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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Death Becomes Her: The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933)

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A Universal Pictures Production ~ Director: James Whale, Screenplay by: William Anthony McGuire, based on a story by Ladislas Fodor, Art Director: Charles D. Hall,  Costume Designer: Sadly, uncredited

A kiss is just a kiss.  Or is it?

“How did it begin?”

“With a kiss.”

“It always does. But what kind of a kiss?”

“A kiss before the mirror”

James Whale’s smart suspense drama The Kiss Before the Mirror plays with the idea of passion as a sinister force leading to infidelity, insanity, and murder.  It initially attempts to mark a distinction between a murder justified by rage and betrayal, and one committed through planning and premeditation.  In the end it concludes there really is no difference.  Even crimes of passion have their small moments of irrational  premeditation.

An idyllic scene of a beautiful woman in a garden opens the film.  She is meeting her lover, an attractive man who appears smitten, devoted. The air is sweet with promise as they exchange words in anticipation of their time together.  She is seen through the glass disrobing, but the tone changes.  In the dusky twilight, her husband has followed her through the trees and flowers.  He approaches the veiled entryway, hesitates and then shoots her repeatedly through the shattering panes.

 

 

The murderer’s lawyer is a close friend and is prepared to defend him.  He is puzzled by this horrific crime.  He hears the man’s confession and returns home.  Troubled, he reclines in his wife’s boudoir. She pulls a sheer curtain and then sits to do her face.  The attorney struggles to comprehend his friend’s actions, relaying the initial circumstances to his wife.  As he raises his finger the camera follows in a sweeping shot, circling the intimate space, and stopping where his wife sits facing the mirror at her dressing table.  The audience is enveloped in his perspective, sees his wife as he sees her, feels his hurt as she angrily chastises him for kissing her before the mirror. He is re-imagining the killer’s confession. Suddenly he views her dressing and departure with new eyes; she is preparing for a liaison.  Following her he finds his fears are confirmed.  She has taken a lover.  Humiliated, he contemplates clearing his friend as a means of preemptively establishing his own defense, and considers his own crime of passion.

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photo credit: Pre-Code.com

The Kiss Before the Mirror is an early stylish Noir filled with shadows in lamplight, dark insinuations and a tragic aura.  Yet it also has a bit of pre-Code playfulness and dark humor. The dialogue is clever and displays the love for a verbal quip that characterizes many early talking films.  The dual nature of passion is a theme repeatedly touched upon; that which creates love can also destroy those who fall victim to its false perceptions.

The lawyer, Paul, played elegantly by Frank Morgan, is confidently seeking a meeting with his distraught and confessing client Walter, a somewhat overwrought Paul Lukas.  He passes by a barred jail cell and exchanges words with another prisoner, Bill:

“You’ll be out of here soon.”

” I have been out.  I broke out.  Killed the wife and her boyfriend.  Now I’m in for good.”

“That’s too bad.”

” Too bad nothin’.  I’m happy.  Wondering where that woman was all the time used to drive me crazy.”

“Well you know where she is now.”

“I know where I hope she is.”

Women tend to get a bit of a rough treatment here.  Their vanity it seems makes them prone to seduction and an excess of time in front of mirrors.  And there are plenty of those here too.  Characters speak to one another while reflected, their images seeming to mock as they betray and tease one another.  The defendant’s wife’s mirror is adorned with a gilded cupid.  Another cupid sits haughtily upon a mantle. Women it seems are too often guided by Cupid’s whims.

Yet there is a strong female in the bunch too.  Paul has an office manager Hilda, depicted as cynically pragmatic but also ambiguously sexual by a smart Jean Dixon.  She seems to float above the proceedings, amused and yet solemn too.  She introduces herself to the prosecutor as a newcomer to Paul’s team:

“This is my first case.”

“Are you interested in it?”

“A woman has been killed.  That interests me quite a bit.”

Paul interjects, smiling, “for some strange reason, women don’t like being killed.”

A puzzled Paul walks with her after they leave the public prosecutor’s office.

“I can’t understand it.  He adored his wife.”

“He proved that by killing her.”

Later, Paul’s wife, Maria,  is inquisitive about her choices:

“You’re a funny creature.  What are you, a lawyer or a new kind of woman?”

 “By day I’m a lawyer. By night well…you might be surprised.”

 “Why don’t you get married?”

 “Well, being single has its points – at least no one will ever murder me.”

Marriage is portrayed as a risky game with the potential for deceit and a deadly outcome for infidelity. The line between love and hate can be a thin one indeed.

The screenplay’s dry gallows humor is reminiscent of Hitchcock; it finds charm in the even the deadliest of proceedings and marriage a fertile playground for exploring the dark side of wedded bliss.

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Paul’s young, beautiful wife is played by Nancy Carroll, a sensuous Kewpie doll enjoying a double life. She admires and loves her husband but she loves to play too. There’s a phone that’s always ringing, suspicious outings, an air of guilt and deception. It is only when she begins to suspect that her husband is wise to her that she tries, unsuccessfully, to ditch her lover.  Later when Paul begins to reject her and refuses her kiss she suspects he may find a way to not only leave her but mimic his friend in murder.  She drapes herself in fox-tails as they proceed to leave their home for the trial and notes the strain the case is causing him.

 “Oh promise me when all of this is over you’ll go away on a vacation.”

 “Go away…?  That’s not a bad idea.  Will you come with me?”

 “It’ll be best if I stay here.”

 “Alone?”

 “Naturally.”

 “And will you remain true and in love?” he asks, epectantly.

 “Yes,” she smiles sweetly.

