What could be more perfect on Boxing Day than David Niven’s ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ on BBC2, a big mug of tea and a little light reading…
…which also issued forth from Santa’s generous sack. I’ve actually almost finished it because there’s plot summarising for films I haven’t seen yet so I’m skipping over that, but more of that in a future post.
The autograph is written in faded fountain pen but I’ve tried my best to read Bill’s writing and have deciphered the following:
“To Doris ****man
I just couldn’t make out Doris’s full last name. I wasn’t expecting any historical notes to this picture so was very pleasantly surprised to find this bit of context on the back:
As Santa’s sack also contained some Powell related reading I can now date the photograph to around 1934 – a pivotal moment for Bill as this was the time when his Warner Bros contract was coming to a close and his career seemed at an impasse. Due to falling picture house receipts caused by the Depression, Warners were cutting the pay of their major stars and William Powell’s salary was due to decrease from $8,000 to $4,000 per week. ‘The Thin Man’ was the one non-Warners picture Bill was allowed to make a year as per his contract but this then led to a two picture deal with MGM that included ‘Manhattan Melodrama’. Powell formally left Warner Bros on 1 March 1934 and those two pictures changed his career, solidifying the William Powell light comedy persona and bringing him into contact with Myrna Loy. I had to chuckle at the Streamline film blog, who describe Bill’s characters in his early career at Paramount and Warners as villains, ‘oily cads’ and ‘mountebanks’.
The photograph was taken by Russell Ball, an interesting character as he wasn’t retained by a particular studio as he preferred to work independently and did gorgeous portraits for fan magazines such as Photoplay and Motion Picture. Strangely enough Ball tended to take pictures that emphasised movement and fluidity whereas in this photograph Powell is static, although he kind of looks like he’s either on his way to somewhere or is in a ballroom looking out on the scene before him. Regardless, Bill was definitely going places when this picture was taken, whether he realised it or not.
The world is waking up to the legend that is Carole Lombard again. Her fierce independence and insistence on living her life on her own terms in 1930s Hollywood marks her out as an intriguing proto feminist.
And given her close links to William Powell it gave me even more reason to seek out a biography of her, and luckily I found this brand new one. It seems like there hasn’t been a major biography of Lombard since the 1970s which is a major omission when you think what she achieved professionally, but also personally – Carole truly touched the lives of practically everyone she came into contact with.
I’m not going to go on about her relationship with Bill Powell here as I’ve already written reams about it in my entry for the Carole Lombard Blogathon (14 January!), however one aspect of Michelle Morgan’s book that I really appreciated was that Morgan discusses Lombard’s relationships dispassionately and without judgement. There’s a tendency to view Clark Gable as a complete shit because of his unfaithfulness but Michelle Morgan merely records this as a possibility rather than incontrovertible fact and doesn’t bore us to death moralising about it – ultimately we weren’t there in that relationship or amongst that group of friends so who are we to judge?
I suppose the only thing I would have liked to have seen more of is perhaps situating Carole’s personal and professional life within a discussion around the political context of the era, and what it meant for women and Hollywood – for example Carole’s support for FDR and the New Deal, why she supported the war so wholeheartedly, why she wouldn’t be happy being Bill Powell’s perfect housewife, her mother’s feminist leanings and such like.
However it certainly doesn’t detract from a cracking read – Morgan captures the fast paced energy of the 1930s in her writing and the wit and personality of our favourite fizzy blonde. I monstered the entire book in about a week and I’m just really glad that Michelle Morgan’s done Carole Lombard justice.
So here is my first foray into feature length silent pictures! And actually Sherlock Holmes wasn’t a bad place to start because it was known as one of the ‘talkiest’ silents due to the sheer amount of verbose title cards.
This film isn’t just well known for featuring the screen debuts of William Powell and Roland Young, but also for having been lost for many years. It was eventually discovered in various cans and painstakingly reassembled – luckily the director Albert Parker was still alive and just about remembered the correct sequence. Apparently around 26 minutes is still missing but you really can’t tell.
I wasn’t expecting silent movies to be absorbing but, although this picture isn’t brilliant, the silent aspect wasn’t an issue. I suspect that being used to certain Holmes tropes made me a bit incredulous watching this early version – the romance with Alice for example seemed unbelievable because I’m used to Holmes being asexual.
What I did enjoy about the picture was that amazing aerial shot of London and the other location scenes, such as one scene in front of a massive billboard advertising Bovril!
I was pleasantly surprised just how much William Powell had to do in this picture – I’d assumed being a mere debut that he’d have one blink and you’d miss it scene, but the role of Forman Wells was a meaty one that takes up a substantial and important part in the movie. Forman is the orphaned son of a crook who is groomed by Moriarty to carry out his nefarious activities. Holmes helps him to escape Moriarty’s clutches and joins Holmes in his plot to foil the evil criminal mastermind.
