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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Dancing As Fast As They Can: Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

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A RKO Production ~  Director: Dorothy Arzner, Based on a story by Vicki Baum, Screenplay by Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis, Art Director: Van Nest Polglase,  Costume Designer: Edward Stevenson

What a warm, satisfying movie this is. As must happen in post-Code Hollywood, a young woman pays a price, both for her naïveté as well as her ability to pack a good wallop, but becomes a better woman for it, having come to terms with her own nature and realizing her dreams in the process.

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There is so much in Dance, Girl, Dance that it’s hard to know where to begin. What’s most interesting is that Dorothy Arzner has been able to present characters that make many mistakes and yet remain sympathetic. She has an unerring sense of humanity towards these people, hiding their foibles in plain sight by rendering them as charming as they are flawed and struggling.

Their struggles involve primarily finding out who they are but also in finding who they love and it is only in resolving the first that they are able to discover the second. The resolved romances at films end work nicely to underscore this sense that these people have finally come home, only to find themselves opening the door. The film works as a romantic comedy but definitely has serious pre-feminist undertones.

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Our heroine,  Judy O’Brian, played by a luminous and young Maureen O’Hara, admits her Irish feistiness but acknowledges she “keeps it to a low simmer”. Her best friend, also a bit of an antagonist, is portrayed by a gorgeous and scene-stealing Lucille Ball. She plays Bubbles, a gold-digger disguised as a dancer but not necessarily one with a heart of gold. Her comedic gifts are certainly on display but here there’s a toughness and an edge rarely seen. Bubbles’ primary aim is to find that gold and keep it for herself; survival is the name of the game. While she’s capable of being a friend she’s not necessarily capable of being a good one.

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Bubbles offers Judy a chance to finally make a living dancing but it’s a humiliating one where she is actually called a Stooge. Sent on stage to be mocked and laughed at, she’s there to stoke the crowd for the more seductively naughty Bubbles, now facetiously dubbed Tiger Lily White, in a burlesque show.

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Judy longs for the kind of break that would allow her to truly pursue her heart and become a serious dancer, but her lack of confidence gets in the way and prevents her from sensing opportunity when it literally smiles her way. As the one doing the smiling, Ralph Bellamy adds a warm presence and a handy shoulder.

Judy’s nightly onstage humiliation moves her anger from what was a simmer to a slow burn and ultimately a full-blown knockdown drag-out with Bubbles. Ostensibly about a man who takes turns toying with each of them, a smarmy Louis Hayward, the confrontation is more about the women’s relationship and who they are to one another. Bubbles maintains this friendship not just because Judy has been useful to her but because she brings a warmth and depth to her life that would not be there without her companionship. Similarly, Judy admires Bubbles ability to unabashedly pursue her selfish interests and thereby make her way in the world, a man’s world, despite compromises. These are two tough women and they admire each other. But the dichotomy they represent is also why they come to blows.

This film opens with a simple dance sequence, marked by dazzling costumes, that immediately establishes character.  This small troupe is overseen by a wise Maria Oupenskaya, portraying Madame Lydia Basilova, who makes a short but lovely appearance as the original source of strength for these women.  Madame, a former ballerina and  head of her own dance troupe is a role model for Judy and Bubbles in an industry compromised by catering to men’s ogles and desires. Madame is tragically killed when Judy goes to what should’ve been her big break but which instead becomes only a revelatory moment; Judy is too frightened to fully pursue her dreams.  It is only when she finally grabs hold of her own anger that she is able to understand she is entitled to her own happiness.

Much of the story revolves around men who are used as plot devices; this is a woman’s story. In one literally show stopping moment O’Hara delivers a scathing speech to her predominately male audience, best seen rather than described. It’s far ahead of its time.

