The Great William Powell (1936) 🇺🇸

William Powell and Myrna Loy |

December 14, 2021

If you want to know why Thin Man Bill is a hero even to his movie wives, read this outrageously amusing interview.

by Elizabeth Wilson

Just as there is always some one person whom you dance with better than you can with anyone else, someone whose steps are in perfect rhythm with your steps, just so in acting an actor occasionally finds an actress who plays scenes in perfect harmony with himself. And oh boy, oh boy, oh boy, it’s heavenly ! As far as Myrna Loy is concerned, every waltz is taken by me.” I sat back in one of Mr. Powell’s most comfortable chairs, ate another sandwich, and relaxed. After all, there is no point in my taking up acting now. Myrna Loy is quite evidently Bill’s Best Girl of the screen, and judging from the size of the photograph of Harlow in Bill’s upstairs sitting-room Jean is still tops off the screen. It’s all quite discouraging for a girl who has secretly adored Mr. Powell ever since as Philo Vance he solved The Canary Murder Case with the greatest of charm and humor; but with competition like Loy and Harlow it’s just no use. I don’t think I’ll even bother to reduce.

“Yes,” Bill continued on his pet subject, Myrna Loy. “Any actor who has a chance to play opposite Myrna is a lucky guy. The ‘Thin Man’ would never have been the success it was without Myrna. She has the give and take of acting that brings out the best. When we do a scene together we forget about technique and lights and camera angles and microphones; we aren’t acting at all — we are just two people in perfect harmony with nothing better to do than discuss life and love and things over a pot of coffee. Many times, particularly in the old silent days, I have played with an actress who seemed to be separated from me by a plate glass window; there was no contact at all; as far as I was concerned she might just as well have done her scene in Halifax while I did mine in South Africa and the two pasted together on a split screen. Ah me, those were my worst performances. Myrna, unlike a lot of actresses who think only of themselves, has the happy faculty of being able to listen while the other fellow says his lines. Did you know that you had to learn the art of listening before you could become a good actress? Myrna is the best ‘listener’ I know.”

Well, just as I had decided to consult the Borgias about a tasty little poison for Myrna, the telephone rang again — it had been ringing all afternoon. I never saw a movie star get as many calls in an afternoon as Bill Powell except, perhaps, Carole Lombard. And when they were married and sharing the same telephone, really, it must have been Something Awful. It seems that Mr. Hunt Stromberg, producer, wanted Bill to stand by for another fortnight for retakes on The Great Ziegfeld and it seems that Bill wanted a vacation — he hasn’t had a vacation in years and he needs a vacation. First of all he planned to go to China with Walter Lang, but he has to be back at RKO by the middle of February for a picture, so that kills that. Then he planned to take a boat trip to South America — (something tells me that our Willie has been checking over phone numbers and photographs of señoritas with Clark Gable) — and then when that was out he planned a boat trip through the canal to New York where he would visit the Dick Barthelmesses who are living there while Dick does’ a Broadway play. Bill hasn’t been in New York, the scene of his early poverty and frustrations, since 1930, and he’d really enjoy a trip there if he can go by boat, but if he has to stand by two weeks for retakes the nearest he’ll get to a boat will be an old row-boat in Westlake Park. As far as I could gather, Mr. Stromberg won.

Bill had been playing tennis with a professional for two hours straight before I came but wasn’t the least tired out. He has never looked to me like the Athletic Type but when he gets on that tennis court with Ronnie Colman or Warner Baxter on the other side of the net he is Battling Bill himself. Right now he is taking strenuous tennis “work-outs’” because he has the idea that he is getting fat. He really isn’t, but it’s something for him to worry about and Bill wouldn’t be Bill if he didn’t worry. He is one of the foremost Worriers in Hollywood. But he always worries with a sense of humor, so he never gets to be a bore or a problem child. He’s really getting a big kick out of worrying over the Powell estate which he will assure you will make a pauper out of him any day now, but my secret opinion is” that Bill loves that place, is tickled pink over it, and wouldn’t sell it for anything. After he had shown me through the house that afternoon and I was taking my departure, (I don’t know when I’ve had so much fun), Bill leaned against the door jamb and started laughing. He said, “It all reminds me of that cartoon in the New Yorker of the little man with quite a puzzled look on his face standing in the middle of an immense room filled with statues reaching up to the ceilings. The caption of the cartoon is: ‘I started it as a book-end but it got away from me.’ Well, believe it or not, I started to build a simple little country house with five rooms and gingham curtains — but it got away from me.”

