Star of the Month: William Powell

April 18, 2023
 Star Of The Month: William Powell

Wednesdays in May | 7 Movies

What makes a Hollywood leading man? Gable embodied masculinity. Grant was the epitome of class and sophistication. And Stewart was everybody’s everyman.

William Powell, the star of over 90 films from the silent era to the 1950s, seemed to possess some of each of these qualities along with his own unique charisma. This helped him become Classic Hollywood’s quintessential high society gentleman.

Every Wednesday in May, TCM will pay tribute to this most special leading man and the classic movies in which he starred. This program of over 40 films will include a wide range of pictures which show Powell in both his most identifiable roles and those for which he is perhaps less remembered.   

Powell was born in Pittsburgh in 1892, the only child of upper middleclass parents who originally wanted their son to study law. Powell’s theatrical ambitions developed early on, however. Though he was accepted into the elite American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, Powell only completed one year before starting to perform in the vaudeville and stock company circuits. This path led the ambitious actor all the way to Broadway where he found steady work as a character actor. It was as the villain in the hit play Spanish Love in 1920, that Powell first attracted the attention of Goldwyn Pictures who cast him as the menacing Foreman Wells opposite John Barrymore in the 1922 silent version of Sherlock Holmes (1922)He would continue in Hollywood for the rest of his career.

While best remembered today as a dapper MGM gentleman, Powell’s early silent days saw the actor playing mostly smaller villainous roles like a gangster tormenting Dorothy Gish in The Beautiful City (1925) or a wealthy playboy taking advantage of naive aspiring actress Clara Bow in The Runaway (1926). 

It was really after the dawn of sound, when Powell’s stage trained voice was heard, that he was thought better used as a leading man. Powell’s first lasting partnership and his first string of successes as a romantic lead came with leading lady Kay Francis. The two made six films at Paramount and Warner Bros, between 1930 and 1932. The most successful of these was One Way Passage (1932). Powell plays Dan, a man accused of murder who is fleeing execution. While on the run, he accidentally meets the beautiful Joan (Francis), a young woman with a fatal illness. Without knowing each other’s secrets, the two fall deeply in love while aboard an ocean liner sailing from Hong Kong to San Francisco. This combination of comedy, drama and romance is a signature of the pre-code era and a number of similar films would come after, including the direct remake ’Til We Meet Again (1940) made only eight years later. The 1932 film won an Oscar for Robert Lord’s original story. 

In 1934, Powell switched studios again to MGM, where he would achieve his greatest success as both an actor and star. In this first year alone, Powell made four films at his new studio. The film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s mystery comedy story The Thin Man (1934), was not planned to be any kind of prestigious project. The notoriously fast paced director W.S. Van Dyke (known on the lot as “One Take Woody”), shot the film in less than three weeks. He relied on his actors to learn their dialogue and blocking sometimes the day of shooting. Van Dyke often didn’t even tell them he was already rolling the cameras as they were quickly running through their scenes. This unrehearsed technique was decades ahead of its time, but also created a naturalistic style which is perhaps why the film remains especially fresh today. Powell and Myrna Loy play newlyweds Nick and Nora Charles who have returned to New York City after a four-year absence to visit former detective Nick’s old friends. When they begin asking the reluctant Nick for advice on a new case, Nora convinces him to take it on just because she finds it especially fun. The film was a surprise hit and earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director for W.S. Van Dyke, Best Adapted Screenplay for Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (the famous husband and wife writing team), and Best Actor for Powell. This was the first of the actor’s three nominations over his career. Powell credited much of his success in the role of Nick Charles and many other of his most acclaimed performances to his costar Myrna Loy. He said of working with the actress: “When we did a scene together, we forgot about technique, camera angles, and microphones. We weren't acting. We were just two people in perfect harmony.” They would ultimately make fourteen movies together. You know it’s a great partnership when they have not one, but at least three DVD box sets of their work. 

In 1936, Powell played the title role in the Best Picture Winner, The Great Ziegfeld (1936). This epic biopic of the legendary showman Florenz Ziegfeld chronicles his rise from small time vaudeville promoter to becoming the most successful Broadway impresario of all time. The film also looks at his two marriages, first to French singer Anna Held (Luise Rainer in an Oscar winning performance) and then to Broadway actress Billie Burke. Though Burke was still alive and acting in films at the time, it was again Powell’s regular screen wife Myrna Loy who was cast. The film is rather loose in its historical accuracy. It is the endless extravagant musical numbers done as only MGM could create (and afford), which elevate the film to Best Picture material. Powell characterizes Ziegfeld as a theatrical genius whose eye for talent and certainty of how to market it helps him escape many responsibilities and obligations. It remains the standard portrayal of the showman and Powell was asked to play the character again a decade later as a cameo in the MGM revue Ziegfeld Follies (1945). 

Despite this film’s success, it was for his other film of 1936 My Man Godfrey which Powell earned his second Oscar nomination. On loan out to Universal, Powell again plays the title character. Carole Lombard is the ditsy heiress Irene, who on a dare picks up homeless man Godfrey off the streets and hires him as the family butler. It becomes immediately apparent that Godfrey has much better manners than his elitist employers and may not be all that he seems. Though Constance Bennett and Miriam Hopkins were mentioned as possible actresses for the role of Irene, Powell petitioned his ex-wife Lombard for the role, saying the dynamic between the two characters was much like their brief two-year marriage had been. The two had remained good friends despite their divorce three years prior.

Powell’s last Oscar nomination came over a decade later for playing yet another stubborn sophisticate in Warner Bros film version of the hit play Life with Father (1947). Powell is Clarence Day, the patriarch of an upper-class New York City family in 1883. Clarence is the most exacting and pompous of men, without much grasp over how the real world works. He thinks his house and everything else around him should be run just as he runs his Wall Street office. It is really his wife Vinnie (Irene Dunne in her only film with Powell) who runs the household. The film is a real curiosity to watch today. The misogyny and elitism of Powell’s character make him not the most likeable. It was not too unlikeable for audiences in 1947, however. The film was Warner Bros’ top grossing film of 1947 after the original play had run for over eight years and 3,000 performances on Broadway. Look for a lovely 15-year-old Elizabeth Taylor in a small role. 

Powell’s last few appearances were mostly in smaller character roles. His final performance was as the aging Lieutenant Doc in the all-star Naval comedy/drama, Mister Roberts (1955). Set in the last days of World War II, Henry Fonda is Navy Lieutenant Roberts who wants to go from working on a non-combative cargo ship to serving in combat. All the other men on the ship turn to Lt Roberts for advice and defense from the cruel Captain Morton (James Cagney). Young Jack Lemmon won an Oscar for his supporting performance as Ensign Pulver who Lt Roberts takes under his wing. Though a small part, Powell’s performance as the ships doctor and unofficial patriarch of the crew is especially touching.

Unlike many of his fellow leading men of the 1930s and 40s, Powell chose not to continue in movies as an older character actor. Instead, he settled into a comfortable retirement in Palm Springs where he resided for another thirty years before his death of heart failure in 1984 at the age of 91.

He leaves behind an impressive body of work and a beloved place among the great Classic Hollywood stars.