Gentleman: The William Powell Story

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William Powell in a publicity photo from My Man Godfrey

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A Cinematic Bon-Bon: Raffles (1930)

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An United Artists Picture, Screenplay by Sidney Howard based upon the novel by E. W. Hornung,  Director: George Fitzmaurice, Art Director: Park French

A charming confection, Raffles exists in a world that meets somewhere between the allure of the truly glamorous, a harmlessly silly aristocracy and a place where crime is non-violent and victimless.  How lovely to enter this enchanting realm from time to time.

Ronald Colman and Kay Francis portray our lovely leads and radiate romantic chemistry in the luminous lighting of cinematographers George Barnes and Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane).  The very early scenes are framed by distinctively art deco décor.  Raffles first and ostensibly last heist, takes place at night in a jewelers with a black and white checkered floor, whose windows reveal the even pace of a shadowy figure, that of a bobby on the beat.  Under his watchful eye the theft occurs and we are thus alerted to the cleverness of our protagonist.

The following scene reveals his dazzling charm and romanticism as he intimately dances with Lady Gwen (Francis) and sweeps her off her feet, enough for her to accept his proposal of marriage once they return to their table.  Pay attention to the beauty of this setting with its curling railing and illuminating sconces.  Francis’ hair is shorn short and must have seemed breathtakingly modern to audiences of the time, thereby matching this sophisticated nightspot.

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And so we are introduced to this charismatic and charming couple. Raffles is portrayed as a bit of an innocent, a man who believes he can readily walk away from his life’s passions. That turns out to be not so easily done as he is persuaded by circumstance to conduct one last heist for the sake of a good friend, Bunny (Bramwell Fletcher).  The elaborate nature of this last piece of thievery makes up the bulk of this story, whose twists and turns are fanciful and owe a great debt to convenient coincidences. No matter. When reflecting upon this film it is the smoldering charm of our gentleman thief and his adventurous and sophisticatedly glamorous leading lady that stays.

Kay Francis is breathtaking and breathless as Gwen, swooning just as we do for Raffles and his slights of hand.  Gwen inhabits a world of black satin gowns and rhinestone studded spaghetti straps; Francis wears these gowns beautifully as she always does.  This was a breakout role for Francis and established her as a woman who could hold the attentions of both her leading man and audiences.

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Keeping the story interesting are comic turns by Frederic Kerr as Lord Harry Melrose and Alison Skipworth as his wife, Lady Kitty Melrose.  The former makes it abundantly clear as to why the latter becomes so smitten with Mr. Raffles upon first meeting, helping our plot and his heist tremendously. Her obvious lust for him is quite comical and a short scene of her swooning in her sleep and speaking his name leaves no question as to where she might be at that moment.  A pre-Code film this is and thankfully so for the film drops in little bits of business like this from time to time, adding to the entertainment and increasing the sophisticated adult appeal.  It follows then that quite naturally Lady Melrose’s two little pugs (the aristocracy always has little dogs in these pre-Codes) are named Whiskey and Soda.  She is one Lady who makes her priorities quite clear.

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At one point, Raffles makes an in-vain attempt to break it off with Gwen in his own gentlemanly fashion, further endearing himself to her (and us) even more.  He is about as able to give up his passion for her as he is his lifestyle and his heists, which is not at all.

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Raffles is a fairy tale for adults, one in which a gentleman thief can not only confess to crimes and get away with them but also whisk away in the night to rendezvous in Paris with his dazzling lover, all with a wink and an admiring chuckle from Scotland Yard, whose inspector provides the closing line:  “Well, one can’t help liking him”.   And we certainly do.

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Highly recommended for film history and for fun.

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Notes and Extras

  • This was the last film made in both silent and talking versions by Samuel Goldwyn.  It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Sound (losing to Douglas Shearer for The Big House) and it shows.  The dialogue is so pleasantly decipherable that it is easy to forget that we’ve just entered the era of talking pictures.  There is a steady hiss in some scenes that adds no more than a nostalgic ambiance.  The Warner Archive DVD is lovely with deep blacks and luminous whites, with only a faint halo around cricket players in glowing athleticism in the outdoor scenes.
  • Speaking of the Oscars, Ronald Colman was nominated at the Third Academy Awards in 1930 but not for this film.  Rather he was nominated for two other performances, Bulldog Drummond (another he was to share with John Barrymore) and Condemned.
  • Kay Francis was on loan from Paramount for this one.  As was so frequently the case, this actress needed to break out of her contracted studio to gain recognition and be allowed the opportunity to shine. Francis proved to be a perfect match for Colman in sophistication, intelligence and charm.  Audiences took to her, understandably so. As Francis commented: “I didn’t really get into my stride until I played opposite Ronald Colman in Raffles”.

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  • There were at least two previous silent versions of Raffles, one starring the thrillingly handsome (at least in the silent era) John Barrymore.  There were others to follow, in particular one in 1939, with again two fantastic leads in David Niven and Olivia de Havilland.  Unfortunately this version suffers from not only being made hurriedly just prior to Niven’s departure fight for his country and join the British forces in WWII, but also from post-Code imposed changes that stomped upon tampered with the fun and charm of the 1930 Colman version.
  • Raffles is considered the proto-type gentleman thief and originated in a series of stories by E. W. Hornung based in 19th century London.  These tales were considered a bit scandalous by some due to their sympathetic, almost heroic portrayal of basically a criminal. Nevertheless folks do love their scoundrels and the character of the gentleman thief continues to be seen in such films as To Catch a Thief.  Certainly the story and Grant’s portrayal owe a debt to Raffles and there is certainly more than a little of Kay Francis in Grace Kelly’s aristocratically concealed, yet barely contained   passion and willingness to abandon all for an adventurous life as the lover of a jewel thief.  For further evidence of Raffles long reach see The Pink Panther, The Thomas Crown Affair, Oceans 11 and many others.
  • This film is based upon the play Raffles, The Amateur Cracksman, (1906) which in itself was founded upon a book compilation of the short stories, a further testament to the enduring appeal of this character and his escapades.  The book differs in a number of ways from the film versions, primarily in the depiction of class and the purposeful staging of heists. Socio-political statements, aside from the portrayals of aristocrats as somewhat silly caricatures, were excised from most film versions to maintain their frothy flavor.
  • Watch for a pretty blonde by the name of Virginia Bruce, in an uncredited role as ‘Gwen’s Friend’.
  • This movie was well-received and grossed over $1 Million, a pretty penny in those days just following The Great Stock Market Crash, otherwise known as The Great Depression. This review from Variety provides a nice perspective from the time.
  • And just between you and me, sometime during filming Kay Francis wrote in her diary, ” God, Ronnie excites me”.  Proving once again, if you had any doubts, that movie stars are only people too.  Ronald_Colman_Raffles_RCAS4