‘Not Guilty’ screamed the headline in Photoplay Magazine in 1929 – ‘Bill Powell declares he is not a picture stealer’. At this point William Powell had appeared in 33 motion pictures since his debut in Sherlock Holmes in 1922. He’d obviously fancied himself as a leading actor but his journey to that status was going to be a circuitous one – as Bill noted in my post on When Knighthood Was In Flower, ‘It was my ambition to be a screen hero… But I had a wonderful sneer and a leer which registered perfectly. So I became a villain.’ A villain so charismatic that, as Photoplay Magazine noted, he had a tendency to be the only person on the screen that you would want to look at.
After freelancing around, in 1925 the Los Angeles Times announced that Jesse Lasky had signed William Powell to an exclusive contract with Paramount Pictures, ‘I consider Mr Powell one of the foremost artists in motion pictures and he is a most welcome addition to the ranks of our character players… He will be featured in a number of our most ambitious productions, plans for which are under way.’ And this is where Bill’s villainous career really started to kick on.
So imagine this scene: Bebe Daniels is cowering on a double bed edging away from the attentions of William Powell who is coming ever closer, chattering away manically. This scene, where Powell’s character threatens rape is from the 1926 comedy Feel My Pulse (which can be viewed on YouTube) and is incredibly unsettling!
It was then that I realised how complete an actor Powell was, because he is so sinister in that scene that it threw out all my preconceptions about my lovely gorgeous William Powell, the charming light comedian of the screwball era. Ugh! What a scumbag!
You can split William Powell’s villain roles into a couple of recognisable tropes, which I have outlined below:
The Shady Foreigner
As seen in When Knighthood Was In Flower, The Bright Shawl, Under the Red Robe, Dangerous Money, Too Many Kisses, The Beautiful City, Sea Horses, Beau Geste, She’s a Sheik
The name ‘William Powell’ on its own is a bit generically Anglo-Saxon don’t you think? It doesn’t denote ‘film star’. I mean any old joe can be called ‘William Powell’ really. But William Powell’s looks belied his rather ordinary name, as he was the owner of a rather exotic looking face. This face, in the silent era, enabled him to play what would be considered ‘ethnic’ roles in those unenlightened times. Ronald Colman, on account of his brunette appearance, would also be cast occasionally as Italians, but William Powell began to specialise in a type of sinister criminally minded foreigner, often one who’s sniffing around the film’s heroine in a vaguely threatening manner. A slight change to that character was Boldini, the coward from Beau Geste. Boldini isn’t in the business of chasing women, more after saving his own skin at the expense of his compadres.
These types of roles have always been a well known device in Hollywood that we can all recognise, playing into and exploiting the public’s fears of the unknown. Very relatable today in my view.
The Smarmy Git
As seen in When Knighthood was in Flower, Special Delivery, Beau Geste, Aloma of the South Seas, Time to Love, Paid to Love
This type of role was also often engaged in the pursuit of the film’s heroine, but instead of merely using threatening behaviour, would turn on a type of slimy, oleaginous charm. These characters would often be smart talking, super rich smoothies used to getting their own way, until either the hero or heroine would give them a metaphorical kick in the nuts. Bill would play this type of bounder with moustache smoothed and eyebrow raised, most famously in Paid to Love where Prince Eric peels a banana while Virginia Valli undresses behind a screen, the dirty devil!
Other Assorted Slimes
For Bill’s other silent pictures there’s a mixture of cowards, gangsters and hoods, but also a smattering Western villains. Naturally the common theme that links all these characters is that they get a very satisfying comeuppance in the end, but the Powell charm ensured that even if he made an early exit it was his part that would stick in your mind.
“Bill, I’ve always been curious; how do you feel when you’re about to commit a murder?” asked Ricardo Cortez in 1927.
“Right now, I’m feeling pretty punk. I was just thinking that if I had gotten up ten minutes earlier, I’d have had time to eat some cereal. If there’s anything I hate to do, it’s commit a murder before breakfast.”
This post is part of the Great Villains Blogathon hosted by Speakeasy, Silver Screenings and Shadows & Satin. Check these evils demons out!
‘Shows you how things go, huh? Another inch, half an inch maybe, a turn of the head and my whole fuckin’ career could’ve been over. There was this nice kid. A rich kid. Harry Cooper. His father owned a bank or something. And he had this sonofabitchin’ Bugatti roadster. And I was out with him one night, and he was showing off his god-damned car. You know how it is with some guys. They think a car is like a part of their body and they want to show you how hot it is. So all of a sudden, wham. And I remember how I thought it was just beautiful, like a fireworks explosion, glass in a terrific pattern, and I passed out…’
So said Carole Lombard to director Garson Kanin in 1941 recounting the horrific car crash that derailed her career in 1925, ending her contract with Fox. You know, it’s quite something to think of all the Canadians who played a part in the shaping of early Hollywood. And we certainly owe a debt of gratitude to Toronto born director Allan Dwan who spotted 12 year old tomboy Jane Peters playing baseball with her friends and decided to cast her in a picture.
