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.”