Movie Hero of the Week – Myrna Loy*


(Haven’t done a Movie Hero of the Week in over a year.  But I love doing them.  Decided to jump back in.  Although “of the week” is decidedly a misnomer.)

I love Myrna Loy.  I love all the actors I put in my Movie Hero of the Week posts in one way or another, of course (a dash of tongue in cheek notwithstanding).

But Myrna.  Myrna Have I Loved.

She was the ultimate co-star. ” Never a stand alone pillar of female power onscreen, she excelled at sharing the frame and reacting, what Cary grant called tossing back the ball.  Here she differed from her dynamo friend Joan Crawford and from such dominating female screen icons of her generation…most at home in comedy, she achieved her best effects by underplaying, by suggesting meaning rather than hammering it home….Extremely modern in her minimalist technique, she remains our contemporary in her ability to grow, to stay in the game and continue evolving.”  (Quoted from Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood)

She had a grasp of comedy and rhythm that was so subtle and filmic, and yet she could her hold her own with even the slap stickiest of Cary Grants.  She was smart and ferociously opinionated, often challenging the studio system, which was a dangerous thing to do.

What I admire about her most is her on screen partnership with William Powell, but I will get to that in a bit.

IMDB credits her with 138 movie and television titles.  She was around during the silent era and successfully transitioned to sound.  Not bad for a girl straight out of Montana.  It’s funny.  Her life had a span similar to my grandfather’s.  She was born in 1905 and died in 1993.  He was born in 1906 and died in 1995.  To look at her movies is to see the twentieth century, nearly in it’s entirety.  I feel like through her I am able to see the world he saw, in a way.

For a Chicago connection, she “was supposedly the favorite star of famed outlaw John Dillinger. He came out of hiding to see Manhattan Melodrama (1934), in which she starred, and was gunned down by police upon leaving the theater.” (source: IMDB)

In the summer of 2008 (I think) I trudged through the few remaining titles I had left to see on the AFI 100 list.  (I know there is a separate dimension in which I am still watching Shane.)  One of the joys of that project (the most dubious of New Year’s Resolutions) was The Best Years of Our Lives.  It is simply stunning.  Her performance of the supportive, understanding and solid-rock-strong Milly Stephenson left her with the nickname “The Perfect Wife.”  Veterans pined for Loy’s presence in their post-traumatic lives.  She said, “Some perfect wife I am. I’ve been married four times, divorced four times, have no children, and can’t boil an egg.”

She was principled and fought for what she believed in.  She was even blacklisted by Hitler himself.  She fought against discrimination in public housing and Hollywood alike, pressing studio execs to portray African American actors as briefcase holding executives not servants. According to the book Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood, “Along the way, in her eighty-eight years, she found the time to…fight the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, become a UNESCO delegate, campaign for various Democratic Party Candidates, serve John F. Kennedy on the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing, help found the American Place Theatre, and rack up credits in radio, television, and stage.”

Myrna and I share a belief about film and acting in general.  “I admire some of the people on the screen today, but most of them look like everybody else. In our day we had individuality…Most of the sex I’ve seen on the screen looks like an expression of hostility towards sex.”

One of my all time favorite movies is Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House starring one of Loy’s frequent co stars, Cary Grant.  It’s a hilarious comedy about how absolutely insane and yet alluring building your own home can be.

In this clip, Mrs. Blandings chooses her paint colors.  I don’t know that I’ve ever had a conversation with my Mom that didn’t allude to this clip:

But hold on, because I saved the best for last.

The Thin Man

One of the great joys of my movie loving life has been The Thin Man movies (I own the whole set), which Loy is most famous for. The plots are kind of hard to follow but it simply doesn’t matter.  The point is Nick and Nora.  William Powell is Nick.  Myrna Loy is Nora.  They are one of the grandest  pairs that ever was.  Rhett and Scarlet, MacB and Lady MacB, George and Martha, Beatrice and Benedict,  and Nick and Nora.  I would…hell, I don’t know what I WOULDN’T do to be able to take on any of those pairs.

