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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Kellow Fiorini

William Powell - From Ladies Man to Debonair Detective

Updated: May 23, 2021

Urbane implies high cultivation and poise coming from wide social experience — debonair, suave, smooth, sophisticated. Urbane is a word that comes up again and again, when discussing pre-Code films, and specifically when describing William Powell. So much so, that at times it feels the word was invented just for him.

William Powell in the early 1930s.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1892, Powell was acting on the New York stage in his twenties before heading to Hollywood where he made 30 movies in the silent era. Early in his career Powell specialized in slimy villainous types until 1929 when he was cast as detective Philo Vance in The Canary Murder Case for Paramount Pictures opposite a luminous Louise Brooks and future star Jean Arthur. Although the film itself is stilted due to the technical limitations of early talkies, Powell’s charm is evident.

Powell in his first detective role as Philo Vance, here with Louise Brooks as the lovely canary, in The Canary Murder Case, 1929.

At Paramount, Powell was paired several times with actress Kay Francis, and usually cast as a playboy or a gigolo in movies like Ladies Man — the film where he met second wife Carole Lombard. He hated these roles saying, “I’m throwing down the gauntlet. I’m not a ladies man. I’m not handsome. Someone like Valentino should’ve played this part.”

Fans thought Powell and Francis were dating, but it was actually Carole Lombard whom Powell married weeks after the release of Ladies Man, 1931. Left to right, Francis, Powell and Lombard.

In 1932 both Powell and Francis defected from a struggling Paramount to Warner where they were paired for their last two films together. Jewel Robbery stars Francis as the trophy wife of a Viennese baron and Powell as a gentleman thief who steals her diamonds and her resistance. This delicious comedy for grownups is a pre-Code’s favorite. Later that year, they made another pre-Code classic, One Way Passage, with Powell as a convicted, but still sophisticated murderer on his way by ship to San Francisco for execution, and Francis as a beautiful woman with a terminal illness. They meet on the boat and fall in love, each without knowing the other’s secret. The absurd plot line is straight out of a daytime soap, but the considerable talents of these two stars make it believable and heartbreaking.

Francis and Powell play star-crossed lovers in One Way Passage, 1932.

Powell as a seductive jewel thief who gets Kay Francis and her diamonds in the very adult comedy Jewel Robbery, 1932.

Powell and Lombard divorced after two years of marriage when they discovered the only thing they had in common was Scotch, and Powell lamenting he didn’t want to be Mr. Lombard. By 1934 he was involved with Jean Harlow, but with his ego bruised by Lombard, he could never fully commit to another beautiful blonde whose career, at the time, was bigger than his own. In 1933 Warner dropped his contract when he refused to take a wage cut. A confidential memo from the studio called him “washed up.”

Against everyone’s protest, including the head of MGM, his agent got him a part in Manhattan Melodrama in 1934 opposite Myrna Loy. Next he was cast as Nick Charles in The Thin Man — a surprise hit for MGM that spawned six sequels. At age 41, the studio thought he was too old for the part, but the supposedly “washed up star” was hotter than ever. In The Thin Man, Powell plays hard-drinking, high-living Nick Charles, a former detective who resides in a penthouse apartment with his socialite wife and partner in crime Nora (Myrna Loy). Nick and Nora spend their days and nights drinking and hosting parties. Together they’re the epitome of wit and class. So convincing were Powell and Loy as an on-screen couple, audiences thought they were really married. When staying in hotels on publicity tours for the films, Loy would have to assure the concierge that they DID want separate rooms.

Myrna Loy and William Powell with Asta the dog in The Thin Man, 1934.

Nick Charles recovers from his New Year's Eve hangover with a few more drinks and some Christmas tree target practice, as wife Nora looks on.

Loy and Powell as Nick and Nora Charles, one of cinema's most iconic pairings.

By mid 1934, when the Code was enforced, audiences, particularly in the Midwest, were beginning to cool to stories about sophisticated city folk. It’s a testament to the chemistry of Powell and Loy that the Thin Man series bucked this trend with its enduring popularity, earning Powell an Oscar nomination and a $500,000 ten-film contract. One of pre-Code’s best known films, The Thin Man even inspired the title characters' names in the 2008 film Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist. After the Code was enforced, he was nominated for an Oscar two more times, but only took home a lifetime achievement award.

In 1937, after Jean Harlow’s death, Powell mysteriously left Hollywood for two years only later revealing he had been diagnosed with rectal cancer, recovered, and then returned to Hollywood. He married actress Diana Lewis in 1940 and continued to work until his last film in 1955 — Mr. Roberts. According to women who knew him, Powell was the incarnation of his famous Nick Charles character. “He was Nick Charles, and he was good.”

Myrna Loy, William Powell, and Maureen O'Sullivan (mother of Mia Farrow) in a publicity still from The Thin Man, 1934.

Powell and Loy shoot the final scenes of The Thin Man, 1934 with director W.S. Van Dyke.

On the set of The Thin Man in 1934, Maureen O'Sullivan, William Powell, director W.S. Van Dyke, and Myrna Loy.

The Warner Brothers 1938 cartoon Have You Got Any Castles? features characters from books coming to life at midnight while everyone sleeps. Many of the characters are from books made into films - like William Powell who emerges from a Thin Man book.

From Wikipedia. "a literal Thin Man when viewed from the side (a caricature of William Powell as Nick Charles) walking into the White House Cook Book and, when walking back out and seen from the side, shows that he has packed on some weight in his posterior." I have not idea what the White House Cook Book reference is, but if anyone knows please feel free to post below or email me!

The cartoon can be seen here in its entirety.

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