Interesting People Throughout History Actress Myrna Loy — Not just a pretty face!

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By Pam Teel

Being a fan of the old black and white movies of the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, one comes to realize that the stars of today can’t hold a candle to many of the stars of those glorious decades. When you talk about true talent and longevity in their trade, and the capability of transforming you into their imaginary world, then and only then, do you realize what good acting really is. So many to name, who have gone before us, are only a memory now to a certain generation still living, and after that, those names will forever slip into obscurity.

What makes some of these actors even more intriguing to remember are the ones who paid it forward in flawless ways to help others, even when they didn’t have too. One such woman, and one of my favorite stars of yesterday was Myrna Loy.  With 129 movies to her credit and countless appearances on television shows, Loy’s career started in silent pictures where she caught the attention of Cecil B. DeMille, who found her dancing in a chorus line at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and cast her in her first small role. (Ironic that it was in front of Grauman’s theatre that her footprints and finger prints would be cast in cement along with a tribute to DeMille.)

Myrna Loy, original name Myrna Williams, was born August 2, 1905, Radersburg, Montana. Her father named her after a small town that he had passed through by train. Myrna was an American motion-picture actress who began her screen career in the silent movie era, but by the mid 30’s she attained national stardom in talking pictures in roles as glib, resourceful sophisticates. Dubbed the “Queen of Hollywood” during her heyday, Loy was often promoted by her studio as every man’s “dream wife.”

Loy was brought up on a farm, her father being a successful rancher. Her father died from influenza when she was only 12 years old.  It was after her father’s early death that her family ended up in moving to Los Angeles. As she got into her teens, she played bit parts in movies for a few years. One of her small roles as an exotic mistress fixed her film style for the next seven years. Born of Welsh, Scottish, and Swedish descent with fiery red hair, and because of her exotic looks, the studio dyed her hair dark and cast her in roles of half Asian, Indian, or Chinese descent, where she was personified as the foreign vamp for American audiences.  Loy hated those roles and complained about how racists those roles were and asked why they didn’t hire real foreign actresses to play those roles themselves, but she had little star power to do anything about it, and basically had to do as she was told. American audiences really believed that Loy was from overseas, but she aimed to get the word out that she was really an American. With the help of popular magazine spreads about her, her audience got to see who she really was, a cattle rancher’s daughter from Montana. Realizing she was getting nowhere with WB, who kept casting her in these kinds of roles, and when her contract was up, she went on to sign a contract with MGM. It was there that she began to break out of the mold of foreign characters.

Loy and Powell team up in The Thin Man series

MGM saw much more in her. She was witty and confident, and had a knack for dry humor.  They let her explore her characters and she developed a style of woman that was strong and independent, not in need of a man to marry her or make her a housewife. Her first real movie with MGM, she was cast with Clark Gable and William Powell. She played a strong, wise, paramour torn between a rogue gamble Clark Gable and straitlaced attorney, Williom Powell in Manhattan Melodrama. The studio loved her rapport with Powell and signed her on as the other half a husband-and-wife detective team of Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man. Both stars played witty, sophisticated, martini drinking characters. Her character was far from the stereotypical common stay at home housewife, femme fatale, come rescue me, drool everyone else was turning out. It portrayed a female character able to stand on her own two feet and also one who drank more they she should have.

Loy and Powell appeared in 14 films together. The popularity of The Thin Man spawned numerous sequels. (If you haven’t seen any of the Thin Man movies, you might still find them on you tube).  It wasn’t only the male audience that fell in love with Loy. Females loved her strong characters as well. She evinced equality in a male dominated world and her combination of beauty and brains made male audiences regard her as the perfect wife. The compatibility that seemed to come so easily and attractively to Loy in the role of movie wives eluded her in real life. She was married and divorced four times. The Thin Man movies were fun loving movies and gave the two actors a chance to play off each other with their comedic antics. Loy didn’t need dialogue to let you know what she was thinking. The raising of an eyebrow or an uncertain frown told the story for itself.

As her star rose, she was able to verbally fight back on issues that concerned her. Many times, she butted heads with studio bosses at MGM.  She was appalled that fine black actors were reduced to playing roles of servants and sought for equality among the actors.  She began to advocate for their rights within the industry while continuing to pump out movies well through the next four decades.