This clip is Nick and Nora at their best.  Seriously.  Seriously.  Somebody let me take a crack a this.:

Including the Thin Man movies, Loy and Powell made 14 films together.  They were artistic partners and friends.  Powell was a practical joker and sent Loy a funeral wreath for her 35th birthday with a note that said, “Be brave, dear.”  Of Powell, Loy said, “I never enjoyed my work more than when I worked with William Powell. He was a brilliant actor, a delightful companion, a great friend and, above all, a true gentleman.”

If you’ve never come across a Myrna Loy film, give one a try.  She had many nicknames, but the most famous was The Queen of Hollywood.  Her star may have faded a bit since the golden age of movies, but her performances never will.

And also, I’m serious about doing a stage version of The Thin Man.

*What is a movie hero? An un or under-sung member of the film making community who deserves more of the spotlight. And yet lack of such a spotlight often adds to their charm.

Advertisements

Lunger


Johnny Ringo: And you must be Doc Holliday.
Doc Holliday: That’s the rumor.
Johnny Ringo: You retired too?
Doc Holliday: Not me. I’m in my prime.
Johnny Ringo: Yeah, you look it.

The day I had my first asthma attack was the same day I said my first swear word.  I was 2.  I said “Damn.” I was in a room with another asthmatic kid ironically named “Dusty” who was zipped into what looked like a gigantic plastic dust cover. You see,  asthma treatments of the 1980’s were almost comical in their administration and associated apparatuses.  Tubes, masks, serums, things you breathed into that looked like a combination of a carnival Test of Strength and a prop from Deep Space Nine.

Breathing Test

Doc Holliday: Forgive me if I don’t shake hands.

One of the first asthma drugs I was prescribed was called theophylline which was marketed under the name, I kid you not, Theo-dur. That’s right.  I was on a drug phonetically pronounced theatre.  Theo-dur, like the art form, was an unpredictable chemical with odd neurological side effects which sometimes left me sleepy and other times turned me into an 8-year-old Rick James, but less fun.  I felt like I had to pee, cry, throw up and stand all at the same time.  It almost always happened in the car. I remember a particularly eventful trip to Cincinnati wherein on the four hour drive, I had a panic attack, low blood sugar, a roadside freakout where I wanted to stay in a field and not get in the car, culminating in a very exciting downtown Cincinnati scream fest where I swore I was going to pee my pants.  We raced to the hotel, tears streaming down my face, my Mom shoved me into the lobby bathroom, and turns out I didn’t have to go.  Good times.

Another bizarre form of asthma-related therapy involved a device we called The Machine. I used the Machine for The Treatment which, I feel, is not unlike the contraption of torture used in The Princess Bride of the same name.  It involves liquid.  It also involves losing what feels like a year of your life, not to pain, but boredom. Actually the real name of the Machine is a “nebulizer” which is no better.  I’m pretty sure if you were in a sci-fi movie from the fifties, you were in danger of being nebulized.

Nebulizer

The liquid in the nebulizer was a combination of saline and a drug called Alupent. Alupent is related to Theo-Dur but is less like crack and more like speed.  Actually, for our purposes it IS speed.  It’s a bronchodilator designed to reduce the swelling of your bronchial tubes so you can breathe better with side effects that would make Jesse Spano blush.

A Very Special Episode

Speaking of television and celebrities, I have had my own very special episode with Ron Popeil of Ronco® because of my asthma.  I also owe one of my commercial credits to bronchial inflammation (American Lung Association Christmas Poinsettia Campaign).  And, yes, because of asthma, I met Jackie Joyner Kersee at Camp Superkids for kids with Asthma.  Yeah that’s right.  I went to Asthma Camp which is a lot like regular camp except with more doctors and less fun.

Johnny Ringo: Eventus stultorum magister.
Doc Holliday: In pace requiescat.

But back to Ron Popeil.  One time, when I was 15, I lost my inhaler somewhere around the house.  (Turns out it was behind a cat food dish.  But that is beside the point.)  We were all really sure I had lost it in the house, so there wasn’t any mad rush to get another one for me.  We just figured it would turn up.  Meanwhile, after a spirited session on our giant trampoline, I started to wheeze.

I did not inform my parents of this fact because they were really pissed off that I lost the inhaler.

