Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Myrna Loy (1905-1993)

Birth name: Myrna Adele Williams
Birthdate: August 2nd, 1905
Location: Helena, Montana, USA

Died: December 14th, 1993
Location: New York, USA
Cause of death: Complications following surgery

Best known for: Actress who rose to prominence in the silent era, and consolidated her fame in the 1930s and 40s in films such as The Great Ziegfeld (1936), Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) and Meet Me in St Louis (1959). She was also known for her role as Nora Charles in the Thin Man film franchise (1934-47). She was never nominated for an Oscar, but did receive an Honorary Award in 1991, at the age of 85, for "her extraordinary qualities both on screen and off, with an appreciation for a lifetime's worth of indelible performances".

Myrna's career was going great guns throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s, with particular success in romantic comedies, but the outbreak of World War Two saw her shift her focus away from making movies and onto the war effort, specifically the Red Cross. Myrna was vociferously outspoken against German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, and as a result was placed on his infamous blacklist (a list of Western names who would be sent to concentration camps if ever they were captured). Myrna helped to run a Naval Auxiliary canteen and toured widely to raise funds for the war coffers.

Myrna as Adele in Family
Affair, aged 61
Once the war was over, Myrna returned to making films, the first being The Thin Man Goes Home (1945), followed by another decade of strong silver screen efforts, including playing Dr Lillian Gilbreth in Cheaper by the Dozen (1950) and its sequel Belles on Their Toes (1952). By the mid to late 1950s, the frequency of her films began to lessen, although she did dabble in the new medium of television with several appearances on the General Electric Theater anthology series (1955-57) and The DuPont Show with June Allyson (1960).

However, the 1960s were much quieter as Myrna entered her sixth decade. Between 1960-67 she went seven years without appearing on film or TV, but was lured back to the screen at the age of 61 by a role in the sitcom Family Affair in February 1967, in which she played a waitress-for-hire with little waitressing experience! The success of this turn saw Myrna embrace more TV work, with appearances in various shows, such as The Virginian (1967), Columbo (1972), Ironside (1973) and a number of TV movies, including 1974's Indict and Convict, in which she played a judge.

A 73-year-old Myrna with Ralston Hill
in Relatively Speaking at the Country
Dinner Playhouse in Denver
Myrna also returned to the stage in the 1973 revival of Clare Boothe Luce's The Women. It opened at the 46th Street Theatre on Broadway in April 1973, and ran for more than 60 performances over the following two months. Myrna played Mrs Morehead in what was her Broadway debut at the age of 67! Myrna also toured in a 1977/78 production of Alan Ayckbourn's Relatively Speaking.

In 1974, at the age of 69, she joined the ensemble cast of the disaster movie Airport 1975, playing alcoholic Mrs Devaney (she drank cocktails of Jim Beam and Olympia beer!), alongside the likes of Charlton Heston, Linda Blair, Dana Andrews, Roy Thinnes and Sid Caesar. This return to the spotlight in the 1970s soon waned again, however, as old age and illness crept in. There were appearances in the 1978 Burt Reynolds slapstick film The End (as Reynolds's mother), and Sidney Lumet's 1980 comedy Just Tell Me What You Want, in which she plays star Alan King's secretary Stella, but her retirement from acting was just around the corner.

One reason for the slowing down of activity in the 1970s was the fact Myrna had two mastectomies, in 1975 (aged 70) and 1979 (aged 74) for breast cancer.

Myrna's final acting role
in the sitcom Love, Sidney,
in 1982, aged 76
Her acting swansong was an episode of the TV sitcom Love, Sidney, which was about a middle-aged gay artist who shares his New York apartment with a single mum and her daughter. It starred Tony Randall as Sidney Shore, and Swoosie Kurtz as his friend Laurie. Myrna's episode was called Sidney and the Actress, broadcast on June 16th, 1982, when she was aged 76, and in it she played Sidney's idol Vera Lonnigan, whose fan club Sidney joins.

After that, Myrna wrote and released her autobiography, Being and Becoming, in 1987, but soon settled down into aged retirement. Myrna had never been nominated for an Academy Award, and to try and rectify this, a letter-writing campaign was launched, which included many of her former co-stars such as Roddy McDowall and Sidney Sheldon, spearheaded by Writers Guild of America board member Michael Russnow. The result was her Honorary Award at the 63rd Annual Oscars ceremony in March 1991. The 85-year-old Myrna did not attend the ceremony in person, but did send a video message from her home at 425 East 63rd Street in New York City, saying: "You've made me very happy, thank you very much." It was Myrna's last ever public appearance.

Myrna, aged 85, accepting her Honorary
Oscar in March, 1991
Myrna, aged 88, in 1993 with
Lauren Bacall
In December 1993, Myrna died, aged 88, in a Manhattan hospital from complications following unspecified surgery. She had been frail and in poor health for some time. Her body was cremated in New York and her ashes interred at Forestvale Cemetery in her hometown of Helena, Montana. That same year the Myrna Loy Center for the Performing and Media Arts opened in Helena, and is still going strong today.

Myrna was a remarkable humanitarian as well as a film star. Her career break to help the war effort in the 1940s led to her getting involved with UNESCO, becoming a member of its US National Commission in 1948, the first Hollywood celebrity to do so. She also served as co-chair of the Advisory Council of the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing.

Fountain of Education, with
Inspiration standing central,
modelled by Myrna in 1921
Fascinating fact - Did you know that Myrna Loy was in Grease? In 1921, at the age of just 16, Myrna, who was a drama student at Los Angeles's Venice High School, posed for sculpture teacher Harry Fielding Winebrenner as the central figure of Inspiration in his sculpture group Fountain of Education.

The sculpture went on display in front of the campus outdoor pool in May 1923, where it remained until 2002, when it was removed from display due to decades of exposure to the elements, and vandalism.

It was replace in 2010 by a bronze duplicate paid for by an alumni fundraising campaign, but the original Winebrenner sculpture can be seen in the opening scenes of the 1978 musical film Grease, which used Venice High as the location for the fictional Rydell High School.

A scene from the opening of Grease (1978), with the Fountain
of Education sculpture visible

1 comment:

  1. As much as Myrna did withdraw from movies in the '60's, she toured theatrically for years, with Barefoot In the Park, Don Juan in Hell & summer stock. She refused the battle-axe roles her contemporaries played after Baby Jane, apparently Hitchcock wanted her to play the prostitute mother in Marnie.


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