Of course I'm a Myrna Loy fan, isn't everyone? But it wasn't until reading Loy's autobiography, Being and Becoming, written with James Kotsilibas-Davis, that I really fell in love with Myrna Loy. I don't know how much of the text of that book is Loy's own voice as opposed to her co-authors' interpretation of it, but whatever the case may be, Being and Becoming, for me, is Myrna Loy, the woman and the star.
In Emily W. Leider's introduction to Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood she acknowledges the success of Loy's own book: "She and her co-author, James Kotsilibas-Davis, did such a good job with her autobiography, Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming, that other biographers may have feared they couldn't match it" (4). This reader, while excited from the moment I saw Leider's biography announced, faced the same trepidation. Beyond how much Being and Becoming made me like Loy it remains my favorite film star autobiography. Could an outsider's perspective match up?
Leider further teases me into her telling of Loy's story by adding that "Being and Becoming does venture into private territory, illuminated otherwise hidden corners. But it only goes so far. Full disclosure is never attempted, and some events and people get the short shrift" (5). Two such examples that we're told Leider's own Good Girl is going to give us are the complications arising from Loy's abortion and her problems with her younger brother, David. Both of those subjects are covered for the first time in The Only Good Girl in Hollywood.
Emily W. Leider has written a very readable study of Golden Age Hollywood centered around the career of Myrna Loy and the famous personalities surrounding her. While the writing is crisp and intelligent and Loy's film work is brought to life through concise summaries, what I didn't get out of The Only Good Girl in Hollywood was a better appreciation of Loy herself. Perhaps other biographers can't match what Loy gave us in Being and Becoming.
The first thing you'll notice about The Only Good Girl in Hollywood is it's heavy reliance on Being and Becoming as its primary source. Rightly so. However Loy's autobiography, cited in abbreviation as BB throughout Leider's work, becomes overwhelming. A search for the term BB inside The Only Good Girl in Hollywood on Google Books reveals 100 instances of the two-letter citation. That number is so round that I'm almost certain that count is low.
While Good Girl cites numerous other sources, none seem as edifying as Loy's own words from Being and Becoming. Leider spoke with numerous surviving Hornblow family members and those sections do stand-out, but there weren't a ton of people interviewed for Good Girl, a somewhat natural predicament thanks to natural life span. Actors acknowledged for being interviewed included Richard Benjamin, Rhonda Fleming, Lainie Kazan, and Joan Van Ark. Olivia de Havilland replied to the author by letter. Loy lived until 1993, certainly there are more survivors than this? The bibliography is 11 pages long, but again, it's Loy's own voice from that single title which lords over all else in The Only Good Girl in Hollywood.
The Only Good Girl in Hollywood complements Being and Becoming well and I have no doubt that Leider dug through every available source and sat through all of the movies, but I found myself preferring Loy in the first person from the earlier book. In Good Girl we learn about many Hollywood fixtures, take Clark Gable, William Powell and Jean Harlow, for example, but their stories are mostly told independent of Loy. When their stories intersect it's almost always Being and Becoming which supplies the personal flavor that I had wanted in a Myrna Loy biography.
No matter which of the credited authors lent greater voice to Being and Becoming it is that personal, likable, familiar tone which seems missing from The Only Good Girl in Hollywood.
Following are some excerpts from each book, centered around those familiar names I ticked off above, Gable, Powell and Harlow.
Her agent, Minna Wallis, introduced Loy to Clark Gable at the annual Mayfair Ball. In Being and Becoming Loy writes:
"By that time he was hot, the big rage; all the women in Hollywood, including my friend Lou MacFarlane, were talking about him. I'd heard he was always on the make at the studio, after everyone, snapping garters left and right. At the dance, though, he acted like a perfect gentleman--attentive, but not aggressive. Whenever I hear "Dancing in the Dark," I think of him, because we danced to it that night and he was vibrant and warm, a marvelous dancer. It was divine ..." (84).
Then Loy tells what happened after the dance, on the ride home with Gable and Rhea, his wife at that time. "I could see that Clark was beginning to feel a bit amorous. He started edging towards me--with his wife sitting right there beside him" (84). Myrna rebuffed his further advances after he walked her to her door and said he was a bit frosty towards her the next time she saw him at the studio. When they worked together for the first time in Men in White (1934)*, Gable would ignore Loy to heap attention on co-star Elizabeth Allan. All was forgiven by the time of their next film together, Manhattan Melodrama (1934) and they were lifelong friends going forward.
* Loy and Gable both appeared in the earlier Night Flight (1933), but didn't share any scenes together.
Leider writes that "Considering her reluctance to gossip, it matters that Myrna did tattle on Clark Gable in her autobiography" (109). She then retells the story, though readers of Good Girl are never told why Loy's loose lips about Gable mattered. Both books have her warming up to Gable soon after the incident.
Just prior to Men in White Gable was loaned to Columbia to appear in Frank Capra's Oscar-sweeper It Happened One Night (1934). Capra had wanted Loy to play the part of Ellie Andrews in that movie, but Loy turned the offer down and the Academy Award for Best Actress would go to Claudette Colbert for her portrayal. Leider acknowledges Loy's complaints about the script and mentions that "Myrna became very defensive about what proved to be a serious error in judgment, never acknowledging that it was one. But she knew she didn't want to blow it again" (111). Sure enough, up next, Manhattan Melodrama starring Gable and for the first time alongside Loy, William Powell.
