Myrna Loy, dear, dear Miss Loy. Today is her 106th birthday, bless that talented, loyal, fiercely intelligent and enlightened woman. Do you have a copy of her autobiography, Being and Becoming? If not, what on earth is stopping you? You can get it at ABE Books and any number of other places, and it's worth whatever price they charge.
Last week the Siren participated in a roundtable at Movie Morlocks, sponsored by the ever-fab Kimberly Lindbergs of Cinebeats. The discussion centered on racist images in classic films, and how much, or even whether, we need to protect impressionable children from it. And it made the Siren think of Loy, who made no excuses for the sins of her era, but rather owned up to her mistakes:
…Those exotics started to predominate. My bit as a mulatto in The Heart of Maryland led to a role that I'm very much ashamed of. Zanuck wrote Ham and Eggs at the Front, a parody of What Price Glory?, casting me as a spy. How could I ever have put on blackface? When I think of it now, it horrifies me. Well, our awareness broadens, thank God! It was a tasteless slapstick comedy that I mercifully remember very little of.
Loy recognized what was behind her "Oriental" phase, didn't like it, but was still able to be scathingly funny about it. After Love Me Tonight (she knew that was a good one--Miss Loy was very smart about most of her roles), she wrote,
They dropped me right back into the vamp mold, loaning me to RKO for Thirteen Women. As a Javanese-Indian half-caste, I methodically murder all the white schoolmates who've patronized me. I recall little about that racist concoction, but it came up recently when the National Board of Review honored me with its first Career Achievement Award. Betty Furness, a charming mistress of ceremonies, who had started at RKO doubling for my hands in closeups when I was busy elsewhere, said that she'd been dropped from Thirteen Women. (Despite its title, there were only ten in the final print.) 'You were lucky,' I told her, 'because I just would have killed you, too. The only one who escaped me in that picture was Irene Dunne, and I regretted it every time she got the parts I wanted.'
Thirteen Women is actually quite an interesting pre-Code; as Filmbrain points out, despite the stereotypical spooky powers that are presumed to be congenital for an Asian beauty, Loy's character goes bad because she's a victim of racism. She is turning her treatment back on her tormentors. But it is easy to see why Loy would lack patience for yet another evil exotic.
On screen Loy was a byword for sophistication; off screen, like Nora Charles, she combined that quality with broadmindedness and old-fashioned common sense. Immediately after Thirteen Women, Loy did The Mask of Fu Manchu, and found herself confronted with a script that asked her to whip a man "while uttering gleefully suggestive sounds." She'd had it with this sort of stuff, and furthermore she'd been reading Freud and picked up a thing or two. She went to producer Hunt Stromberg and refused to film it: "I've done a lot of terrible things in films, but this girl's a sadistic nymphomaniac." Stromberg said, "What's that?", which lack of familiarity with less-conventional sexuality makes you wonder how Hunt Stromberg ever got anywhere as a Hollywood producer, but never mind. Loy replied, "Well, you better find out, because that's what she is and I won't play her that way." Studio contracts being what they were, she did play her that way, but she succeeded in getting Stromberg to trim some excesses. "She wasn't Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm," said Miss Loy, "but, as I remember, she just watched while others did the whipping."
The banner above (you can send thank-you notes to the Siren's email address on the sidebar) is from The Barbarian, a pre-Code that the Siren hasn't seen (yet). Filming that scene brought out an example of just how much Loy's coworkers must have loved her.
After I was safely submerged in a sunken marble tub, they scattered rose petals on the water, stationing men to keep them circulating with long, toothless rakes. They keep pushing those rose petals closer and closer to cover me--somewhat overzealously, it seemed. I looked up and saw a ring of familiar faces, Culver City friends and neighbors who worked in the studio. Unaware that I wore flesh-toned garments, they were diligently trying to protect the virtue of a local girl. It was so sweet, but didn't work. Some magazine photographer got in, took a picture that made me look stark naked, and syndicated it all over the world.
Last night, of course, the Siren wanted to watch a Myrna Loy movie, and she did: 1940's Third Finger, Left Hand, a nicely titled Robert Z. Leonard comedy with Melvyn Douglas. It isn't much more than diverting, but the role is a bit unusual for Loy, in that her character is a career woman who has invented a phony husband in order to avoid getting hit on at work. Without a husband, the CEO's jealous wife would push her out in a matter of months; with a ring on her finger, she can do her job. And the CEO's wife? "We're pals," says Loy.
In most of my pictures I complemented the male character, who usually carried the story. This often meant that my roles were subordinate, but that's the way I wanted it. The Bette Davis type of classic woman's role wasn't for me, nor was the Roz Russell female-executive routine, which is what I did in Third Finger, Left Hand.
She liked Melvyn Douglas ("he was a great person, a tireless fighter for liberal causes," noted Loy) and their comic rhythms are very much in tune, even if one inevitably misses William Powell. The Siren would tell you to watch this movie just for a scene where Loy fakes a tough-tootsie Brooklyn persona to embarrass Douglas. She pulls her gum out of her mouth in a string--if that doesn't sell you, it should. There's also her white evening gown in a nightclub scene, and her fake wedding night with Melvyn Douglas; Miss Loy being carried unwillingly over the threshold shows she could do physical comedy as well as she did repartee.
The Siren read Being and Becoming when it first came out in 1987, picks it up all the time to this day, and still recalls many passages without much effort, as you can see. She already adored Miss Loy--from The Thin Man on, there is scarcely a movie the Siren wouldn't be in clover watching, and there's a good deal to worship before that watershed film, too. But Loy's memoirs are special, because they show such a rare thing--an artist whose work means the world to you, whom you can also admire as a person. Not a saint, oh no--wouldn't Miss Loy have hooted at that?--but a woman anyone would have been privileged to have as a coworker, proud to have as a friend.
And so last night, watching Third Finger, Left Hand, the Siren was struck by the character of Sam, a Pullman porter played by the African American actor Ernest Whitman. Whitman is stuck with what passed for black dialect in 1940 Hollywood, but it's an unusual and charming character. He is neither shuffling nor particularly servile, just genial and polite. And when Melvyn Douglas needs a lawyer (he's divorcing Loy--you don't really want me to explain why, do you?) it turns out that Sam has been studying law. He proceeds to run rings around Loy's tony attorney and would-be fiance, Lee Bowman, quoting hilariously abstruse passages from case law until Bowman calls it a night. Sam's character is the one who paves the way for true love.
And when the end credits rolled, the Siren marched straight back to Loy, and this:
During my early years in the studios, movie people were too busy getting a foothold to concern themselves with social conscience. I once asked, 'Why does every Negro in a film have to play a servant? How about just a black person walking up the steps of a courthouse carrying a briefcase?' Well! The storm that caused!
When artists die, there are always some scolds who insist that it simply isn't possible to miss--deeply, personally miss--a woman you were never fortunate enough to meet. The Siren says phooey to that. Because she misses Miss Loy, and always will.