So for days, because I was an idiot 15 year old, I was low-grade-wheezing and sort of slinking around the house like the undead, scratching at my throat and denying there was a problem, which is kind of what teenagers do anyway so no one noticed anything abnormal.  One night it got bad enough that I couldn’t sleep.  I stared at hours of Ronco® Food Dehydrator infomercials which were on repeat on FOX 36 Toledo.  Finally, at about 4 in the morning, I slunk down to my parents room and told my Mom and Dad I couldn’t breathe.  My Dad whisked me to the emergency room, and after a round with the hospital’s Machine, a stop by the pharmacy for about 18 inhalers and a an assortment of steroids, and I’m sure a McDonald’s breakfast, we went back home.

As I walked in the backdoor, the side effects of the drugs began to kick in, and these weren’t home-administered drugs.  These were HOSPITAL drugs.  I was tweaking so hard I was nearly tap dancing.  I sailed in the door, did a little Texas two step with my Mom who was still in her nightgown and announced WE MUST GET A RONCO® FOOD DEHYDRATOR.

Well, apparently my Mom had been up in the middle of the night a few weeks earlier because without a word she opened up a closet and pulled out, I shit you not, a Ronco® Food Dehydrator.  I don’t think I would have been more thrilled if she had handed me the keys to a new car.  I beamed.  I whisked the box from her hands, assembled the dehydrator, and began to slice every piece of fruit we had.  I worked with the hands of eight people slicing bananas, apples, peaches, berries…anything I could get my hands on.  I sliced and diced and dehydrated, peeling and leaving a massive mess in my wake.

But then…

The drugs wore off.

In the film Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Angela Lansbury casts the “Substitutiary Locomotion” spell on a bunch of medieval weaponry and suits of armor, like you do, to help defend the coast of England from the Nazis.  In the scene when the spell wears off, there is this sound like a bagpipe deflating and all the heretofore two-stepping suits of armor slowly melted to the ground returning to their former inanimate state.


(Go to 9:10 in the video)

Coming down from Alupent is like that.

My voice began to morph like a dying cassette player, I said, “Mommm I’mmmm tirrrrreedddd…sssoooo tttirrrreeddd.” I slinked, nay slithered up the stairs to my bedroom, spent from hours of fruit dehydrating, prescription speed and three days of not breathing very well.

I slept for 17 hours straight.

When I awoke, like a bear in the early Spring, I shuffled downstairs only to be met by  my mother pelting me with dozens of ziplock bags of dried fruit shouting, “HUNGRY?!? How about some dried fruit?!”

Guess what the snack du jour was on vacation that year?  We went to North Carolina to visit family and my Mom spent much of it speaking to other people but locked in eye contact with me saying, “Can we offer you some dried fruit?”

Doc Holliday: I’m your huckleberry.

While I’ve had some harrowing respiratory episodes, only a couple were arguably life-threatening, and one of those times it was not my life that was threatened but rather my sister’s when I tried to strangle her for deciding to spontaneously start a round of “I’m not touching you” while I was having an asthma attack.  I’m not sure you know what “irritated” is until you’re struggling to breathe and someone has engaged you in a round of “I’m not touching you.”  “Betsy hit me!”  She shouted from the back of the minivan.  “I would have too if I could reach that far,” said my Dad.  I swear to God, you can stop an asthma attack with a combination of adrenaline and a quickly induced sense of justice.

Doc Holliday: Nonsense, I have not yet begun to defile myself.

And that’s just the asthma side of things.  I am fantastically allergic to everything not food or drug.  I am barely exaggerating.  I can produce shocking and horrifying amounts of snot. If it were an alternative source of energy, I would be Berkshire Hathaway wealthy.  The stock market would rise during allergy season. Companies like Kimberly Clark would catch the secondary market.  Analysts would pay my family to tip them off about when I would inevitably and lovingly hug a dog, pet a cat, or sniff a flower.