Perhaps there is something “low” in my nature, there has been a lot of talk, but it is always the playroom of a house that intrigues me most — not the formal drawing-room, (which is just as well in this case as Bill’s formal drawing-room hasn’t taken form yet ) , nor the dining-room, nor the library, nor the bedrooms — but always the playroom. Just a play girl at heart, I suppose. I have “made” quite a few playrooms in Hollywood in my time but I don’t think I have ever liked one as much as Bill Powell’s. Perhaps because it is so much like Bill. I recall once discussing Bill Powell with Director Woody Van Dyke. “What’s Bill really like?” I asked. “Bill,” said Van Dyke who directed The Thin Man — “is as near the character he played in that picture as it is possible for a man to be. You have no idea how much of that dialogue that drew such raves from the fans was ad libbed by William. You remember that opening shot of him where he is shaking up a shaker of martinis? Well, he was clowning on the set and was doing that scene so much better than it was written that I had him ad lib the whole scene — though we brought down fire and brimstone on our heads later from the old die-hards who insisted that a good martini should be stirred and not shaken. Oh, that Bill Powell is a grand guy.”

But to return to the playroom, and if I only could every day, I’m no interior decorator, so expect no fine points of artistic detail from me, I’m only interested in it as it reflects the Thin Man’s sense of humor. Behind the very attractive bar where one ordinarily finds a bar stool for the bartender is a love seat which leads me to believe that Master Willie shakes up most of the cocktails for his guests while Jeanie looks on. Near the bar is a picture of a distinguished old man with hoary locks — an old man, say of eighty, but with quite a familiar look about his eyes.

“You don’t recognize him?” said Bill, “it’s Dick. Dick Barthelmess. It was painted by one of his fans in 1930 — a beautiful boy with nice glowing apple cheeks, and lovely waving hair. Dick gave it to me for my birthday that year with a note on it to the effect that the portrait was a shining example of what good clean living would do for one. I hung it over the bar. Every time Dick dropped in for a drink I would take my brush in hand — oh, I’m quite an artist in my way — and add a few circles under the eyes and a little blotch to the apple cheeks. I kept this up until Tol’able David had bags practically down to his neck and a series of double chins. Dick finally got fed up with the whole thing, stole the picture one night when I wasn’t looking, had a professional painter repaint it until it looked like a jolly old man of eighty — and then gave it back to me.

“And this bit of art,” said Bill showing me one of the most horrible things I have ever seen,” is this year’s Christmas present from Ronnie Colman.” It was a picture of two babies, horrible, unhealthy looking babies with rows and rows of curls’ on their heads made out of human hair. You have no idea how awful. On the white mat was written, “From one art lover to another — Ronnie.”

Bill and Dick and Ronnie, I suppose you know already, are the “Three Musketeers” of Hollywood, “all for one and one for all.” They never get tired of kidding each other and playing jokes on each other, but if it ever came to the acid test each would be glad to lay down his life for the other. Their friendship is really a beautiful thing in Hollywood where friendship is usually here today and gone tomorrow.

One of the big thrills Bill and Dick and Ronnie get out of life still is packing off on a boat together and going some place. “But with Ronnie working all the time, and Dick married,” Bill complained, “it’s getting more and more difficult for us to get away at the same time.”

Next to Dick and Ronnie, Bill’s best pals are Walter Lang, director, and Warner Baxter. Warner is his favorite tennis opponent, and at the end of a hard day at the studio there’s nothing like dropping in at Walter’s for cocktails, dinner, and a whole batch of laughs. Often Carole Lombard is there, and humor simply goes mad all over the place. Despite all rumors to the contrary Bill and Carole, the ex-Mrs. Powell, no longer have “dates” together. Carole seems to be rather interested these days in Robert Riskin, writer, and Jean still seems to be the leading lady in Mr. Powell’s’ off-stage scenes.

