rosson for fear she would contract the disease, so she phoned him daily for moral support, while her mother, a devout Christian Scientist, stood on Rosson’s porch and read passages to him from Mary Baker Eddy’s inspirational book. Harlow’s mother, who was known as Mother Jean, was a controlling woman with a flair for drama who did not allow others to get too close to her Baby, as Harlow was dubbed by her family.
During the 1930s, Powell not only starred opposite some of Hollywood’s most glamorous leading ladies, but he appeared with several of them on multiple occasions. He costarred three times with Luise Rainer, Carole Lombard, and Rosalind Russell, six times with Kay Francis, and four times with Jean Arthur. Surprisingly, he appeared only twice with Jean Harlow—in Reckless (1935) and Libeled Lady (1936).
Harlow and Powell became a couple in 1934, prompting MGM to assign them to Reckless to take advantage of their chemistry. Harlow hated the film from the beginning and balked at appearing in it. The storyline was taken from the life of singer Libby Holman, who had married the heir to the Reynolds tobacco fortune. When Zachary Smith Reynolds II committed suicide, rumors swirled that Holman was somehow responsible for his unhappiness. Originally titled A Woman Called Cheap, Reckless features Harlow as singer Mona Leslie, who is managed by promoter Ned Riley. Riley, played by Powell, carries a torch for Mona, who instead elopes with wealthy wastrel Bob Harrison, played by Franchot Tone. Harrison quickly regrets his decision to wed so hastily, partly because his father dislikes the low-brow torch singer and partly because he jilted his fiancée, Jo. When Jo marries another man, Bob kills himself, leaving Mona pregnant and alone.
Reckless not only capitalized on Harlow and Powell’s relationship and Libby Holman’s tragic life but also Harlow’s own personal tragedy. Her second husband, producer Paul Bern, committed suicide in 1932, leaving behind a cryptic note. Rumors hinted that his suicide was her fault because Bern could never “satisfy” Harlow. In the fall of 1934, during the production of Reckless, a grand jury in Los Angeles reopened the investigation into the case, though no additional significant information was uncovered. Harlow was disgusted by the resulting publicity.
Reckless suffers from the producers’ inability to decide what genre they wanted the film to follow. The film begins as a romantic comedy with Powell’s character as a wisecracking sports promoter who verbally spars with the other characters. Then, an extensive musical production number showcasing Mona Leslie suggests that it might be a musical comedy. When Mona marries into the wealthy Harrison family, the tone turns melodramatic. Needless to say Harlow and Powell exhibit a lot of chemistry together, and their scenes are the best in the film. In one sequence, Mona and Ned relax in the open air in the country. When she spies a hammock, Mona remarks, “Look what was made to order for Baby”—an inside joke about Harlow’s own nickname. Mona lies back in the hammock, while Ned sits in a lawn chair beside her. He begins a long monologue about marriage, at first wisecracking about the pitfalls of wedded bliss. As the speech continues, Powell softens his voice, expertly maneuvering the scene in a different direction, because Ned is building up to a marriage proposal. Unfortunately, Mona has fallen asleep and does not hear him when he pops the question. Later, when Ned proposes a second time, after Mona’s heroic scene, Powell’s eyes are filled with tears. These touching moments seem to reach beyond acting, perhaps revealing the depth of Powell’s tender affection for Harlow.
The couple’s second film together, Libeled Lady, benefits from a cast of four major movie stars at the top of their game. Spencer Tracy is newspaper editor Warren Haggerty who is so married to his job that he stands up fiancée Gladys, played by Jean Harlow, on their wedding day. He wants to bait celebrity socialite Connie Allenbury, played by Myrna Loy, into a scandalous situation, because she is suing his paper for libel after he printed a false story about her. That leaves William Powell as ladies’ man Bill Chandler, a former newspaper reporter and would-be novelist who accepts Haggerty’s offer to lure Connie into a scandal. As part of the scheme, Bill marries Gladys, so that Connie will get caught by the paper in a delicate situation with a married man.
Harlow received top billing in Libeled Lady and nearly steals the movie. After starring in a string of dramas, she agreed to return to a comedy that showcased her brassy, wisecracking star image. Though her character, who is repeatedly jilted and used by her fiancé, could easily have been just a victim, Harlow’s star image carried with it a measure of confidence and sexual allure, which prevented her from portraying Gladys as pathetic. Powell, too, was served well by Libeled Lady. Though known for his distinctive voice and exquisite verbal timing, he displayed a flair for physical comedy in the fly-fishing scene in which his character struggles to get the hang of the sport.
The plot contrivance of the faux marriage proved bittersweet for Powell and Harlow. By this point, the two were definitely not headed down the aisle. According to some, Powell did not approve of Mother Jean’s rigid control over her Baby, and he would not marry Harlow because of it. Others claim he was not inclined to get married, because he had been divorced twice. In early 1937, Harlow remarked sadly to columnist Louella Parsons, “I know we’ll never be married.”
On May 29, while Harlow was making Saratoga and Powell was starring in Double Wedding, she was struck ill with fever, chills, and nausea. On June 2, she was misdiagnosed with gallbladder inflammation. Two days later, the doctors discovered it was acute nephritis and uremia. Her condition deteriorated, and she was hospitalized on June 6. The following morning, on their way to the studio, Powell and his good friend Warner Baxter stopped in to see her, and he was alarmed by how quickly she was failing. By noon, she was dead of uremic poisoning. According to the biography William Powell: His Life and Movies, and contrary to popular belief, Mother Jean did not prevent her daughter from seeing a doctor because she was a Christian Scientist.
In Jean Harlow: Tarnished Angel, author David Bren claimed that the actress’s face was covered by a white silk cloth during her funeral because the uremic poisoning had turned it black. Also, her head had been shaved. For her funeral, she was dressed in the wig she had worn in Red-Headed Woman and a gown from Libeled Lady. Her hands clasped a white gardenia and a note that read, “Goodnight, my dearest darling,” supposedly from Powell. The actor attended the funeral with his mother and openly wept through the brief service as did Clark Gable. Photos of Powell leaving the chapel at Forest Lawn show a man broken by grief and regret.
The next two years were not kind to William Powell. He tried to recover from Harlow’s death by spending time with good friend Ronald Colman. He reported back to work on Double Wedding in mid-June but collapsed on the set from the exhaustion of grief on July 17. In March 1938, he underwent an operation for an “intestinal obstruction.” In September, he returned to the hospital for additional surgery, and in January 1939, he underwent a third operation, though no details about his illness were revealed. After an 18 month absence, he returned to acting in films, though not at the same pace as he had worked before Harlow’s death. In a 1963 article in Time magazine, Powell finally revealed that he had cancer of the rectum in 1938-39 but had beaten it with surgery and a series of then –experimental radium treatments.
By December 1939, Powell’s streak of misfortune seemed to have ended. He met 20-year-old actress Diana Lewis and married her the following month; the two remained together until death intervened once again. This time, it was Powell who died at the age of 91.
Neither William Powell nor Jean Harlow is featured as part of TCM’s terrific August series, Summer Under the Stars. However, a couple of Powell’s later movies pop up on days showcasing other actors. On August 11, Powell costars with featured actor Henry Fonda in Mr. Roberts, and on August 23, he plays a strict, turn-of-the century patriarch who intimidates featured actress Elizabeth Taylor in Life with Father.
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