December 18, 2010
by Elizabeth Bauman
of Beyond the Brush
I have been watching and re-watching William Powell movies for this post and yet as I look at the extensive list of his films (over 90 films) I realize just how few I’ve seen. I shouldn’t be surprised, though, with an over 30 year career in film especially during the days when actors churned out movies like crazy particularly during the “Golden Era”. And although I hoped to talk about his career in general, I find that I really want to focus on a few of my favorite Powell movies to date: Life with Father, The Thin Man, and One Way Passsage. If only because I should keep this on the shorter side and I have so much I want to say about each of them.
First just a little bit about the actor
Powell was born in 1892 and graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1912. He worked on the stage and didn’t begin his career in Hollywood until 1922 with a small role in Sherlock Holmes. I remember in a biography I watched that even in that small role, he dominated the screen and I can believe it.
He was married three times. First to Eileen Wilson whom he had a son with and then to Carole Lombard for a couple of years. Both of these marriages seem to have ended on good terms. He had a relationship with Jean Harlow until her tragic death in 1937. Powell kindly paid for her interment: a $25,000 private room at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale . In 1940 he married Diana Lewis and they stayed together until his death in 1984 when he was 91. He retired from acting in 1955.
Life with Father
Powell has been a favorite of mine even before I knew who he was. Years ago, the first film I had ever seen him in was Life with Father. And what an introduction!
The story of a family in 1890’s New York in which the father, Clare or Clarence Day, Sr. (played by William Powell), believes he has the final say on all, but in fact his wife Vinnie (played beautifully by Irene Dunne) always seems to find a way around things. A favorite scene of mine occurs when Vinnie tells Clare he owes her money. He had previously given her cash to buy a coffee pot. She instead charged the coffee pot and then used the money to buy something else. She insisted that he pay her back that money she spent, that he owed her.
She reasons on, circling around his logic, until he is completely confused and I suspect is starting to see it her way.
Vinnie approaches many arguments this way, working around him as best she can. She does it not in a devious way but instead in a way that seems perfectly logical to her. He doesn’t want guests, so she doesn’t mention they are coming until they arrive. He wants an account of the household spending, she thinks they should get charge accounts everywhere then he would have it all accounted for. He doesn’t want to be baptized, well, I won’t give that one away. Dunne and Powell play beautifully off one another capturing the love of the couple despite their quirks.
What I could not appreciate with this film at the time, having never seen Powell before, was how different this character was for him from many other films. His Clarence Day, Sr. was not smooth or slick. Not slapstick or suave. He simply was a business man and a husband with a certain set of ideas of how his household and world should be and shouldn’t everyone else bend to that? Such an enjoyable film, even my four year old daughter likes to watch it in its Technicolor glory. Right up until the scene where the young Elizabeth Taylor cries and I’m told to turn it off. Visiting the Day family with one of their cousins, Taylor ’s character has a small romance with the eldest Day son. Trouble occurs, primarily because the son is wearing hand-me down pants from his father and they make him behave in a way that only his father would approve and which is quite upsetting to a young romance.
Powell’s genius in this role is his total immersion into this character. The way he holds his body (straight and proud), the way he walks into a room (authoritative), and even his speech which is carefully enunciated and powerful. All so specific to this character and again something I couldn’t appreciate until I had seen more of his films.
The Thin Man
Fast forward several years later, my next William Powell film was The Thin Man. Swept away by the cynical bravado of Nick Charles and his sassy wife Nora (Myrna Loy), this movie enchanted me. I was not immediately aware that this was the same man who played the red-headed Clarence Day in Life with Father. Nick Charles was a far cry from that character.
Once a detective, Nick was now enjoying a sort of early retirement and living the high life thanks to his financially advantageous marriage to Nora. His primary hobby: drinking. And Nora was often right there with him. The first scene with the pair is of Nick showing the bartender how to properly shake a martini. When Nora arrives she enquires how many drinks he has already had and then orders the same amount of drinks to catch up.
Nick tries not to sleuth, content in his retirement, but death and mystery do seem to follow him like any good small or big screen detective. It doesn’t help that his wife likes the adventure and tries to hook him to solve the mysteries. Five more Thin Man’s were to follow this gem throughout Powell’s career and, although they don’t take the place in my heart for the first, each has its own wonderful moments.
The Thin Man is so casual and relaxed. It is a fun story, assuming you think murder is fun of course. William Powell in this role seems effortless as he is in all of his roles. It is like he isn’t acting at all, that he is Nick Charles. Or Clarence Day. Though I think with each of the characters you do get a sense of the man behind them. A sense that he is a genuine, kind, and hardworking man; the kind of person I would like to have known.
One Way Passage
I just had to include one more film in this post and couldn’t pass up including one with Kay Francis, another actress frequently paired with Powell. A sweet love story with a slightly bizarre premise, One Way Passage is a lovely little film. Powell plays an escaped murderer and Francis is a dying woman, though seems perfectly normal. They meet in Hong Kong , both unaware of their “conditions”, and fall in love at first sight. Powell plays such a sympathetic and charming character and Francis lovely as ever, it is no wonder they come together. They end up on the same ship bound for San Francisco . Powell even charms the policeman who finally catches up to him, Steve Burke (played by Warren Hymer). Powell and Hymer form an unlikely…I want to say friendship but it is more like mutual respectful relationship in which both are aware of the eventual outcome (Powell goes to prison and we assume eventually death). What I enjoyed most about this film, Powell aside, was the interweaving of these unlikely relationships. Not one but two love stories evolve, friendships form, the question of right and wrong end up not being so black and white.
Last year, I was lucky enough to receive the portrait above of William Powell. It was a gift from my husband for our 10th anniversary (along with another wonderful one of Jimmy Stewart) painted by the very talented host of this blog. Currently hanging in our bedroom, each night I get to see William and Jimmy as I head to bed. Sigh. Thanks Kate!