Oh yes, the playroom. Across one side of the room is a huge fire-place large enough to roast a pig on a spit. And that’s exactly what Bill likes to do. And when the pig is roasted to a turn everybody draws up to the fireplace and starts an attack on it without benefit of knives and forks, just a good old Anglo-Saxon custom.

Of course you can’t be around Bill’s house very long before he starts showing you his gadgets. He invented most of them himself and is as proud of them as a small boy with his first electric train. By the side of his bed are more buttons than grandmother used to wear on her Sunday foulard. Bill pushes one of them and the massive front gates close by radio control, (I just can’t wait until a car gets caught in them some day). He pushes another and he can hear what is being said at the gates, (and I hope he heard what I said when I was leaving). Another button starts the radio. Another throws the sound of the radio to the playroom, another gets Denver, another gets China — and really, not having a technical mind I cannot do justice to Mr. Powell’s gadgets and will have to leave them to my betters to describe for you, but I was that amazed.

Speaking of radio control gates recalls to mind my favorite picture of Bill Powell, the one I shall carry with me to my dying day. It seems that Jean Harlow also has radio control gates and one rainy night during her recent illness she phoned Bill at the studio to bring her some ice cream on his way home. But she forgot to tell the butler to open the gates. So when Bill drove up to the Harlow estate in his little Ford there was no way in the world he could open those gates, or get through those gates. After contemplating climbing them, and deciding not to, Bill merely sat down on the running-board of his car and casually ate the ice cream while the rain trickled down his neck. He was just scooping out the last sliver of chocolate when I passed by.

When Van Dyke said that Bill was exactly like the Thin Man he made one mistake. Bill is no detective. He has tried awfully hard to be but he never can solve anything. “It used to be very embarrassing,” Bill said, “when I was making all those Philo Vance pictures and I would go to parties and immediately the hostess caught one glimpse of me she’d shout, ‘We’ll play Murder and Bill can be the district attorney!’ Huh, I wasn’t even clever enough to catch the criminal when I committed the crime myself. The game of Murder and my character of Philo Vance practically ruined my social career.”

Bill’s humor is the spontaneous, intelligent kind that is terribly difficult to repeat. He can have you in stitches all afternoon, as he did me, but still when you leave Bill you can’t repeat anything he said and have it sound as utterly amusing. Like most actors’ he has his moods, good and bad. When he’s in a good mood he will give you the world, but when he’s in a bad mood methinks you had better keep a mile away. He is always charming to his leading ladies but never falls in love with them. He is adored by everyone on the set but strange to say they treat him with respect. Usually if an actor becomes palsy walsy with the picture crew they “Toots” him all over the place, and the stage manager will say, “It’s only good old Bill, give him a canvas dressing-room, he won’t mind.” But no, it’s Mr. Powell from his fellow ‘ workers, and Mr. Powell gets the best dressing-room on the lot. Still he’s the “pet” of the Metro studio, especially with the publicity department. He is crazy about poker and plays a good stiff game with the boys, but he can’t stand bridge and immediately he gets caught in a bridge game with a bunch of old fussies he begins to clown and makes life so miserable for them that they call the whole thing off after the first rubber. He calls his mother “Nettie” and she and his father and aunt live in a house next door to his. He’s a left-handed tennis player and also writes with his left hand. He has a son ten years old, Bill, Jr., whom he thinks is going to be a producer because he takes a great interest in the price of pictures. When Bill. Sr., was a boy in high school he re-wrote Shakespeare, in fact his re-write of “Twelfth Night” should have been one of the classics of literature. Strange to say they are still using the Shakespeare edition and not the Powell abridged edition. Now he has lost all desire to re-write anything, and criticises the lines tossed to him by the scenario department less than any other actor in Hollywood. He loves to travel but can’t bear to travel alone.

I like to travel, too, and I can’t bear to travel alone. Dear me, there must be something I can do about Loy and Harlow.

Bill's favorite movie wife, Myrna Loy, shown with him, below, in The Great Ziegfeld, their latest co-starring picture.

Collection: Screenland MagazineApril 1936