People who know me well will confirm that I’m an inveterate collector. My poor husband despairs. Our loft groans with boxes of bus and train timetables, seaside postcards, beer mats, even sugar packets. So my new found love for William Powell led me down the rabbit warren that is eBay and I was pleasantly surprised to find plenty of old merchandise, reasonably priced to boot.
As it happens, William Powell’s most successful years coincide with the golden age of the cigarette card, roughly the 1920s to 1939 precisely. Why 1939? Well with the start of World War 2 on 1 September 1939, the U.K. needed all the paper and other materials it could get hold of and therefore tobacco manufacturers ceased production of the little cards, which were designed to stiffen paper cigarette packets, they weren’t made from cardboard like today.
So I’ve started the collection with this little beauty, and judging by the pictures outlined on the back, probably dates from 1928, which coincides with the latter part of Bill’s silent era that I’m currently looking at:
Bill certainly looks appropriately villainous and caddish in the picture, and I was pleasantly surprised to see him described as a ‘star’ even before the talking pictures that sealed his fame. But the description at the back contains a small mystery – ‘Nevada’, ‘Senorita’ and ‘Forgetten Faces’ are all pictures I know about, but ‘Raymond Wants To Get Married’? Now that’s not in Bill’s Wikipedia filmography, it’s not mentioned in Roger Bryant’s book and I can’t find any mention of it on the internet! Very strange!
In 1927 Bill made a 5 reel short called ‘Time to Love’ with Raymond Griffith – The Silk Hat Comedian. Now as the plot does revolve around Raymond’s character wanting to marry the Countess Elvire, with hilarious consequences, I am guessing this must be the same movie. Often Hollywood films are renamed for the UK market and vice versa, so perhaps this was the case here.
‘Time to Love’ is in the hands of a private collector, like most of the films on the back of the card – although none are available for viewing, we should be grateful that they even survived at all. Certainly the vast majority of Raymond Griffiths’s work are lost as are most of William Powell’s silent pictures and I’ll be looking into this more closely in the next week or two.
Writing biographies of classic era movie stars is no simple feat – the subject as well as their contemporaries are probably long gone and certainly in the case of William Powell, didn’t leave much information behind about their lives. Powell was a very private and reserved individual who wasn’t interested in pushing himself forward as a celebrity. He gave very few interviews and receded from view almost entirely after his retirement. He also gave a wry chuckle about fellow stars doing the chat show circuit in the 1970s reminiscing about their heyday.
That can leave a writer in a predicament – whether to write a factual manual based entirely on the subject’s professional output, or to try and read between the lines (as well as thousands of fan magazines) and produce a story based on conjecture and opinion. Bit of a thankless task really, because either way the author can end up having their work slated in the reviews section of Amazon.
Roger Bryant’s book falls into the former camp, which many have been critical of. For my purposes though I’ve found the book invaluable as a reference. You’ll notice that I refer to it constantly. What’s particularly useful to me at this moment in time is the amount of additional information regarding Powell’s silent output, especially those films that are lost and it’s good to have those background details, stories and context behind pictures that we’re sadly never going to see. I have to say at this point that because the book is mostly about William Powell’s professional output I haven’t actually read it in great depth – each movie is described at some length which means that there are the inevitable spoilers to films I haven’t seen yet. So I read those sections after I’ve seen a picture and skim over the rest. Clearly, Bryant has researched Powell’s work extensively and it shows. It is a dispassionate guide that doesn’t dwell heavily on Bill’s personal life or try to guess his feelings.
For me the mother lode of all star biographies is Graham McCann’s ‘Cary Grant: A Class Apart’ – another exceptionally reticent individual, who very rarely gave interviews. No Michael Parkinson for him in the 70s! Graham McCann is a Cambridge fellow who’s main areas of study are the interfaces between society and popular culture. He’s particularly well known in the U.K. for producing a number of best selling biographies of superstar comedians, most notably Frankie Howerd, Terry Thomas and Morecambe & Wise, however A Class Apart was his first major work and it is a superlative deconstruction of how Grant transcended Britain’s stifling class system – reinventing himself from terrible poverty in working class Bristol to become the ultimate Hollywood Gentleman.
