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William Powell Perfection

October 20, 2011

by John Farr

William Powell made so many magnificent pictures it’s difficult to choose three recommendations to watch after After The Thin Man this weekend, but John Farr makes the tough choices, all from one year: 1936.

The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

This enchanting film traces the colorful life of early twentieth century showman Florenz Ziegfeld from carnival side-show barker to producer of the immortal Ziegfeld Follies, the most glamorous and elaborate stage show ever mounted, including the world’s prettiest chorus girls and the country’s top vaudeville acts, including comedienne Fanny Brice and hoofer Ray Bolger (who both appear in the film).

This top MGM musical recreates the glory days of the musical theatre, before movies overtook Broadway as our primary form of entertainment. The charming Powell reflects ideal casting for Ziegfeld, and frequent co-star Myrna Loy is also on hand playing second wife Billie Burke. Winner of that year’s Best Picture Oscar, Luise Rainer also won a statuette for her portrayal of “Ziggy”‘s first wife Anna Held (her culminating phone scene is justly famous). Long but dazzling, “Ziegfeld” combines backstage drama with on-stage spectacle- in particular, don’t miss that immortal “Pretty Girl” musical number.

My Man Godfrey (1936)

Through a contest only the idle rich could invent, a daffy family hires a forgotten man from skid row to become the new butler in their zany household. Younger daughter Irene (Carol Lombard) proceeds to fall in love with him. Godfrey (Powell), however, is not precisely who, or what, he seems.

Gregory La Cava’s sublime “Godfrey” blends screwball elements with more serious overtones on Depression-era class injustice, to create a wildly entertaining yet thought-provoking movie that holds up beautifully. The term debonair was indeed coined for Powell, and Lombard makes for an adorable ditz. (Trivia note: the two stars had been married briefly several years earlier, but had divorced amicably, and remained good friends). Highlights: comic actor Mischa Auer as Mrs. Bullock’s “protégé”, along with the rotund Pallette as Mr. Bullock, the family’s frustrated industrialist father, who appears more like an impotent keeper at an asylum.

Libeled Lady (1936)

The ever-smooth Powell plays Bill Chandler, a freelance journalist hired by his old newspaper to squelch a libel suit brought by society heiress Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy). To do this, Bill must make Connie fall in love with him and then place her in a compromising position. Ultimately, he melts her icy exterior, but ends up falling in love himself. What’s a smitten newspaperman to do?

Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 1936, Jack Conway’s underexposed screwball comedy is a raucous farce buzzing with zany humor, thanks to a flurry of impeccable one-liners delivered by Powell and Loy, reunited from their pairing in “The Thin Man.” Playing Haggerty, the newspaper’s frantic editor, and Gladys, his continually jilted fiancée, Tracy and Harlow round out a stellar foursome in this fast-paced, ingenious laugh-fest.

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