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Although born in Montana, educated at an exclusive girls' school and gifted with an elegance of spirit that would make her a natural at sophisticated comedy, Myrna Loy spent much of the first decade of her film career playing exotic vamps and villainesses of various nationalities. In her autobiography, Being and Becoming (1987), Loy wrote that her "ultimate vamp" came in The Squall (1929), an early talkie directed by Alexander Korda and based on a successful 1926 play of the same title by Jean Bart. In this melodrama, set in Hungary, Loy plays a beautiful and hot-blooded gypsy girl named Nubi who flees her abusive master during the storm of the title and seeks refuge with the Lajos family, a prosperous farming clan. She is taken in as a servant, though she seems to do precious little housework. This sexy temptress is too busy spreading her hypnotic spell and seducing the males of the household, starting with servant Peter (Harry Cording) and then progressing to son Paul (Carroll Nye, later to play Scarlett's second husband in Gone With the Wind) and the patriarch Josef (Richard Tucker). Left in the wreckage of Nubi's conquests are the family's cook, Lena (ZaSu Pitts), who is Peter's fiancé; Paul's intended Irma (Loretta Young); and matriarch Maria (Alice Joyce). The weak-willed Paul is so besotted by Nubi that he flunks out of school and, to afford the jewelry that Nubi demands of him, steals Lena's life savings. The family's turmoil ends only when Nubi's lover arrives to take her away. All the blame seems squarely placed on her, as if the men in question had no responsibility for their actions in the face of Nubi's overwhelming sexuality. The Squall was the first talkie for the Hungarian-born Korda, who worked in Hollywood during the period 1926-30 before moving to England to become a major figure in the British film industry. The movie, a production of First National Pictures, was shot at night at the Burbank studios used during the day by Warner Bros., which owned a majority interest in First National. (The two companies maintained separate identities until the mid-1930s, after which time the identification "A Warner Bros.-First National Picture" was often used.) As a pre-Code film, The Squall was frank about Nubi's sexual conquests and included some language considered daring for the time, including Nye's use of the word "damnation." Loy's temptress is broadly drawn, with the budding star in frizzy hair, dusky makeup and, frequently, bare feet. She wears spangles and clinging off-the-shoulder blouses, and in one scene appears in nothing but a towel. According to prejudices of the time, this "gypsy" is presented as an alien presence, a strange and inherently evil creature who uses her sexual power to destroy men and ruin innocent lives. Before Loy stepped in, "Mexican Spitfire" Lupe Velez had originally been cast in the role. Watching Loy's over-the-top performance with the knowledge of how her career would later evolve, it's difficult to think that she didn't approach her characterization with a certain sense of humor. Both she and the movie were poorly reviewed at the time, with Mordaunt Hall writing in The New York Times that "Miss Loy has her limitations. She is never convincing as the gypsy girl, who speaks in broken English." As for the film itself Hall wrote, "The best that can be said for this production is that the atmospheric effects are sometimes very good. The dialogue and the acting, however, are so pathetic that they discount any minor virtues this offering may possess, for even the discussions concerning love and the hardy embracing are open to ridicule." There is, however, considerable amusement to be had in viewing The Squall today. TCM host Robert Osborne has described it as a "guilty pleasure," and familiarity with TCM staple Singin' in the Rain (1952) can make one appreciate the sometimes-humorous difficulties that were involved in dealing with that new art form, the talking movie. Only 24 when The Squall was released, Loy had already appeared in more than 35 movies. She seemed a worldly and seasoned veteran to Loretta Young, who was a teenager at the time. "There are certain personalities that you meet in your life that you want to know better," Young later recalled, as quoted in Loy's autobiography. "I thank God that I did get to know Myrna better, because when we first met, I had that kind of stay-away feeling from her. There was an aloofness about her, I thought, heightened by that upturned nose of hers - it's the only one like it in the world I've ever seen... In The Squall and the other two pictures we made together she played gorgeous, glamorous femme fatales to my simpering ingénues. At 16 or 17 those roles seemed real to me, and I was in awe of her." Although already established as a star, ZaSu Pitts - like Loy and Young - had her greatest fame ahead of her. But top-billed Alice Joyce had enjoyed major stardom in silent films, where she earned the title "Madonna of the Screen" for her wistful features and presence. The Squall was her first talkie, and she seemed out of her element; after three more films she would retire from the screen. Twenty years after The Squall, Loy appeared in a romantic drama produced in England by Korda and titled If This Be Sin. She wrote in her autobiography that Korda "never let me live down my barefoot cavorting as Nubi, the oversexed 'geepsy.'" She told him that had been "a long time ago, and I was only a child actress." His ironic response: "Yes, and I was a child director." (He was actually 36 when the film was made.) The Squall has survived intact in its 16mm print with Vitaphone soundtrack. It has been released on DVD through the Warner Archive Collection label. The movie was remade in Mexico in 1951 by Spanish director Luis Buñuel, with Rosita Quintana in Loy's role.
By Roger Fristoe