Roger Bryant’s book is not Bill’s definitive biography, and it makes me wonder whether there are any writers out there prepared to take up what would be a considerable challenge given the constraints I’ve outlined above. However, in line with McCann’s more academic study of Cary Grant’s life, I believe something similar could be achieved. For example, McCann discusses how women are treated in Grant’s films and I think Powell’s films would benefit from a similar discussion along with the concept of the Hollywood Gentleman and how the Powell light comedy persona fits into that. Examinations of the stars’ personal lives are a contested area, not everyone approves of what is after all an intrusion into their privacy, but for someone like William Powell who used his experiences to lead his performance it is still relevant to any study of his life, and his friendships with women, platonic and otherwise, are fascinating. Plenty to go at I’m sure you’ll agree!
I am so excited to be participating in the Carole Lombard Blogathon, the first blogathon I’ve ever taken part in! And my small offering today is going to be about the curious tale of Carole Lombard and William Powell’s relationship and how it evolved through infatuation, marriage, divorce, the best of friends and the heights of professional achievement. I have to issue a warning here – this post is highly illustrated. This is because there are a ridiculous amount of pictures of Bill and Carole looking insanely hot together – I was going to discipline myself to just a couple of favourites but then I thought nah chuck em all in. It would be an injustice not to take this opportunity of including these stunning photos of their friendship!
In 1930 William Powell was 38 and doing quite nicely professionally. Thanks to that fruity voice and training in the legitimate theatre he’d made a smooth transition to talking pictures, and was top man at Paramount. But on a personal level he’d been separated for many years from his wife and was still living with his parents. (Mind you, Bill was also apparently keeping a shag-pad in the name of ‘Mr Thorne’, which was kitted out with an extensive collection of appalling French photographs.) Bill and his friends Ronald Colman, Richard Barthelmess, Ernest Torrance and Warner Baxter were well known in 1920s Hollywood as being a set of disgraceful bachelors, although they were calming down as they hurtled towards their 40s and certainly weren’t on the same booze n birds fuelled level as David Niven and Errol Flynn down at ‘Cirrhosis by the Sea’.
However, when Bill went travelling round Europe with Ronnie and Ernest in 1930 he noted that:
“I was absolutely surrounded by playboys and playgirls of the play world… Everyone around me seemed to be having a most glorious time… yet I was, if possible, even more lonely than I had been at home.”
Carole Lombard was 21, also living with her mum, but completely her own woman. ‘Carole Lombard’ was the professional name she chose in 1925 when she was just 15 as Jane Peters was too dull (“I think that ‘e’ made the whole fuckin’ difference…”)
After her devastating car crash when she was 17, Carole took the pragmatic step of signing up with Mack Sennett as a Bathing Beauty to restart her career.
When Carole ended up at Paramount after Pathé went bust she hadn’t found her ‘voice’ in pictures and was still in the process of cultivating a strong on screen persona.
Man of the World is a potboiler melodrama about a blackmailer who falls in love with one of his marks. The plan was for a professional discussion prior to the start of filming. William Powell was a successful leading man who had no time for dippy young actresses. Carole Lombard was a young independent woman determined to succeed on her own merits and who’s blunt language demonstrated she wasn’t taking shit from anyone. As neither party suffered fools gladly it was thought best they meet beforehand and discuss the requirements for the picture. However!
“The day I met Carole I had the same feeling as a sixteen year old boy on his first date. I was embarrassed and fidgety. I worried over whether or not I was making a good impression on her. It just so happened that immediately after our introduction,which took place at the studio, we were left alone to talk over the picture we were about to do together. But we didn’t talk about the picture. We talked about men and women and things that happened to them and ourselves.”
The talk carried on into a long dinner date and that was that! During the filming of Man of the World they were described as being ‘torridly fascinated with each other’ and their chemistry radiates through the screen, cutting through a fairly tedious picture, with a leaden script, plodding direction and a dull ending.
The fascination continued after the picture wrapped. They had a very similar sense of humour – William Powell was well known for being a wind up merchant and he thought Carole’s filthy jokes and potty mouth were hilarious, so Carole got stuck into some serious banter with her new chap, giving him the nickname ‘Junior’.