She is almost believable. Perhaps she is being sincere in her own way, with what really matters.  But then the phone rings. Again. And Paul knows the truth. Just before he leaves he pockets a gun.  Paul’s feelings of pain and rage spill over in a courtroom scene. His client’s defense: momentary insanity induced by jealousy.  An acquittal for Walter would mean an acquittal for himself.

The film has a weary wizened character, Schultz, an additional assistant to Paul.  An aging alcoholic, he occasionally spouts wisdom disguised as nonsense.  His presence speaks to Paul’s big heart as he’s hired the has-been attorney despite his downward slide.  He delivers a telling line: Is there or is there not, freedom of the will? Disturbingly, the jury has its own ideas, our attorney thankfully another. Ultimately, he chooses to shatter his illusions and the looking glass, kissing before a broken mirror.

Whale makes the most of his Viennese setting, gorgeous art deco sets, and prison dungeons borrowed from his earlier Frankenstein.  He is assisted by cinematographer Karl Freund who plays with dark and light, mirrors and reflections, shattered glass and perspectives.  Morgan is quite good in the lead, intelligent and thoughtful, thoroughly convincing as an accomplished lawyer, anguished by the actions of his younger wife.  Nancy Carroll is a treat, tempering her flirtatiousness with warmth and dimension, and Jean Dixon even more so as the subversively tailored associate.  Gloria Stuart is showcased in the ethereal early scene in the garden, a specialty of Whale’s, and her lover is nicely played by a young and handsome Walter Pidgeon.

Recommended for Whale, the sophistication and you know, murder.

This post is a part of the ‘Till Death Us Do Part: To Love, Honor…and Murder blogathon hosted by the lovely Theresa Brown over at CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch. For more please click the image below:

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Notes and Extras

  • Kiss started out as a play by Ladislas Fodor, a Hungarian playwright, was translated and then developed into a screenplay. So it’s tough to blame Whale for its rather tough stance on women and marriage as a source of all things heartbreaking and deceitful.  Or assign credit for its clever conversation.
  • Perhaps the witty dialogue shouldn’t come as a surprise. Fodor was the author of the story that later became a pre-Code favorite of mine, Jewel Robbery.  He continued to write professionally until his death in the seventies, primarily for movies and later television, much of the time in Germany.  After a promising start he mostly ends up in Bad B Movie-land.
  • This film was one of numerous collaborations between producer Carl Laemmle Jr. and director James Whale, the most famous being their classic Universal horror films of the thirties. Laemmle the younger was a busy man in 1933, producing twenty-three films including another favorite of mine, the pre-Code courtroom drama Counsellor-at-Law.  Farran Smith Nehme has a beautiful piece on the producer, The High Times and Hard Fall of Carl Laemmle Jr. at filmcomment.com which provides a taut overview of his brief career.  It seems he was involved in another favorite gem, My Man Godfrey, before he was tossed aside at the tender age of twenty-eight.
  • The sometimes fickle Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times, liked this one too, calling it “an intelligently conceived story”. As he relates, “a very impressive sequence is that in which [Paul] delivers his summing up speech in the defense” of Walter.  Kiss definitely falls into the categories of not just Noir, pre-Code and psychological thriller but also solidly within the genre of the  courtroom dramas that were so popular at the time.  Hall refers to Frank Morgan’s performance as a bit histrionic but in my mind it suits the theatricality of the premise and art direction.
  • Speaking of art, this film has some fantastic posters.  Here’s my favorite:
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  • Danny Reid at Pre-Code.com shares another cool poster as well as his thoughts about the movie, which he liked, in his review.   It includes this succinct observation:

Human relationships are more complicated than simple revenge can properly encapsulate, and the film’s ending, where Paul and Maria forgive each other for their baser desires, is remarkably heartfelt. The movie is more interested in finding the underpinnings of these characters and seeing how far the coarseness in their souls will take them rather than arguing simple gender politics.

  • I love it when I get to see Morgan display his dramatic range in these early talking movies. Unfortunately, at least in my book, we don’t get to see it much following his career-defining Wizard in what else, The Wizard of Oz.  He’s on my short list of men displaying charm and yes, intelligence in the early thirties.  And I can never get enough of that.
  • Morgan and Nancy Carroll play cute together in this one. I found Carroll quite enchanting. Reportedly receiving more fan mail than any other star of the early thirties, her career was nevertheless limited.  Paramount released this charming actor from her contract by the middle of the decade, apparently tiring of issues with feisty non-compliance.  Too bad.
  • Oh – Be sure to take note of the glittering beauty of Gloria Stuart in the opening sequence. She retained those lustrous eyes for 1997’s Best Picture winner Titanic. For her portrayal of the aging Rose, she was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress in a Supporting Role, the oldest actor ever to receive a nomination.  The film won an incredible eleven Academy Awards and brought Stuart’s light and luminosity once again into cinematic imaginations.  Stuart died in 2010 at the amazing age of one hundred.
  • One more slightly eerie note stands as a testament to the detail shown in the making of this film. When Morgan emerges into the bright sunlight following his conversation with the prosecutor, music plays faintly in the background, echoing from the city streets. The melody is that of a Viennese and German folk song whose tune was later taken up in later nineteenth century America as ‘Did You Ever See a Lassie’.  These lyrics nicely echo the male dilemmas in this film:

Did you ever see a lassie,

A lassie, a lassie?

Did you ever see a lassie,

Go this way and that?

Go this way and that way,

Go this way and that way.

Did you ever see a lassie,

Go this way and that?

Imagine it sung in chilling children’s voices and you’ll get the full effect. Sleep tight and watch out for the shattering glass. X

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