During World War II, Loy requested leave from her MGM contract to work full time for the American Red Cross in New York. She stayed away from Hollywood for five years, only once returning to make a Thin Man sequel. In 1943, she had over 50,000 letters of marriage from servicemen alone. No Hollywood actress made more career sacrifices than Loy during the war effort. She had taken on an unsalaried full-time job with the American Red Cross as assistant to the director of the Military and Naval Welfare Service for the North Atlantic Area. Her duties involved serving as a liaison between entertainers and military hospitals and setting up visits by Broadway and Hollywood performers to wounded or disabled members of the armed forces. They entertained servicemen in forty-two East Coast centers. She made countless hospital visits herself and put in long stints at stage-door canteens. She was also very outspoken about Adolf Hitler to the point where he banned her films from being seen in Germany.

After the war, when she did return, her star quality didn’t diminish. She went back to working regularly, and that first year back made, she starred in The Best Years of Our Lives, considered to be one of the greatest films of the 1940s, and also her favorite movie that she ever made. She also learned that a certain Hollywood Reporter wrote an article accusing 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.

In 1947, Myrna Loy did sue the Hollywood Reporter for $1 million for their printed accusation accusing her of being a Communist, an accusation fueled in part by the actress having been vocal and active in left-wing politics since the 1930s. After Loy brought suit against them, 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. She went on to organize an opposition to the House Un-American Activities Committee in Hollywood. She didn’t want for money, as she was one of the top paid actresses in Hollywood and she demanded the same wages her male costars were receiving. She got it too!

Over the next few years, she became increasingly involved representing UNESCO, attending conferences all over the world and 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. (She was the very first Actress to work for the UN- UNESCO.)

From early on in her life, Myrna was not afraid to voice her political opinions. Politics was always a heavy discussion in her family. Her father being the youngest person, at age 21, to be elected to the Montana State Legislature. She stated that every American should stand for what and who they believe in regardless of whether they were republican or democrat; that it was their duty to get involved in the political process.  In 1932, she was active in the election campaign of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and remained a champion of his ABC programs throughout his presidency. She was Co-Chairman of the Advisory Council of the National Committee against discrimination in housing – exposing segregation in federal funded projects. She never personally met Roosevelt, though she made many trips to the White House and developed a close and lasting friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt.

 She continued to make films through the 50s but the roles started getting fewer, her biggest success coming at the start of that decade with Cheaper by the Dozen. By the 1960s, the parts had all but dried up as producers and directors looked elsewhere for talent. She turned her attentions to doing some stage productions. In 1960 she appeared in Midnight Lace and was not in another film until 1969 in The April Fools. The 1970s found her mainly in TV movies, not theatrical productions anymore, except for small roles in Airport- 1975 and The End- 1978. Her last film was in 1981 called Summer Solstice, and her final acting credit was a guest spot on the sitcom Love, Sidney  in 1982.

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, throwing her support and countless hours lobbying for other democratic presidential campaigns. She worked hard to campaign for Kennedy. During the Kennedy campaign, he invited her to be part of his Conference on Constitutional Rights and American Freedom. It was there that she met Hubert Humphrey, who was the one who put her on the National Council Against Discrimination in Housing Committee where she worked throughout the Civil Rights Movement. Loy made huge strides in the organization. She found that though President Kennedy had signed the Housing Act of 1961, “where they had uncovered massive evidence that eighty percent of federally sponsored housing was operated on a segregated basis,” 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 the movie April Fools.

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. As Loy reached her upper 70’s, she started to receive honors for her tremendous career onscreen. One of a handful of great movie stars never nominated for an acting Oscar, Loy received an honorary Academy Award in 1991 during the 63rd Annual Academy Awards show. She was unable to travel to Hollywood to accept the award in person, so the Academy arranged a live satellite link to her Manhattan apartment.

She became a founding member of the American Place Theatre, a non-profit theatre set up to help new writers develop. She was a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Kennedy Center in 1988. In 1991, the Myrna Loy Center for the Performing and Media Arts opened in downtown Helena, Montana, not far from Loy’s childhood home. Located in the historic Lewis and Clark County Jail, it sponsors live performances and alternative films for under-served audiences.

Her profile, especially her nose, was the most requested by woman in the 30’s and 40’s to their plastic surgeons.  In the mid 70’s, Loy underwent two mastectomies after being diagnosed with breast cancer. She never did have any children. She died at her residence in Manhattan December 14, 1993 at the age of 88.

True fact- In 1934, gangster John Dillinger, public enemy #1, who was so enamored with Loy, snuck in to see her new movie Manhattan Melodrama, but was gunned down by the cops and shot dead in front of the theatre after an anonymous tip.

Loys’s mother, Della Williams, was a talented pianist who encouraged Myrna’s interest in the arts throughout her life. As an actress, Myrna was among the best there was. But it was as an activist that Myrna Loy had her most lasting impact on the world. Myrna Loy- someone who should be remembered!