In the meantime and in order to capitalise on their romance, Paramount put them together in another picture, ‘Ladies Man’, another potboiler that can be filed under ‘strictly for completists’, although the couple were able to project strong emotions in the film:
Both parties were in hugely different places in their lives though. Carole came crashing into Bill’s neat and tidy existence as a humongous party animal, owning the dance floor at the Cocoanut Grove most weekends, and both were therefore very definite about how they saw life panning out for them. Bill said that Carole was the frankest girl he’d ever met. Carole said that her boyfriend,
“…will strangle me – or at least want to. He likes order and dignity… I can’t live that way. I always do whatever occurs to me at the moment…”
Bill was throwing caution to the wind though, working his smooth patter on Carole to the max, because during their first date he had a revelation:
“Suddenly, in the midst of this talk with the most beautiful girl I had ever known, a thought came to me: Someday I am going to ask this girl to marry me!”
But for that to happen both parties would have to wind their necks in quite substantially – Bill wanted Carole to jack in her career and there was no chance of that and Carole wanted to hit the nightspots and there was no chance of Bill doing that.
“I think I asked Carole to marry me on average of every half hour. At first she was a bit dubious… so many professional marriages fail to work out… I had experienced one failure in matrimony previously, and Carole was just starting out on a career that was tremendously important to her.”
So… they tried to compromise…
Bill and Carole married on 26 June 1931. As far as he was concerned:
“Freedom is one of the great disillusions of the world… I’ve had a great many years of the ‘coveted freedom’… I think I’m getting the most wonderful girl in the world. Freedom? I’d trade every bit of it just for a few hours with Carole.”
And Bill was so nervous he forgot which finger to put the ring on! With that, the Powells went off to Hawaii for two weeks of sun and fun and relaxation, except that it wasn’t because Carole ended up with the flu…
And so the Powells tried to settle into their new life together and their new home – Bill trying his best to make his wife happy by trying to support her career and Carole trying her best to make her husband happy by trying to be the perfect housewife. Carole explained to Garson Kanin years later:
“You know how it is. You always try to get in solid with the son of a bitch by playing him at his game…
“…Now with Philo it was different. Because after all, Philo. It was legitimate. We were married. (Philo was her name for William Powell because he had once played the detective Philo Vance.)
“…With him, it was wife stuff. That’s where I learned how to put a house together, and have everything supplied. And how to take care of his clothes. And what had to be dry cleaned and what not…
“…I mean, I was the best fuckin’ wife you ever saw. I mean a ladylike wife. Because that’s how Philo wanted it.”
Interestingly it was during this time that Carole appeared in ‘No Man Of Her Own’, a film that has become a legend amongst Lombard and Clark Gable fans due to the many ‘hot love scenes’ she shared with Gable – despite the fact that she was still in love with Bill and Gable was married to Ria Langham but actually in love with Elizabeth Allan.
‘No Man Of Her Own’ may have been one of the catalysts for the strengthening of the Production Code due to those same ‘hot love scenes’ – the film attracted the wrath of Father Daniel Lord who asked how William Powell could countenance his wife appearing in ‘filthy movies’ – hilariously, because Bill was at the same time appearing in ‘Lawyer Man’, where he blow jobs a cigar.
After two years of marriage Bill and Carole called it a draw. Although it was done with best intentions their attempts to give the other what they wanted were stifling.
Adela St John Rogers wrote soon after Carole’s death:
“…Carole moved fast and saved much. Once she saw that there were deep and fundamental differences between herself and Bill as husband and wife which would degenerate into quarrels, into ugliness, she didn’t wait for any of the messy cruel things which are called grounds for divorce to happen. She used the surgeon’s knife –- swiftly -– cleanly –- with decision.
“…Weeping as though her heart would break, she put her arms around him and said goodbye to him as a husband. But she saved him as the best friend any woman ever had.”
Carole headed off to Nevada for the proceedings – Bill didn’t contest the petition and Carole didn’t want any money from him. In fact the proceedings contained evidence that this was not going to be your usual unpleasant Hollywood split, such as the pair’s in jokes – for example Carole cites William Powell’s constant ‘use of foul language’ as one reason for the dissolution of the marriage, causing ironic laughter in the courtroom.
