William Powell: The Life and Films – Roger Bryant

Thelma Todd chills out with a fan mag
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! 


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