Still, while I may be amazed at the sheer amount of liquid I can produce through my face, I am no wet blanket. I have cats even though I am allergic to them.  I sit in the grass at Ravinia even though it gives me hives.  I don’t let these conditions slow me down!  Sure I gross out my companions, but I’m always game.  I now know that while I enjoy Medieval Times, I just need to bring literally an entire box of Kleenex and large doses of albuterol due to the hay and horses. I learned this the first time I went to Medieval Times. We had to send my Dad out to the parking lot to get my inhaler.  I was the agreeable and good for a laugh age of 16.  Meanwhile my Aunt and Uncle had paid the Royal Cryer to shout, “Congratulations to the Lady Elizabeth who was recently awarded ye olde driver’s license.  Huzzah!”  If that ever shows up on a sitcom, I am entering litigaton because I assure you that experience is singularly mine.

But even after all this, I never really realized what a pasty lifelong case of walking consumption I am until I took over my own medical care.  I swear the mail truck that delivered my childhood medical records to me made that backup “beep beep” sound.  Or maybe that was just me wheezing.

The dentist had always been the one medical establishment I could go to without causing groups of physicians to gather and marvel at something gross.  I was not allergic to anything dental and had strong and healthy teeth.  The dentist was the only place I felt vaguely normal.   Until I started seeing a new dentist upon moving to Chicago.

Narrator: Doc Holliday, a southern gentlemen turned gunman and gambler, also travels west, hoping the dry climate would relieve his tuberculosis…

DENTIST: Wow. (Looking at x rays)
ME: What!? (through sucky tube)
DENTIST: Your sinuses are monsters.
ME: You’re telling me, sister.
DENTIST: No I mean, they are huge.  They are the biggest sinuses I’ve ever seen. Do you have a lot of sinus infections?”
ME: I do.  Thank you for asking.
DENTIST: I bet. (pause) Wow.  Just…wow.

My dentist experience combined with a  particularly bad allergy season left me resolved to revisit the allergist’s office for the first time as an adult.  My childhood traumas had faded enough that my current misery demanded it.  I’d had four sinus infections in the last six months, debilitating allergy attacks, and wheezing if I so much as laughed too hard at something, and left me sounding like a combination of Muttley and his “wheezy snicker” and the Old Man at the Bank in Mary Poppins.


(Go to 4:40 in the video)

As I sat in the exam room waiting the doctor to come in, I spied a laminated poster entitled Commonly Prescribed Asthma Medications.  They listed 12.  I had at one time or another used a sum total of 8 of them.  I have been prescribed 67% of the most commonly used asthma medications.

Doc Holliday: Very cosmopolitan.

The doctor came in.

After a quick exam…
DOCTOR: You have a lot of mucus.
ME: That’s why I’m here. (Humming “I Feel Pretty”)
DOCTOR: Do you feel congested?
ME: Actually no, today is pretty good. (Whisper singing “Oh so pretty…”)
DOCTOR: You’re congested.  Normal for you, is congested for someone…not you.
ME: (“I feel pretty and witty and gaaayyyy….”)
DOCTOR: You have a baseline of swollen.  I want you to start using a neti pot.
ME: Okay. (“And I pity any girl who isn’t me today…”)
DOCTOR: What are you allergic to?
ME: Everything not food or drug. (“I feel charming. OH so charming”)
DOCTOR: Well, we generally only test for 25 things.  Not, uh, everything.
ME: (Scream singing: “IT’S ALARMING HOW CHARMING I FEEL”)

Johnny Ringo: All right, ‘lunger’. Let’s do it.
Doc Holliday: Say when.

She ordered the test.

Embodying my hero, the tuberculine Doc Holliday, I sauntered into the allergy and immunology lab like I was pushing through the swinging doors of a saloon.

Doc Holliday: We started a game we never got to finish. “Play for Blood,” remember?
Nurse:  Take a seat and roll up your sleeve.

I was and am allergic to 24 of the 25 things they test for.  The 25th being cockroaches. So help me God, cockroaches.

The physician’s assistant came in.  “Due to your high reactivity we have to test you for a very rare and dangerous mold allergy.  It’s just standard procedure.  Don’t worry, almost nobody’s allergic to it.”

I’m allergic to it.

And so I quote my two year old self when I say, “Damn.”

Doc Holliday: Why Kate, have you no kind words for me as I ride away?
[pause]
Doc Holliday: I calculate not.