“…[Carole] breezed into town from Reno, with the divorce papers in her bag and the loveliest tan…
…’Hello Bill,’ said Carole over her mother’s phone. ‘Baby’s back.’
‘Darling,’ exclaimed Mr Powell, looking right smart in a snappy dressing robe. ‘Darling, I’ve missed you so. Not a good laugh in weeks. Come right on over, I’ll start icing the champagne.'”
Carole spelled it out:
“I admire him as an actor and as a man. I know that we are vital to each other. We have a mental balance founded on respect. We meet on a friendly basis, and when you speak of friendship after marriage, know that it is possible only when there has been no quarrelling. Respect dies with quarrelling and fighting… I think it is fine when two persons who have separated can meet as friends and go out together with no feeling of bitterness.”
“I must like the man, or I wouldn’t have married him in the first place…”
Maybe once released from the dull realities of married life the pair got their mojo back for a bit, who knows? It’s not unusual. Regardless, both eventually moved on to new partners, most notably relationships with Russ Columbo and Jean Harlow.
Carole then went on to marry Clark Gable in 1939 and Bill married Diana Lewis in 1940.
1936 was a professional triumph for William Powell – he appeared in five of the biggest and most critically applauded movies of the year, Libeled Lady, The Great Ziegfeld, After The Thin Man, The Ex Mrs Bradford and arguably the greatest screwball comedy ever made, My Man Godfrey.
William Powell made it clear that he would only participate in the production if Carole Lombard played the part of Irene. Bill saw reversed parallels between how they’d got together with Irene’s hot pursuit of Godfrey and his anointing as Irene’s ‘protegé’.
Certainly I’m not the only one who’s surmised that Powell and Lombard are talking to each other through their characters in this sweetly resonant scene:
Bill’s mentor during his early years on the stage, Leo Ditrichstein, had taught Bill to use his own personal experiences to motivate his performances, advice that he passed on to Carole. Allied to this director Gregory La Cava had the cast improvise the scenes – an outline script was brought to the set everyday and the cast would brainstorm the scene before filming. Bill was apparently nervous about this, but for Carole it was a throwback to her freewheeling Mack Sennett days. And it’s this that makes the dishwashing scene so funny but also poignant – when Godfrey tells Irene he’ll ring her occasionally and they’ll have long chats and lots of fun, apparently that was the basis for Bill and Carole’s post-divorce friendship!
My Man Godfrey is still fresh as a daisy and between the pixies, gorillas and pomeranians still dishes out massive laughs – not bad for a movie that’s 80 years old! When Bill decided to relent and support Carole’s career prior to their marriage, he told her:
“…I want you to be the biggest star in the business. I will help you to be the biggest.”
Whether it was conscious or not, Bill’s lobbying for Carole to get the part lived up to his earlier promise, and then some.
My Man Godfrey is without a doubt the tribute and testament to Bill and Carole’s friendship.
If 1936 was William Powell’s greatest year, 1937 and 1938 were marked by the sort of tragedy where you really do need true friends to get you through.
Carole had suffered the tragic accidental death of her partner Russ Columbo in 1935, but Carole and Clark Gable were completely unprepared for what happened to their dearest friend Jean Harlow.
William Powell was the love of Jean Harlow’s life, but Bill was ambivalent about Jean throughout their relationship, stringing her along for three years without the marriage Jean longed for. After witnessing her awful death from kidney failure at the age of 26, Bill was filled with remorse, but like all true friends Carole dished out the hard truths, saying to her friend Kay Mulvey:
“I shall always consider Bill a friend, but even if I searched my mind from end to end I would not be able to understand why he did what he did to Jean.”
Bill struggled emotionally after Jean Harlow’s death, and Carole comforted him at the funeral. After escaping to Ronnie Colman’s yacht for a while he then collapsed during the filming of Double Wedding and had to take further time off. But then to compound matters, in 1938 Bill was diagnosed with colon cancer and successfully submitted to an early form of radiation therapy.
Carole rushed to support him, joining a very close group of friends who nursed him during his illness and treatment.
On the evening of 16 January 1942 William and Diana Powell were telephoned and informed that Carole was on board a plane which had crashed into mountains near Las Vegas. Bill and Mousie waited up all night for news about their friend. Finally they received confirmation that Carole had died in the disaster.
