She was the perfect movie wife: smart, snarky, long-suffering but rarely suffering foolishness. She had an effortless upper-crust style but looked right at home slumming with the rabble. She was sexy but not showy, playful but demure, usually one step ahead of her male counterpart but never feeling the need to prove it. She was a great actress but never the one to carry a vehicle the way a Davis or Crawford or Stanwyck or Dietrich or Garbo or Garson did. She was the perfect complement to her leading man, both the sizzle and the steak. You could say that Myrna Loy, who died on this date 20 years ago, was pigeon-holed as the ideal partner, fiercely independent in spirit but never really alone, and maybe that kept her away from roles that brought attention to her chops. She was never nominated for an Oscar or Golden Globe or received any award from a critics group until the Lifetime Achievement accolades finally came, decades after her best parts were behind her.
You could say that the pivot point was The Thin Man (Van Dyke, 1934). Because before that, she was typecast as the jazz-age vamp, the sultry femme fatale or the “Asian” bad girl, but most of these films (many of them silent) are either lost or largely unknown. In my favorite film of hers, Rouben Mamoulian’s brilliant Love Me Tonight (1932), she’s a sexually voracious debutante stealing every scene she’s in—lusty, hilarious and irresistible. But Nora Charles would cement how we see her now.
Like most film series, The Thin Man movies suffer from the law of diminishing returns, with each subsequent installment priceless in the repartee she had with William Powell but fairly interchangeable when it came to the plots and culprits. In fact, she made 8 other films with Powell and I prefer quite a few of them more than the other Nick & Nora adventures—testimony to how it wasn’t just the conceit of the mysteries that held those films together, but their boundless chemistry (along with Asta, the greatest dog comic in cinema history).
Perhaps my favorite two Thin Man films outside the original are also ones that have postage stamp references. The Thin Man Goes Home (Thorpe, 1944) has Nick & Nora return to Nick’s hometown and disapproving father (a very funny Harry Davenport), only to get caught up in international intrigue. In the climax, we learn that the villain is Lloyd Corrigan, who actually committed the murder in question instead of spending time with his stamp collection, which he had used as an alibi.
I’m guessing he probably does have a stamp collection (who would lie about that?) so chalk that up as another Evil Philatelist, a fun cinematic sub-genre I’ve mentioned before. This is also the installment where Loy has the most to do, since Nick’s reluctance to take on the case means Nora’s intrepid nosiness proves critical in assembling some vital clues. And legendary character actresses Anne Revere and Lucile Watson show up for good measure.
In Shadow of the Thin Man (Van Dyke, 1941), Nick looks into the death of a jockey at a racetrack. In one scene, reporter (and friend of the Charles’) Barry Nelson is found rummaging through the office of a gambling boss and hood Alan Baxter confronts him by saying, “What were you looking for, a stamp?” It doesn’t take long before Baxter is also dead and Nelson framed for his murder.
I like this film because it takes place in the SF Bay Area—the racetrack scenes were shot at Golden Gate Fields in Berkeley (which I pass every day going to work), and the film includes a scene where Nick is pulled over for speeding on the Oakland Bay Bridge, back when you could drive east-bound on the upper deck (long before The Graduate made such a commute a glaring continuity error). And it has a priceless setpiece where Nick & Nora attend a pro wrestling match. That, and Nick Jr. (their son, introduced in the prior Another Thin Man) is cute enough without suffering from Cousin Oliver syndrome.
Neither Loy nor Powell have US postage stamps. In fact, the only person to be honored with a stamp to appear in the series is Jimmy Stewart, who played a very atypical role in the second installment, After the Thin Man.
Favorite Myrna Loy and/or William Powell films (all films cited feature both except * = Loy, + = Powell)
- Love Me Tonight (Mamoulian, 1932) *
- The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, 1946) *
- The Thin Man (Van Dyke, 1934)
- One Way Passage (Garnett, 1932) +
- Double Wedding (Thorpe, 1937)
- Libeled Lady (Conway, 1936)
- I Love You Again (Van Dyke, 1940)
- Love Crazy (Conway, 1941)
- Mister Roberts (Ford/LeRoy, 1955) +
- A Girl in Every Port (Hawks, 1928) *