What is also pleasantly surprising is that even in these nascent beginnings of a film career, Bill already radiates natural charisma in every scene in which he appears. Parker had found Bill in the play ‘Spanish Love’ at the Maxine Elliott Theatre in New York and offered him the part, which was being filmed mostly in Long Island. Bill found that he preferred film acting, it was easier, without the need to learn text, and Bill was also very fortunate in having a those big, slightly bug like eyes. We can see in the movie he is able to naturally use them to convey emotion, but he’s also a very physical actor who uses his body to further express the character’s inner feelings. So Forman goes from a nervy, shifty little sod to a more upright, prouder character when he takes up with Holmes.
This is a historic picture on many levels, but it doesn’t do much for me. The screenplay is too confusing and I couldn’t get into John Barrymore as Holmes. Additionally the score in the version I watched although excellently rendered on the Miditzer Virtual Theatre Organ, I’ll grant you is very much in keeping with silent movie tradition, but it didn’t lend the required atmosphere of mystery for me – I just kept thinking of Reginald Dixon rising out of the stage at the Blackpool Tower Ballroom.
One aspect I’m interested in exploring is just why on earth I’d never heard of William Powell before? I find it remarkable that all these years I’ve been a fan of Hollywood’s classic era, watched a bunch of movies by his contemporaries such as Cary Grant and Clark Gable, love Jean Harlow, even heard that ‘My Man Godfrey’ was a must watch and yet he’s never registered. And yet I’ve heard of secondary character actors such as Franchot Tone or Walter Pidgeon.
The only explanation I can come up with is that, well I’m an ordinary working class girl from a small town in Yorkshire in the North of England and William Powell hasn’t achieved the same immortal and iconic status in this country as for example Cary Grant has. Trawling round the internet, I’ve found that Bill has a lot of loyal fans, but they seem to be mostly in America. And my hypothesis for this is that Powell’s image was that of a gentleman, suave, debonair, sophisticated, but American. And here in England what we’re not short of in our popular culture are iconic gentlemen whether past or present. So for me it’s easy to see how William Powell got lost in amongst the English gentlemen who made it big in Hollywood.
And certainly Hollywood wasn’t short of dapper English gentlemen in the 30s – Bill’s best friend, Ronnie Colman, Cary Grant, David Niven, Robert Donat, were all major stars, and if there’s one thing we love in England it’s when one of our own makes it big over the pond. Actually Robert Donat was also from the North, from Withington in Manchester. He took elocution lessons mostly to cure a stammer, but used his natural Mancunian accent in 1949’s ‘The Cure for Love’ – which revived the stammer.
And what happens is that when one of our own comes home telling tales of Hollywood they’re almost treated like a demigod! That’s certainly the case for David Niven who regularly did the chat show circuit on his frequent trips home. He was hugely popular, and his interviews with Michael Parkinson are hilarious as you would expect. You can watch one of them here:
Ronnie Colman and particularly Cary Grant were always more reticent – Grant would come home to Bristol to visit his mother and relatives a couple of times a year but made arrangements with the local papers in Bristol to leave him alone and respect his family’s privacy.
Interestingly, Graham McCann in his superlative biography of Grant, ‘A Class Apart’, provides the following definition of ‘the Hollywood Gentleman’:
“The Hollywood Gentleman was pictured as a breed apart: he played among the privileged without himself symbolising privilege; he lived with them but he remained one of us. The ordinariness of the extraordinary was important… The Hollywood gentleman, blessed with the modern democratic spirit, needed to be shown to be a common man at heart, unspoilt in spite of it all.”
I am thrilled to announce that I am participating in my first blogathon! And I’ll be having a look at Bill and Carole’s relationship – marital and platonic…
Carole and Bill met in 1931 working on the film ‘Man of the World’, and were taken with each other immediately, eventually getting married, but realising their undeniably strong connection to each other was actually a friendship. This led to a remarkably amicable divorce and, as I’ll discuss, the flowering of artistic excellence!
January 2017 marks the 75th anniversary of Carole’s passing in that horrendous air crash in 1942 – truly a terrible loss to her family and friends but also to popular culture, as Carole’s far-reaching talent gave her the ability to achieve even greater success as an actress and a comedian going into the 1940s, I am certain of that. And this blogathon gives us an opportunity to celebrate this amazing lady, and the amazing legacy she left behind for us to enjoy – not just the pictures she worked on, but as an example of a woman who lived her life on her own terms, and took no bullcrap from anyone.
Ronald Colman season is up and running on Talking Pictures TV! Ronnie and Bill were old friends back from the silent days and had appeared in pictures such as Romola (1924) and Beau Geste (1926), and with another silent movie star, Richard Barthelmess, formed Hollywood’s ‘Three Musketeers’ – three bachelors on the town, misbehaving in a terribly handsome and debonair fashion. Bit like a more mature version of David Niven and Errol Flynn’s ‘Cirrhosis by the Sea’.
The next picture is Arrowsmith (1931) on Saturday 3 December 2016 at 10am. Talking Pictures TV can be found at Sky Channel 343, Freeview 81, Freesat 306, Youview 81.