Book Review: ‘Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl In Hollywood’
From Exotic Vixen To Perfect Wife
Thursday, March 1, 2012
Before getting a hold of Emily W. Leider’s new biography, I hadn’t known about John Ford’s teasing remark to the actress Myrna Loy. As a result, I didn’t know what to make of the subtitle of "Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood." I have yet to read Ms. Loy’s autobiography "Being and Becoming," so the extent of my knowledge about the actress was relegated to her magnetism on screen. I think most people these days, if they know her at all, probably best know Myrna Loy from her portrayal of the witty and playful Nora Charles from the popular series of comedic mystery films known as "The Thin Man." Her ability to deliver sharp lines endeared her to audiences worldwide:
Reporter: Say listen, is he working on a case?
Nora Charles: Yes, he is.
Reporter: What case?
Nora Charles: A case of scotch. Pitch in and help him.
Her turn as Nora Charles subsequently pegged her in a number of wife-figure roles, which is an interesting contrast to the mysterious, alluring, and often exotic vixens that she tended to play in her early pre-code Hollywood career. I am a big fan of Myrna Loy, not just because she is uniquely gorgeous onscreen, but also because she nails both of those archetypes with such precision and energy that the memory of her remains steadfast in my brain.
So why isn’t Loy as talked about today as some of her contemporaries? That question is part of the reason I decided to read "Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood." The teasing John Ford nickname “the only good girl in Hollywood” that gives this book its title is mentioned in the introduction. Ford meant it to jokingly describe Loy’s tendency to avoid promiscuity, but it has been appropriated by Leider to represent Loy’s complex character. She was both private and in the spotlight, discreet and outspoken, polite and sharp tongued. On the screen, she was a distinctly Caucasian woman playing roles of Asian or Persian descent. She was married and divorced four times over, yet became known for playing the “perfect wife.” In her personal life she dedicated herself to progressive causes, something more common today but perhaps not as much in her day. One could say she was in the vanguard of the activist celebrity phenomenon.
Emily W. Leider has managed to give us the biography of an actress that avoids the crass tell-all format of many celebrity biographies—it is well researched, the prose is eminently readable (something that actually caught me off guard at first), and while it gives us a lot of insight into Myrna Loy the person, it chooses to focus more on Loy’s decades-long body of work than on Hollywood gossip. It starts with the emigration of Myrna Loy’s family on both her mother and father’s side, and how they came to live in Helena, Montana before giving birth to her on August 2nd, 1905. The account of her tomboyish young life in Montana before becoming a dancer and eventually moving to pursue on-stage success in Los Angeles is quite comprehensive.
Loy’s career could be divided into various eras, and Leider takes cue from that to organize her biography. From the silent and early-sound era “exotic vixen” phase following her discovery by the legendary Rudolfo Valentino, to her star-making turn in "The Thin Man," to her ardent work as an activist for The Red Cross, UNESCO, and other causes, each section provides a glance at the full and complex life of Myrna Loy. In the course of this exploration, Leider treats us to stories involving John Barrymore, Jean Harlow, William Powell, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, and more.
Prose aside, this is a biography about Myrna Loy, and it would be unfinished without the inclusion of photographs. Like most biographies, all of the images are relegated to a thick section of glossier paper in the center of the book. There are some real gems here, with late 1800s images of Loy’s family from the Montana Historical Society, child photos, lobby cards, and press photographs spanning Myrna Loy’s entire career. It is remarkable how much range her face was capable of, when a photograph from "Thirteen Women" is compared to one from "The Best Years of Our Lives." Many of these photos are rare and worth the cover price alone. The cover itself, a portrait by photographer Ted Allan, is magnificent.
Emily Leider has also written biographies for Rudolfo Valentino and Mae West. I haven’t yet read either of these, but I am giving them serious thought now. The reading of biographies, in a way, makes voyeurs of all of us, but I can’t help but think that I will get even more enjoyment now out of "Don Juan" or "The Thin Man" thanks to the work put into this book by its author. It is a must read for fans of Myrna Loy, it will interest fans of film in general and classic film in particular, and it is also an interesting read from a purely historical perspective, thanks to the research put into it and its scholarly tone. Pick up the book and revisit these films. Now, I have to go get the remote control.
Exotic Loy: "Don Juan" (1926), "The Heart of Maryland" (1927), "The Mask of Fu Manchu" (1932)
The Perfect Wife: "The Thin Man" Series (1934 - 1947), "Wife Vs. Secretary" (1936) "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946)
The Later Years: "The April Fools" (1969), "Airport 1975" (1974)