As I am currently looking at William Powell’s silent pictures, I also want to delve into the nascent careers of his friends. Although Bill and Carole didn’t meet until 1930, I was curious about this pragmatic step that she took after the car crash to join Mack Sennett’s company. The crash had left some scarring to her face, with obvious implications for her future, but Carole was determined to return to the motion picture business as soon as she could and in whichever way was possible.
Mack Sennett was born Michael Sinnott in Richmond, Quebec, in 1880, although the Sinnott family eventually moved to Northampton, Massachusetts. In his late teens Sennett worked in factories but what he truly yearned for was a theatrical career. Now later on Mack spun this yarn about Sinnott family lawyer Calvin Coolidge (yes that one), writing a letter of recommendation about his young client to Marie Dressler – native of Cobourg, Ontario. Regardless, starting at the Bowery Theatre, New York, Sennett became a chorus boy, eventually moving onto Broadway shows.
In 1908 Mack Sennett got a minor role with the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company thus beginning his long career in motion pictures. Under the tutelage of D W Griffith his expertise in motion picture making progressed to such an extent that during 1908 Sennett moved on from being merely a player to also writing and directing two reel shorts. There was an opportunity for Sennett here as Griffith wasn’t keen on comedy but made comedy shorts anyway due to their immense popularity. And more opportunity for Sennett arose in 1912 when the New York Motion Picture Company needed a comedy studio and thus the Keystone Film Company was born, located in Edendale, California.
Sennett discovered and gave a start to some truly legendary comedians in particular Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe Arbuckle and Mabel Normand. And let’s not forget Gloria Swanson, although Gloria was adamant that she was never a ‘Bathing Beauty’. Mack Sennett started the Bathing Beauties initially to drum up publicity, but found that the antics of this troop of girls increased the popularity of his pictures. This then provided an avenue for Carole’s return to motion pictures in 1927. Certainly after many long months of convalescence to heal the scars caused by the accident Carole Lombard was back on the scene in a big way burning up the Cocoanut Grove’s dance competitions.
However Mack Sennett’s glory days were long behind him, hence the move to Pathé, who were also struggling and in need of some quick wins. The Sennett brand of slapstick tomfoolery was becoming a bit old hat, and the dawn of the talkies would usher in a more verbose style of quick witted humour through the Thirties. Sennett had introduced himself to Carole at the Cocoanut Grove before the car crash and couldn’t have cared less about her scarring. He just needed a nice looking girl who was game for anything. And he was more than happy to proffer useful advice for Carole: “We gotta get some meat on you. Carole, honey, you go right home and eat some bananas, a lot of bananas,” he said. “Just keep on eatin’ ‘em. That’ll fatten you up, especially in the tits.”
Carole was elated to have this opportunity to resume her career and was determined to make full use of it, starting off in small parts and graduating to larger roles in shorts such as ‘Run Girl Run’, ‘The Campus Carmen’ and ‘The Campus Vamp’.
In these comedies Carole tends to play a boy crazy sporty girl, in contrast to Daphne Pollard’s bossy girl, Madalynne Fields as the funny fat girl and Sally Eilers as the good girl.
It’s difficult to know whether the Sennett movies created or merely developed the cheeky side of Carole Lombard’s personality, but in the films Lombard is more recognisable as the Carole Lombard comedy persona we know than in her early Paramount pictures where she sometimes seems nervous and affected. There’s no doubt that she’s literally throwing herself into the parts wholeheartedly – at one point during a pillow fight in ‘The Campus Carmen’ she takes a pillow full on in the kisser leading to an exquisitely executed pratfall off the bed and onto her back leaving just a visible pair of shapely gams!
‘My best tutor was Mack Sennett. He is the old maestro of comedies. Sally Eilers and I were the last of his bathing beauties to get somewhere. Mack Sennett is a wonderful teacher. His knowledge of comedy, of timing, use of pantomime, of sudden changes from comedy to tragedy, from laughter to tears – well he has grasped the psychology of the human mind.’
By 1928 Pathé was in the market for new faces for their talking pictures and after her voice was tested, Carole was ready. The Sennett gamble had paid off.
‘Mack Sennett’s was the school of hard knocks. There I started working up from the bottom. It was the most delightful madhouse imaginable and life was one fall after another. There was a lusty, rowdy spirit of freedom there that I’ve never encountered anywhere else. I recommend it. It exposed the sham of pretension, it exploded the petty hypocrisies of people in high places, it flung pies at false dignity. What’s more, Sennett’s develops the sense of humour, toughens the constitution, nurtures the ambition and teaches you the game as it should be played. Two years there gave me a thorough grounding. I left fully prepared to face the world.’
This piece forms part of the O Canada Blogathon hosted by Ruth at Silver Screenings and Kristina at Speakeasy – pull up a bucket of poutine, a four pack of Oh Henry bars, and a can of Molson Canadian as you relax and read some of the great posts on there.
Carole Lombard: Twentieth Century Star – Michelle Morgan
Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory: A Historical Overview – Brent E Walker
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: