Silent Star of April 1997

Myrna Loy

In an industry where stars rise and fall within a relatively short period of time, to find one whose career spans decades, much less one that witnesses the growth and maturation of the film industry is a rarity indeed. There are, in fact, only a handful of stars who can lay claim to that distinction: Lillian Gish, Joan Crawford, and Myrna Loy.

A self-described "homely kid with freckles that came out every spring and stuck on me till Christmas," Myrna Williams was born August 2, 1905, in Crow Creek Valley, near Radersburg, Montana, to Della and David Williams. Her father, at age 21 the youngest man ever elected to the Montana State Legislature, owned a small cattle ranch. Later, the Williams family moved to Helena, living down the block from future star Gary Cooper.

In 1918, her father died in a flu epidemic, and Myrna, her mom, and brother moved to LA. She began acting at age 15 to support the family, appearing in over 100 movies. She began her film career playing all types of roles: Creoles, dancing Chinese dolls, gypsy wildcats and even black-faced waitresses, yet somehow Myrna Williams, the Oriental vamp became Myrna Loy, the clean-cut, refined, and wholesome leading lady.

After graduating from high school in 1923, Myrna got a job dancing in the chorus during the prologue for The Ten Commandments at Grauman's Chinese Theatre. Along with the other chorines, she was photographed by Henry Waxman, who showed the pictures to Valentino. Impressed with Myrna, Valentino arranged for a screen test for his upcoming film, Cobra. His wife, Natacha Rambova, was also taken with Myrna Williams and herself chose Myrna's wardrobe and makeup. Nonetheless, she failed the screen test: "I rushed out of the projection room, ran home and cried for hours. I was really ashamed of myself. It was so awful, I couldn't bear to face Natacha." Nonetheless, Rambova gave Myrna a small part in her vanity production What Price Beauty.

Unemployed, Myrna took to haunting the casting room at MGM, and was rewarded for her patience with a bit part in 1925's Pretty Ladies, with Joan Crawford. Her next bit part was in Sporting Life, also 1925, directed by Maurice Tourneur.

Myrna's hopes for another chance at a screen test were crushed when she was chosen to go before the cameras just for a simple color check for Ben-Hur. Hoping to make the most of even this brief moment, she put on makeup anyhow, and caught the eye of Christy Cabanne. Cabanne, in charge of tests for Ben-Hur, wanted Myrna Loy for the role of the Virgin Mary, but was overruled by Thalberg. She was given a single shot appearance in the chariot race as consolation.

Once again unemployed, Myrna got another small role in Warner Brothers' 1926 Satan in Sables, starring Lowell Sherman, and during filming was finally signed to a contract. Her first appearance for Warners' was as a vampy maid in 1926's The Caveman, directed by Lewis Milestone. Vamping was suspended in Why Girls Go Back Home (1926), but it was back to typecasting for 1926's Across the Pacific, starring Monte Blue.

Although she continued to be typecast, Myrna kept busy, with small roles in The Gilded Highway, Millionaires, The Love Toy, Exquisite Sinner (on loan to MGM), and John Barrymore's Don Juan, all 1926. In 1927 she appeared in another Barrymore film, When A Man Loves, then appeared in blackface for the "Negro Comedy" Ham and Eggs at the Front. Other appearances included bit parts in The Climbers, Simple Sis, and A Sailor´s Sweetheart.

In the summer of 1927, Myrna received star billing with Monte Blue in Bitter Apples, but returned to more small parts: Finger Prints, The Jazz Singer, The Girl From Chicago, and Beware of Married Men. In 1928 she continued to work steadily in Pay As You Enter, State Street Sadie, The Midnight Taxi, and Noah´s Ark, finally receiving second billing in 1929's Fancy Baggage. She followed Fancy Baggage with a role in Warners' "First Vitaphone Operetta" The Desert Song, where she came to the attention of John Ford who cast her in The Black Watch for Fox. Back at Warners' Myrna appeared in The Squall, directed by Alexander Korda, Hard Boiled Rosie, and Evidence.

Myrna survived the talkie revolution, appearing in Warners' 1929 The Show of Shows, a showcase of Warners' talent and sound technology. She appeared as a member of the "Floradora Sextette," singing and dancing along with Marian Nixon, Sally O´Neil, Patsy Ruth Miller, Lila Lee, and Alice Day. She also appeared, as usual, as an Oriental with Nick Lucas in a "Chinese Fantasy" number.

In 1929-1930 Myrna was again playing stereotypes in such films as The Great Divide, The Jazz Cinderella, Cameo Kirby, Isle of Escape, and Under A Texas Moon, but with Cock O´ The Walk she portrayed characters a little more complex than exotic temptresses. The trend continued with roles in Bride of the Regiment, Last of the Duanes, The Truth About Youth, Renegades, Rogue of the Rio Grande, and The Naughty Flirt.

Having spent the first years of her film career as the vamp, typecast as the exotic seductress of Third World descent, Myrna was ready for roles of greater substance. She had played everything, from an Oriental's devilish daughter to a Javanese occultist to an Indian leader of renegades and slaves, invariably dying at the end of the film for her misdeeds. It wasn't until she was signed to MGM that she was given the first of two defining roles: the nightclub queen in The Prizefighter and The Lady and Nora Charles in The Thin Man.

The Prizefighter and The Lady allowed Myrna to at last leave the "half-caste temptress" roles behind, and take on characters with style and substance. The Thin Man cemented Myrna as the American dream wife and mother. Yet by the time she starred in The Thin Man, her career was already 2/3 of the way through!

In 1936 Myrna was named Queen of the Movies and Clark Gable King in a national poll, winning a crown of tin and purple velvet. Legend has it that John Dillinger, so entranced by Myrna, was killed outside Chicago's Biograph Theatre after his third viewing of Manhattan Melodrama.

Even after her contract with MGM expired, Myrna Loy's film career continued well into the 1970s. She continued her early successes with roles in The Best Years of Our Lives, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, Cheaper By The Dozen, Lonelyhearts, and Airport 1975. She also continued her career with numerous appearances on television, including Death Takes A Holiday and Summer Solstice.

Myrna Loy's career spanned decades, with roles on film, television, and Broadway. She died in 1993.

For further information, take a look at the following links.

Glen Pringle /
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Copyright © 1997,2000 by Glen Pringle and Kally Mavromatis
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