Family & Companions
The very picture of cinematic suavity, William Powell (1892-1984) was arguably the screen's most polished light comedian. Immaculate in dress and acting style, he perfected his man-about-town image in the Thin Man movies and evolved into a character actor most at home playing perfectly groomed lawyers and businessmen, with several sleek detectives thrown in for good measure. Powell's starchy screen presence found perfect outlets in his Oscar®-nominated roles as the debonair detective in The Thin Man (1934), the dignified faux butler of My Man Godfrey (1936) and the domineering but lovable patriarch of Life with Father (1947).
William Horatio Powell was born in Pittsburgh, the son of a public accountant, and briefly studied at the University of Kansas before heading for New York City and the stage. By 1920 he was acting in a successful Broadway production, Spanish Love, which led to an offer to play the villain opposite John Barrymore in a silent-film version of Sherlock Holmes (1922). Powell remained in films for the next four decades, appearing in close to 100 pictures.
Powell?s onscreen villainy continued in such films as Romola (1924), in which he was nasty to the Gish sisters, Lillian and Dorothy; and Dangerous Money (1924), in which he threatened Bebe Daniels. The latter film was made at Paramount, where Powell was awarded a seven-year contract. He was constantly busy throughout the rest of the 1920s, most often playing the bad guy and attracting particular attention as an arrogant film director in The Last Command (1928). But stardom did not arrive until he played detective Philo Vance in The Canary Murder Case (1929), The Greene Murder Case (1929) and The Benson Murder Case (1930). Unlike many silent-film actors, Powell flourished after the advent of sound with his resonant, stage-trained voice. He developed into one of Paramount?s top romantic leading men, playing opposite such female stars as Kay Francis and Carole Lombard, who became his second wife in 1931 and remained a close friend even though they were divorced two years later.
In 1931 Powell switched to Warner Bros., where his pre-Code films included the drama The Road to Singapore and the crime caper Jewel Robbery in both of which he plays the suave seducer of other men?s wives. Kay Francis, who costarred in the latter film, had accompanied Powell to Warners and also acted opposite him in the romantic drama One Way Passage (1932), his biggest hit during this period. His Warners comedies of the period included High Pressure, in which he is a cheeky promoter pushing a new product, synthetic rubber; and Lawyer Man, in which he plays the dapper title role with Joan Blondell as his brassy secretary and unlikely love interest. At RKO Powell was a playboy in the romantic comedy Double Harness, one of a series of films from that studio that were considered ?lost? until rediscovered and restored by TCM in recent years. Powell?s final film under his WB contract was The Kennel Murder Case (1933), in which he reprised the Philo Vance role.
Powell moved to MGM beginning with Manhattan Melodrama, in which Powell and Clark Gable play old friends on opposite sides of the law, with Myrna Loy as the woman both of them love. The director of that film, W.S. Van Dyke, recognized the romantic chemistry between Powell and Loy and cast them in The Thin Man (1934), a low-budget crime caper that became a surprise smash and elevated Powell?s stardom to a whole new level. Powell and Loy repeated their roles as the glamorous sleuthing couple Nick and Nora Charles in After the Thin Man and four more sequels. Altogether this witty and sophisticated pair appeared in 14 films together including The Great Ziegfeld (1936), an Oscar-winner as Best Picture; Libeled Lady, a star-heavy comic romp costarring Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy; Double Wedding, another fun comedy whose making was shadowed by the death of Harlow, Powell?s lover and Loy?s close friend; I Love You Again, a farce in which Powell plays a mixed-up amnesiac with Loy as his confused wife; and Love Crazy, a screwball adventure in which they are a married couple beset by outlandish problems. Powell, who had costarred opposite Harlow in Reckless (1935), teamed with such other glamorous leading ladies as Rosalind Russell (Rendezvous, 1935), Ginger Rogers (Star of Midnight, 1935) and Jean Arthur (The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, 1936). In My Man Godfrey (1936), as the bum-turned-butler, he enjoyed a roaring success along with that Oscar® nomination, playing expertly opposite Carole Lombard (by now the ex-Mrs. Powell). Powell was cast opposite Hedy Lamarr in two MGM films, Crossroads, a mystery in which he has an unusually serious role as an amnesiac who may have been a thief in his former life; and The Heavenly Body (1944), a farce in which he returns to top comic form as an astronomer who?s jealous of his gorgeous wife.
Powell?s last star part in a top box-office hit came with Life with Father (1947), an adaptation of the Broadway success in which he played the crusty Father to Irene Dunne?s warm-hearted Mother. Critic Howard Barnes considered Powell?s performance ?the greatest of a distinguished career.? After a few minor vehicles Powell then eased gracefully into character parts, playing Elizabeth Taylor?s attorney father in The Girl Who Had Everything and Lauren Bacall?s aging suitor in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). His final film role was that of ?Doc,? the quick-witted ship?s doctor in Mister Roberts. Powell, who had a son with first wife Eileen Wilson, married his third wife, Diana Lewis, in 1940. He enjoyed three decades of retirement before his death.
Cast (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Made film debut in "Sherlock Holmes"
Worked primarily for Paramount Studios
Made first film opposite Myrna Loy, "Manhattan Melodrama"
Teamed with Loy for the first time as Nick and Nora Charles in "The Thin Man"
Made annual nationwide exhibitors poll of top ten box office stars; placed fifth
Made last "Thin Man" film, "Song of the Thin Man"
Last film, "Mister Roberts"
(Pressbook images courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)