Her best friend for over 10 years – William Powell was devastated.Carole Lombard was a very loved person – all my source material points to this simple fact, and it’s not the usual gushing Hollywood claptrap. Bill and Carole’s marriage and subsequent friendship was seen as a bit of an oddity not just because of the age gap but also due to differences in personality and temperament. While Bill was in actuality a somewhat shy and reserved individual, prone to episodes of introspection, Carole Lombard was whip smart, funny as hell, kind, considered and considerate, and that’s before we consider what an amazing looking woman she was, so of course William Powell was crazy about her – everybody who was lucky enough to know Carole was crazy about her.
Carole was a highly unique individual who ploughed her own furrow in life, and therefore her ‘stardom’ springs from a much deeper well than just being a glamorous movie star and why for us, her fans, her legend continues to resonate so strongly 75 years after her loss.
This post is part of the Carole Lombard: The Profane Angel Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. All the entries are below – I highly recommend you give them a read:
I’m not going to be in the habit of regularly commemorating deaths, but today is the 75th anniversary of the passing of war hero Carole Lombard – a massive loss to her family and friends but also to entertainment and popular culture. Indeed she was a huge loss to America and the allies generally. If she could raise $2.5 million worth of war bonds in one day, imagine what she would’ve achieved if she’d lived? (According to her Wikipedia entry that’s now worth $34 million in today’s money!)
I bet her spirit gazed with satisfaction in April 1945 when Adolf met his deserved end. I’d also like to think that she was partying with the rest of Europe a few days later on VE Day.
And today is the start of the Carole Lombard Blogathon – my entry, outlining Bill and Carole’s guide to conscious uncoupling, is on its way!
Here are the other entries – give them a whirl, I can’t wait to get stuck into them all:
Later in 1922, William Powell got a lucky break, “…through the misfortune of Jose Ruben, who was to have played the lead in When Knighthood Was In Flower. It was my ambition to be a screen hero. When Jose Ruben, who was to have been the leading man, suffered an injury to his eye, I was offered a chance to test for the part. I didn’t get it. But I had a wonderful leer and a sneer which registered perfectly. So I became a villain.”
The story is pretty simple – Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s cheeky kid sister, and ordinary geezer Charles Brandon fall in love at a jousting competition. Unfortunately Henry has her betrothed in a strategic alliance to the preposterous old coot, King Louis XII of France, much to the delight of his oleaginous cad of a nephew and heir, Francis I.
Marion Davies gives a sparky characterisation of Mary Tudor – not taking any crap from either her brother, that foul fiend Francis I, or the love of her life, Charles Brandon. She could really wrap that daft old king round her little finger and she knew it. Marion Davies was a magnetic presence on screen, and her lightening quick comic timing is apparent here. This movie was the one that made Marion a star – supposedly the first $1 million picture, it was thanks to the largesse of William Randolph Hearst who set up his Cosmopolitan Productions as a vehicle for Marion as he longed for her to have a career as a dramatic actress.
As I’m still acclimatising myself to silent film, I had to give this movie two shots as I struggled to maintain focus the first time. I’m learning that the power of silent film lies in the need for total immersion in the picture – if you look away for even a second you can end up not just missing an intertitle but a sideways glance or a look that can convey additional context that drives the story forward. However I realised that it’s not that much different from when I’m watching a Saturday night Scandinavian cop drama with subtitles, so I sallied forth with that in mind and didn’t feel quite so intimidated.
And any feelings of intimidation soon dissipated when I clapped eyes on Bill’s slender pins encased in tights and sporting a rather fetching Tudor style miniskirt. However, we know from her other pictures that Marion Davies’ superlative comedic skills were sadly underused during her career, and that is evident in this movie. Although she plays Mary Tudor with tomboy spirit, the historical setting of the picture is ill suited to Marion’s personality which I see as wholly situated in the 20th Century. Hearst’s wish for Marion to be a great dramatic actress was kindly meant in a difficult personal context but this type of boringly worthy material is beneath her talents. Therefore I’m going to seek out her pictures produced in a contemporary setting as I suspect I will find them more satisfying.