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Myrna Loy - 8/2
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Myrna Loy - 8/2

Beginning in movies as an extra in silent films, Myrna Loy (1905-1993) progressed from Oriental vamp to "perfect wife" and, along the way, proved herself a performer of unusual wit, grace and intelligence. Like Clark Gable, she commanded both the male and female audience; men saw her as the ideal mate and women wanted to be like her. With her unflappable poise and (as film historian David Shipman put it) "dry-martini voice," Loy achieved icon status with her portrayal of Nora Charles in the Thin Man movies. In 1936 she was the No. 1 female box-office attraction in films. That same year, fans voted her "Queen of the Movies" to Clark Gable's "King."

Born Myrna Williams in Raidersburg, Montana, Loy moved to Los Angeles as a teenager and by 18 was dancing in the chorus at Grauman's Chinese Theater. Rudolph Valentino, after testing Loy for one of his films, failed to cast her but did offer a recommendation that helped the aspiring actress get a start. She made her film debut in 1925 and a year later was signed to a five-year contract at Warner Bros., where her roles included a bit part in The Jazz Singer (1927). The final film under her Warners contract was the romantic drama The Naughty Flirt (1931); she was by then a veteran of some four dozen movies.

In 1932 Loy was signed by MGM, where her early roles included the title character's sadistic daughter in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), the most notorious of her "Oriental" vamp characters; and the comedy crime thriller Penthouse (1933), directed by W. S. Van Dyke. It was that director who was inspired to cast William Powell and Loy as Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man (1934), which turned both into instant superstars with their diamond-bright playing of the husband-and-wife sleuthing team. Five popular sequels would follow, including After the Thin Man (1936) and Shadow of the Thin Man (1941).

Loy made a total of 14 movies with Powell, including the Oscar®-winning The Great Ziegfeld (1936), in which she played Billie Burke to his Florenz Ziegfeld; and Love Crazy (1941), a delightful comedy in which Powell pretends to be insane to win back Loy as his wife. Her other most compatible costar at MGM was Clark Gable, with whom Loy starred in seven movies including Manhattan Melodrama (1934), Wife Vs. Secretary (1936), Parnell (1937) Too Hot to Handle (1938) and Test Pilot (1938).

Loy's definitive "perfect wife" portrayal came in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), William Wyler's look at the postwar adjustment of a trio of soldiers including Fredric March as her husband. Wise, humorous, sexy and loving, Loy gave this touching film its emotional center. Although the movie won seven Oscars®, Loy, amazingly, was not even nominated. In fact, she never won an Oscar® nomination in competition but was awarded an honorary award in 1991 for her career achievement. Loy returned to comedy opposite Cary Grant in both The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947) and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948). She also appeared in an underrated film adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel, The Red Pony (1949), co-starring Robert Mitchum.

Loy played the practical mother of a large family in the charming Cheaper By the Dozen (1950), which proved so successful that it spawned a sequel, Belles on Their Toes (1952). Also in the '50s she played comedy in The Ambassador's Daughter (1956) and drama in Lonelyhearts (1958). Taking up the stage late in life, Loy continued working in the theater, television and movies through the 1970s. Her final film was Just Tell Me What You Want (1980). Married four times, she published her autobiography, Being and Becoming, in 1987.

by Roger Fristoe

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