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William Powell - Star of the Month
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William Powell - Thursdays in December

The very picture of cinematic suavity, William Powell (1892-1984) was arguably the screen's most polished light comedian. Immaculate in dress and acting style, he perfected his man-about-town image in the Thin Man movies and evolved into a character actor most at home playing beautifully groomed lawyers and businessmen. Powell's starchy screen presence found a perfect outlet in the role of the domineering but lovable patriarch of Life With Father (1947), for which he won the final of three Oscar® nominations. The others were for The Thin Man (1934) and My Man Godfrey (1936).

William Horatio Powell was born in Pittsburgh, the son of a public accountant, and briefly studied at the University of Kansas before heading for New York City and the stage. By 1920 he was acting in a successful Broadway production, Spanish Love, which led to an offer to play the villain opposite John Barrymore in a film version of Sherlock Holmes (1922). Powell remained in films for the next four decades.

TCM's Powell tribute focuses on some of his non-Thin Man roles at Warner Bros., MGM and RKO during the 1930s and '40s. One Way Passage (1932), Powell's biggest hit during this period for Warners, casts him as a condemned murderer who falls in love with a fellow passenger (frequent co-star Kay Francis) while being transported by ship to San Quentin. The Key (1934), set in Dublin in the early 1920s, has Powell as a soldier-for-hire during the Irish "troubles." Fashions of 1934 (1934) features Busby Berkeley production numbers and Powell as a con man who promotes Bette Davis as a star designer.

After moving to MGM and finding overwhelming success in The Thin Man, Powell co-starred with Jean Harlow, his fiancée at the time, in Reckless (1935), a fictionalized romance inspired by torch singer Libby Holman's affair with tobacco heir Smith Reynolds. The World War I espionage thriller Rendezvous (1935) is lightened by comic touches provided by Powell as a code-breaking lieutenant and Rosalind Russell as his love interest.

RKO's Star of Midnight (1935) offers Powell a variation on his Thin Man role, a suave attorney who solves the mystery of a missing Broadway actress with help from his sophisticated girlfriend (Ginger Rogers rather than Myrna Loy). Continuing in the same vein at the same studio, Powell plays an urbane doctor in The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936), with Jean Arthur as the daffy ex-wife who comes to his aid when he is suspected of murder.

Back at MGM, Powell played opposite Luise Rainer in The Emperor's Candlesticks (1937), a romantic drama about spies who fall in love although they work for opposing empires in pre-World War I Europe and Russia. MGM beauty Hedy Lamarr joined the ranks of Powell's leading ladies in the romantic comedy The Heavenly Body (1943), in which he is a work-obsessed astronomer and she is his neglected wife.

by Roger Fristoe
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