Few of the legendary movies stars of the first half of this century were personally capable of equaling the glittering images they projected with the help of studio publicists and the roles they played on the silver screen. William Powell was a notable exception to that rule.
William Powell was a private man. He was a public figure and yet a complex, private man. Therefore the task before biographer Charles Francisco was a challenging one. Certainly there were plenty of stories in popular Hollywood magazines of the era, tabloid features and interviews, but views into his private life were limited. He married three times and fathered one child, a son, who tragically committed suicide in 1968. Aside from his third wife, these significant figures had long departed and there is no indication that wife Diana Lewis chose to reveal the private man. His closest friends, who included Richard Barthelmess and Ronald Colman, had long departed; he outlived almost all of them but Myrna Loy. In fact Powell himself died during Francisco’s research. Yet the author has done a remarkable job in giving us a solid sense of William Powell, the essence of the man and of his life; it was one filled with satisfying successes, occasional frustrations and sometimes all too public tragedies.
Famously, Powell married and divorced Carole Lombard, then became engaged to Jean Harlow, remaining so until her death at age twenty-six. He grieved openly at her funeral, flanked by his mother and a studio attaché for support. Her death ushered in a period of struggle for Powell. Shortly after this profoundly difficult loss he was faced with another crisis, rectal cancer. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer softened the blow for the public, citing his long absence from the screen as due to colon cancer, relating few details; the actor was one of the first patients to undergo treatment with implanted radium. This combination of blows – the death of Harlow, two surgeries and a lengthy recovery – perhaps deprived us of additional films that might have added to his legacy. His absence took him into middle-age and some unfortunate type-casting.
Powell became a comedic success with The Thin Man, the role for which he is perhaps best remembered. Its popularity led to further Thin Man films, six in total, and while he certainly enjoyed the role, and was surely grateful for its gifts, he knew he was capable of much more. Happily he was later able to show his range in several highly successful and still memorable films, namely Life with Father, How to Marry a Millionaire and finally Mister Roberts. Portraying the wise and weary ‘Doc’ in the latter put Powell among a new generation of actors and before new audiences. Yet the on-location shoot tired him and he chose to bow out, departing from the screen at the age of 62. He eventually left this world for good thirty years later. In doing so he left behind a sweeping body of work that starts in the silent era, polishes many pre-Codes and ultimately enchants in some of the most enduring romantic comedies of the thirties and forties.
If you are a fan of Powell’s, as I am, this book is one to search out and find. The tone is warm and measured, never salacious or engaging in sordid speculation, despite Powell’s romancing and co-starring with some of the most beautiful and sought after women of the early days of Hollywood. Francisco treats his subject, and the numerous Hollywood luminaries and fellow players he encounters, with respect and admiration, pulling from available files, newspaper and magazine articles, archives and Powell’s own writings. In doing so he constructs a portrait of a man who was far from perfect but generally well-intended and truly the gentleman that he hoped to be. Known as a movie star, he was first an actor and an absolute master of his craft.
I was sad to reach this book’s end for to do so was to leave behind a life well-lived. Powell is painted as a man who didn’t always have the answers but who sure as hell tried to find them. This was a lovely, satisfying and moving book. I highly recommend it.
Gentleman: The William Powell Story includes a filmography and two sections of black and white photographs. It is book-ended by a prologue and epilogue, with the first and last paragraphs shared here, suitably opening and closing this review.
Perhaps Myrna Loy, who co-starred with most of the movie legends, described Bill Powell best. She said, “There’s just nobody like him, and there’s never been anybody quite like him.” Unfortunately, in the course of contemporary film, we may never see his like again.
This post is the third in the 2017 Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Raquel Stecher of Out of the Past. For more book reviews please check her blog throughout the summer! This book is available through Amazon and other used and vintage booksellers.