Why William Powell?

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We’re going on a journey! And I hope you’ll join me on this journey through Bill Powell’s life and movies!

A major movie star, William Powell was contracted to Metro Goldwyn Mayer for so long he actually qualified for the company pension. However this is a major movie star that I had actually never heard of until recently.

I’ve always preferred old movies, particularly from Hollywood’s golden age – I love how they transport you to a different world and a heightened reality. And my heart has always fluttered for a certain type of pencil moustached hero that’s possibly a bit unfashionable now – Clark Gable, Robert Donat, David Niven. And although not blessed with face fungus let’s always remember Cary Grant. I’ve seen tons of their pictures, read the books and every essay going, watched the documentaries. So I’m perplexed and intrigued as to why, William Powell, a peer who was as much a box office draw as they were was so off my radar, and I’m going to explore this further in future posts.

It Happened One Night

So how did William Powell get onto my radar? Well I was revisiting my love of Clark Gable, reading the superlative biography by Warren Harris and watching his movies, particularly my favourite, It Happened One Night. This lead to a renewed interest in Carole Lombard and screwball comedies generally so I thought I ought to watch a film I’d been meaning to watch for years, My Man Godfrey. And that was that! I watched it with my mouth agape for the majority of the picture. I’d never seen such a bizarre picture with such a commitment to lunacy. The energy of the performances particularly from Lombard, Mischa Auer and Alice Brady was like being slapped in the face repeatedly with a wet fish. I was completely exhausted by the end of it, except for the sardonic presence of the butler, Godfrey, watching aghast at the antics in front of him. Needless to say Powell’s subtle WTF reactions made the entire picture doubly hilarious. In a daze I watched it again and started to wonder, who is this dude?

Where to start?

Having made various attempts at keeping a blog in the past, I had always wanted to a place to practice creative writing, as well as wanting to make use of a long neglected media studies degree, which included a film studies module, and this seemed a good way to have a go. I’m hoping to learn a lot more about early Hollywood, the silent age, early talkies and the pre-code era and explore these further through William Powell’s films. It won’t be a thorough academic study or anything like that, just for my curiosity and enjoyment!

As I’ve watched a number of his pictures now, as well as reading various books and websites, for the purposes of this tribute blog, I debated whether to start properly with William Powell’s silent movies or just do the talking pictures he’s better known for. Or even whether to look at them chronologically at all. However after some deliberation I decided to take the plunge and take them in date order, from his first appearance in ‘Sherlock Holmes’ from 1922. This is a new experience for me as I’ve not had much to do with silent movies, except for the odd Laurel & Hardy short down at my local fleapit picture house.

And not just movies – I’ll also be looking at Powell related memorabilia and books and biographies of his friends and the classic age of Hollywood. I’ll also be having a look at Bill’s dear friends and co-stars, with special mentions going to Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow, Ronald Colman, Richard Barthelmess and Charles Farrell. Which brings me on to…

William Powell’s Personal Life

The lives of the Hollywood stars in the golden age are endlessly fascinating and Powell’s is no different. I hope to share my thoughts with you on this in future posts.

Having read Eve Golden’s ‘Platinum Girl there maybe views regarding William Powell’s ambivalence towards Jean Harlow who adored him. Or even about his marriage to Carole Lombard. Or his marriage to Diana Lewis! However it’s not in my nature to judge the actions of consenting adults and how they ran their sex lives. I think that would be very hypocritical of me. Powell was no different to my other heroes Clark Gable and Cary Grant, they were all complex personalities operating in a complicated world full of money, ego and beautiful girls.

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The stars of the golden age were ahead of their time in many ways, living their intimate relationships in ways that shouldn’t be shocking to us today, but at the same time having to live with a stifling moral code that was breathtaking in its hypocrisy. Therefore I often find it a bit odd that film star biographies can often be a bit ‘judgey’ about their subject’s sex lives – written from the vantage point of today and our sexual freedom, it seems odd to be critical of their choices. I dare say I’ll offer a view on certain matters, this isn’t going to be a hagiography, but ultimately we’re talking about events of nearly 100 years ago, that I wouldn’t have been a party to because I certainly wouldn’t have been mixing in that social circle!

So let’s get started – put our feet up, get chilled out and pour ourselves a martini the right way…

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