Rest to follow next week!
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.
As Carole would say: ‘NUTS! Son of a BITCH!’
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.
We’re going on a journey! And I hope you’ll join me on this journey through Bill Powell’s life and movies!
A major movie star, William Powell was contracted to Metro Goldwyn Mayer for so long he actually qualified for the company pension. However this is a major movie star that I had actually never heard of until recently.
I’ve always preferred old movies, particularly from Hollywood’s golden age – I love how they transport you to a different world and a heightened reality. And my heart has always fluttered for a certain type of pencil moustached hero that’s possibly a bit unfashionable now – Clark Gable, Robert Donat, David Niven. And although not blessed with face fungus let’s always remember Cary Grant. I’ve seen tons of their pictures, read the books and every essay going, watched the documentaries. So I’m perplexed and intrigued as to why, William Powell, a peer who was as much a box office draw as they were was so off my radar, and I’m going to explore this further in future posts.
It Happened One Night
So how did William Powell get onto my radar? Well I was revisiting my love of Clark Gable, reading the superlative biography by Warren Harris and watching his movies, particularly my favourite, It Happened One Night. This lead to a renewed interest in Carole Lombard and screwball comedies generally so I thought I ought to watch a film I’d been meaning to watch for years, My Man Godfrey. And that was that! I watched it with my mouth agape for the majority of the picture. I’d never seen such a bizarre picture with such a commitment to lunacy. The energy of the performances particularly from Lombard, Mischa Auer and Alice Brady was like being slapped in the face repeatedly with a wet fish. I was completely exhausted by the end of it, except for the sardonic presence of the butler, Godfrey, watching aghast at the antics in front of him. Needless to say Powell’s subtle WTF reactions made the entire picture doubly hilarious. In a daze I watched it again and started to wonder, who is this dude?
Where to start?
Having made various attempts at keeping a blog in the past, I had always wanted to a place to practice creative writing, as well as wanting to make use of a long neglected media studies degree, which included a film studies module, and this seemed a good way to have a go. I’m hoping to learn a lot more about early Hollywood, the silent age, early talkies and the pre-code era and explore these further through William Powell’s films. It won’t be a thorough academic study or anything like that, just for my curiosity and enjoyment!
As I’ve watched a number of his pictures now, as well as reading various books and websites, for the purposes of this tribute blog, I debated whether to start properly with William Powell’s silent movies or just do the talking pictures he’s better known for. Or even whether to look at them chronologically at all. However after some deliberation I decided to take the plunge and take them in date order, from his first appearance in ‘Sherlock Holmes’ from 1922. This is a new experience for me as I’ve not had much to do with silent movies, except for the odd Laurel & Hardy short down at my local fleapit picture house.
And not just movies – I’ll also be looking at Powell related memorabilia and books and biographies of his friends and the classic age of Hollywood. I’ll also be having a look at Bill’s dear friends and co-stars, with special mentions going to Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow, Ronald Colman, Richard Barthelmess and Charles Farrell. Which brings me on to…
William Powell’s Personal Life
The lives of the Hollywood stars in the golden age are endlessly fascinating and Powell’s is no different. I hope to share my thoughts with you on this in future posts.
Having read Eve Golden’s ‘Platinum Girl there maybe views regarding William Powell’s ambivalence towards Jean Harlow who adored him. Or even about his marriage to Carole Lombard. Or his marriage to Diana Lewis! However it’s not in my nature to judge the actions of consenting adults and how they ran their sex lives. I think that would be very hypocritical of me. Powell was no different to my other heroes Clark Gable and Cary Grant, they were all complex personalities operating in a complicated world full of money, ego and beautiful girls.
The stars of the golden age were ahead of their time in many ways, living their intimate relationships in ways that shouldn’t be shocking to us today, but at the same time having to live with a stifling moral code that was breathtaking in its hypocrisy. Therefore I often find it a bit odd that film star biographies can often be a bit ‘judgey’ about their subject’s sex lives – written from the vantage point of today and our sexual freedom, it seems odd to be critical of their choices. I dare say I’ll offer a view on certain matters, this isn’t going to be a hagiography, but ultimately we’re talking about events of nearly 100 years ago, that I wouldn’t have been a party to because I certainly wouldn’t have been mixing in that social circle!
So let’s get started – put our feet up, get chilled out and pour ourselves a martini the right way…