Of her miscalculation Loy wrote "Oh, I've taken flak for refusing that picture. Frank gave it to me for years. Lou MacFarlane, who begged me to do it, still says, 'I told you so!' But let me say, here and now, they sent me the worst script ever, completely different from the one they shot. I've had others corroborate that ... but no one believes me. That girl was unplayable as originally written" (94).
Yes, I'd agree with Leider, Myrna seems a bit defensive about this one! But as much as I love Loy I couldn't imagine It Happened One Night with anyone but Gable and Colbert. Perhaps it would have been just as good, but I for one am not willing to risk it in retrospect. A somewhat self-conscious Loy adds, "Besides, Claudette had the legs for it" (94).
In Good Girl Chapter 8 is "Mr. and Mrs. Thin Man" and Leider jumps directly into The Thin Man (1934) to begin the Powell-Loy story because despite their meeting and working together previously on Manhattan Melodrama, "Loy and Powell became an established romantic comedy team because The Thin Man hit the jackpot" (118). I was sure she'd go back to Manhattan Melodrama, and thankfully within a few pages she did. Of Powell and Loy's meeting on Manhattan Melodrama (1934) Leider writes:
"On this raucous night of celebrating Jim Wade's election, Eleanor bounds into Jim's moving sedan and nearly crash lands on Powell's lap. Powell exclaims in character, "Pardon me if I seem to intrude." Off-camera, seconds later, his first-ever words to the actress who would prove to be his ideal costar and long-term movie mate were a courtly, mocking echo of Stanley greeting Dr. Livingstone: 'Miss Loy, I presume?'" (120).
Loy's description in Being and Becoming was as follows:
"My first scene with Bill, a night shot on the back lot, happened before we'd even met. Woody was apparently too busy for introductions. My instructions were to run out of a building, through a crowd, and into a strange car. When Woody called 'Action,' I opened the car door, jumped in, and landed smack on William Powell's lap. He looked up nonchalantly: 'Miss Loy, I presume?' I said, 'Mr. Powell?' And that's how I met the man who would be my partner in fourteen films" (87).
Leider gives us a fine critical take on the Powell and Loy pairings, especially The Thin Man; we get a pretty good look at Powell himself, mostly sourced from his two biographers, Charles Francisco and Roger Bryant; there are mentions of the famed off-screen confusion of Powell and Loy as actual man and wife; but when it comes to Powell with Loy, off-screen, the commentary usually comes with those now familiar BB's appended at the end of the paragraph. Frankly I would have liked to have read more about William Powell in Loy's own Being and Becoming, but that was her telling her own story. It seems that by 2011 there's no one left to tell us about the on and off set camaraderie between Myrna Loy and William Powell.
Myrna Loy first met Jean Harlow when Powell, who'd already been involved with Harlow for awhile by then, brought her along to Louella Parson's radio show where Powell and Loy acted out some scenes from The Thin Man. Loy would work with Harlow in both Wife vs. Secretary (1936) with Gable and Libeled Lady (1936) with Powell and Spencer Tracy. Loy and Harlow became friends and Loy was a great admirer:
"Jean was always very cheerful, full of fun, but she also happened to be a sensitive woman with a great deal of self-respect. All that other stuff--that was all put on. She wasn't like that at all. She just happened to be a good actress who created a lively characterization that exuded sex appeal. Being a sexpot is no fun, I can tell you that ... When you think what this country does to those women--look at Marilyn Monroe! I guess it's a sin to be sexy, but a little vicarious drooling from the public, that's all right ... Remember that awful book that was written about Jean? That's typical of the school of biography that seeks to fit the reality of the image" (143).
Leider examines Loy's defense of Harlow:
"... she stood up for Harlow, who was indeed subjected to tabloid-style smears too many times. But Myrna's defense went overboard. She sanitized Harlow, overlooking the frank sexuality that had catapulted her to stardom and the questions that Paul Bern's probable suicide raised. She characterized her friend as the good-girl victim of exploiters and gossipmongers bent on tarnishing an idol ...But in her zeal to protect her friend, Myrna denied Harlow's zesty essence" (189-190).
The difference between those two takes seem to be the difference between a personal friend and a biographer. As titanic a presence as Jean Harlow holds for us all today she was simply Myrna's girlfriend back in the 1930's. I wouldn't imagine Myrna would have much cared about what catapulted Harlow to stardom preferring instead to remember a time together when "You would have thought Jean and I were in boarding school we had so much fun" (143). While I'm not saying Leider is wrong, I am saying it's a pretty good example of how I felt she missed showing us Myrna Loy.
In The Only Good Girl in Hollywood Emily W. Leider takes on an unenviable task in following-up a twenty-four year old autobiography so good that others "may have feared they couldn't match it." She doesn't, but she does her best to refresh it and its subject, Myrna Loy, in the minds of 21st century readers.
In Being and Becoming Loy invited us to a party. Yes, there were barriers, but she did let us in a little closer than arm's length. The Only Good Girl in Hollywood went to the party, hoped to find their host left some dirt under the rug, and satisfied that that was not the case produced as fine a reportage on the happenings as could be expected. A few other guests were consulted, but most were unavailable for comment.
Well researched Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood retells Loy's story from an outsider's perspective as well as could be expected, but was a little too distant for me to recommend anything other than immediately buying a copy of Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming if you don't already own one. If you already have a copy of the earlier book then this is going to be largely familiar territory, but well-worth the refresher.
- Leider, Emily W. Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: The University of California Press, 2011.
- Loy, Myrna and James Kotsilibas-Davis. Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.