Have you ever heard anyone speak harshly of Myrna Loy? In fact, just the mere mention of her name elicits such a positive response it is hard not to crack a smile. My first encounter with Myrna was her work alongside three-time co-star Cary Grant in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947) and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dreamhouse (1948). She is brilliant in both roles and is one of Grant’s greatest co-stars. When I discovered her films from the 1930s, I finally understood why she is so highly regarded among classic film fans. Soon I began scrounging for every Loy performance I could find, including all the films she made with the charming William Powell, with whom she co-starred 14 times.
In the late 1980s, Myrna Loy worked extensively and exclusively with James Kotsilibas-Davis to pen her autobiography Being and Becoming. This personal account has been the only significant information regarding Loy’s private life and career until now. Emily W. Leider, author of Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood, utilizes Loy’s recollections from Being and Becoming, along with newly obtained material, in an attempt to piece together more of Loy’s life story.
Leider begins with a detailed account of Myrna Loy’s childhood leading up to being discovered in Hollywood. In her hometown of Helena, Montana, a young Loy took an interest in performing arts–especially dance. After the death of her father, Myrna, her mother, and other relatives moved to Southern California. She continued taking dance lessons and eventually sought work to provide for her family. More importantly, Myrna desperately wanted independence. In 1923 she was hired as a prologue dancer at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre. For frame of reference, these elaborate stage productions (which provided in-house entertainment for moviegoers), were akin to the prologues featured in Busby Berkeley’s Footlight Parade. Before long, Loy’s beauty and talent were noticed by Rudolph Valentino and his wife Natacha Rambova. Myrna quickly acquired her first uncredited role in the 1925 film What Price Beauty?
After several of these smaller roles, Loy was offered parts as exotics, often playing a temptress and homewrecker. She would be typecast in this kind of role until around 1934 when she gave breakout performances in Manhattan Melodrama and The Thin Man. Although she had shed one typecast, she gained another in being labeled “the perfect wife.”
Leider writes of Loy’s early years in Hollywood, including when she fell in love with a married man, producer Arthur Hornblow. Eventually they married, but Arthur’s infidelities and lack of commitment led to their divorce. Myrna had four husbands in all, yet never found the reciprocal love she so desperately sought. Since she could not find complete happiness in her romantic life, Myrna looked for other ways to gain fulfillment. She was a dedicated volunteer during WWII and raised millions of dollars in war bonds for the cause. She was also quite active in liberal politics and outspoken against the House Un-American Activities Committee. A staunch supporter of President Roosevelt, Loy soon became friends with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and the two worked closely on social and political causes. Myrna was also an unabashed supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, which was not a particularly popular stance at the time. Later in her career and life, Loy retreated from Hollywood to New York where she remained until her death in 1993. In the final years of her life she was finally recognized by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award. Up to that moment, Loy had never even been nominated for an Oscar.
Fans have long awaited a biography on Myrna Loy. Her autobiography Being and Becoming is out of print, so finding a copy can be difficult. Upon hearing of Emily W. Leider’s book, I was ecstatic. Unfortunately, I have to admit that I am slightly disappointed. Leider’s account of Myrna Loy’s early life is well written. I appreciate her attention to detail in retelling Loy’s story from a different perspective than what has already been written. What I noticed is Leider references Loy’s book numerous times (almost to the point of distraction), and it quickly becomes apparent that perhaps there really isn’t much information about Loy’s life outside of what has already been written. In other words, Loy wrote what she thought we should know about her and therefore disclosed a filtered, if incomplete version, which is fair. That said, there are a few new bits of information in The Only Good Girl in Hollywood, that according to Leider, Loy either briefly mentions in passing or ignores completely in her autobiography. For example, Leider discusses the reason behind Loy’s inability to bear children, something that Loy never divulged.
One of the trappings of the star biography is an author’s tendency to give synopses of movies in an actor’s filmography. In telling the story of Loy’s early fledgling career and rise to prominence in Hollywood, Leider often falls into the pattern of film synopsis and review. I understand that anecdotes from the filming of Loy’s movies is important to paint a complete picture of the surrounding events in her life. However, when plotlines are detailed from start to finish accompanied by critique and opinion (either Leider’s or that of a film critic), it is too much.
Overall, I have mixed feelings on Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood. I would like to revisit this book after reading Being and Becoming. Perhaps Leider’s book will be a nice companion piece to Loy’s, but in all honesty I was looking for something more.
Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood
University of California Press