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By now, Myrna Loy's enduring portrayal of Nora Charles in the ThinMan series has pushed the fact that she was hardly an overnight successinto the recesses of movie history. Loy served one of the lengthier moviestar apprenticeships, appearing in over 70 films before she caught on withthe public (for a more recent example of eventual-star stamina, check outJack Nicholson's pre-Easy Rider  resume.) Given Loy's immense gifts as acomic actress, and her obvious sex appeal, it's surprising it took her solong. However, until she appeared in the mob comedy-melodrama,Penthouse (1933), she was typecast either as a "bad girl" or as a multi-culturalexotic with a non-specific accent. Some producers even tried to pass heroff as Asian!
Penthouse is one of those Depression-era pieces of fluff thatdeflates the rich while glorifying salt-of-the-earth types. In other words,it was exactly what audiences wanted to see at the time. Warner Baxterstars as Jackson Durant, a wealthy lawyer who gets a kick out of defendinggangsters and lowlifes. Unfortunately, Jackson's snooty fiance (MaeClarke), isn't particularly taken with his clientele, so she leaves him fora man of a higher social standing (Phillip Holmes). When she winds upmurdered, Jackson pursues the killer, and meets Gertie Waxted (Loy), ano-nonsense call girl who's truer to Jackson than the murdered woman everwas. Guess which two characters fall in love?
Penthouse is a spiffy, thoroughly enjoyable time-killer. Moreimportantly, though, it served as the first teaming of Loy and director W.S.Van Dyke, who would mastermind the majority of her Thin Man pictures.In fact, Van Dyke was as responsible as anybody for getting Loy out ofcharacter actress hell. After directing Penthouse, Van Dykepersonally approached Louis B. Mayer and stated that Loy would become one ofthe biggest stars in Hollywood if the studio would just keep giving her'American girl' roles.
According to Loy, who was always nonplussed by her stardom and unlikely toinvent such a story, Van Dyke passed through the MGM commissary shouting,"This girl's going to be a big star! Next year she'll be a star!" Shortlythereafter, Mayer assigned Van Dyke the task of directing a boxing picturestarring heavyweight champion Max Baer. Van Dyke immediately recruited Loyto play the female lead (in The Prizefighter and the Lady, 1933), and they were officially a team.
Then, less than a year later, Van Dyke (who made a little over three films ayear for 25 years) cast Loy opposite Clark Gable in a gangster picturecalled Manhattan Melodrama (1934). It says a lot about Loy's then-growingpopularity that gangster John Dillinger, who said Myrna was his favorite actress,attended a Chicago screening of Manhattan Melodrama, even though hewas the most wanted man in America. While exiting the theater, Dillingerwas shot dead by the F.B.I. (No word on whether he gave the picture athumbs-up.)
The first Thin Man movie followed in short order, and Loy became "abig star." Her effortless grace as a light comedienne is a testament notonly to her talents, but to Van Dyke's ability to see what so many otherpeople had missed.
Producer: Hunt Stromberg
Director: W.S. Van Dyke
Screenplay: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Arthur Somers Roche (story)
Cinematography: Lucien Andriot, Harold Rosson
Film Editing: Robert Kern
Art Direction: Alexander Toluboff
Music: William Axt
Cast: Warner Baxter (Jackson Durant), Myrna Loy (Gertie Waxted), Charles Butterworth (Layton), Mae Clarke (Mimi Montagne), Phillips Holmes (Tom Siddall), C. Henry Gordon (Jim Crelliman).
by Paul Tatara