Despite being a film about dance the costuming works in homage to the characters and their development. The film opens with the small troupe dancing in unison in glittering black. However, as the women’s paths diverge, they are never again seen in identical costumes. Bubbles rise up the ladder of success involves not just a name change but the donning of gorgeous coats with luscious fur collars. She is expensively accessorized. Similarly, Judy is seen in simple designs, even wearing a Peter Pan collar to a nightclub, until the very end when she finally comes into her own. The costumes in this picture were designed by Edward Stevenson,  known for his ability to enhance story without drawing attention to his own designs. He later became the favorite designer for Lucille Ball who appreciated his eye for character-driven costumes that never overpowered her considerable personality except when needed for comedic effect.

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Maureen O’Hara positively glows with her youthfulness and beauty in this early role. A mere twenty years old at the time, she had already succeeded in starring roles in two motion pictures, this being her fifth film.

For Lucille Ball, the road to fame was a much longer, arduous process. Almost unbelievably this was Ms. Ball’s 60th film, with many more to come before she finally achieved stardom as Mrs. Ricky Ricardo in the famed I Love Lucy television series. The series was a love child for Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz.

Based on a story by Vicky Baum and a script by the frequent screenwriting partnership of Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) Dance, Girl, Dance definitely showcases the perspective of the women who created it and the men who supported their vision.

Recommended, for knowledge of woman in film, lovers of Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball and sheer entertainment. 

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Notes and Extras

  • Bosley Crowther at the New York Times didn’t particularly care for this one, citing it as “a saga of glamour-struck chorines to end all sagas of said glamour-struck chorines” and not in a flattering way.  He does have a few kind words for Lucille Ball.
  • Yet this film is gaining in esteem and this is reflected over at Streamline, the Filmstruck Blog.  David Kalat gives it a fair amount of space and good words, in addition to exploring some other movies in the ‘small town girl hoping to make good’ genre.
  • Crowther also withheld praise from Too Many Girls, Desi Arnaz’s first film, co-starring his new bride, Lucille.  The influential critic had better words for her than for Arnaz who he panned horribly describing him as a “a noisy, black-haired Latin whose face unfortunately lacks expression and whose performance is devoid of grace”.  Needless to say Arnaz persevered.
  • The couple not only persevered but went on to buy  the very property where this was shot, along with the rest of RKO’s soundstages and backlots, subsuming them into the massive empire that became Desilu Studios.
  • Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz actually met during the filming of Dance, Girls, Dance.  Due to the strenousness of filming a morning into afternoon vicious catfight between O’Hara and Ball, shooting was stopped, freeing up the latter for the remainder of the day. Lucy casually strolled over to a stage where the cast of Too Many Girls, already in the planning stages, was gathered.  Desi’s quick eye caught hers and he proceeded to not only show her his rumba but asked her to dinner for the evening.  As Lucy later recalled “we were in love almost immediately”.
  • Lucy and Desi were married on November 30, 1940, three months after the release of Dance, Girl, Dance.  For more on their breath-taking relationship and professional partnership, Lucy & Desi: The Legendary Love Story of Television’s Most Famous Couple by Warren G. Harris is highly recommended.
  • Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball became fast friends during the filming of this picture and remained so until Ball’s death in 1989.  O’Hara, nine years her junior, outlived her by twenty-six years.
  • Costume designer Edward Stevenson first worked with Ball on That Girl From Paris (1936), another RKO film. When seeking a designer for her television show I Love Lucy, Ball sought him out.  He worked for her until his death from cardiac arrest in 1968. At the time, Stevenson had placed a called to Desilu to consult upon a fabric. When Ball got to the phone, she was informed he’d been stricken.
  • Director Roy Del Ruth was initially assigned to direct this film, but left the production, causing Arzner to scramble and pull the film together and quickly.
  • Dorothy Arzner was well-suited to pulling things together.  As the only female director working in the 1930’s, she was adaptable.  Arzner was the first woman to direct a sound film and the first to join the Directors Guild of America.
  • Dance,Girl, Dance is available for streaming through Amazon, to either rent or purchase.  Choices, choices.
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Dorothy Arzner with Lucille Ball on set