William Powell: The Life and Films
By Roger Bryant, McFarland, 2006
Who Rocks the Thin Mustache?
Sorry, David Niven.
It's impossible not to love William Powell. I don't care if you've never even seen him in a film -- just look at him. Doesn't he seem like a nice guy? A smart guy? A guy you want in your corner?
This is not always the case with an only child, which he was, born in Pittsburgh, PA, to Horatio Powell, an accountant, and Nettie Brady. His father wanted him to become a lawyer, but William was a sucker for theater from his boyhood. His mother claimed that William made speeches soon after he could talk and would imitate the performances he saw at Pittsburgh's Bijou Theater, which he went to with alarming frequency.
When he was a teenager, Powell moved with his family to Kansas City, MO, where he finished high school and attending the University of Kansas for about a week. He then took off to Manhattan to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. For the next decade or so, William Powell was a bit player in vaudeville, a featured player on the road in a melodrama, and a regular performer on the New York stage, appearing in about 200 plays.
He first appeared in film as the villain to John Barrymore's Sherlock Holmes in 1921, which set him up in silent pictures as the heavy or society scoundrel. The advent of sound diversified Powell's roles into more sympathetic and romantic leads. Thank goodness, because I don't think I could have done without any of the 14 pictures he made with Myrna Loy, the woman of my dreams. Well, maybe The Great Ziegfeld...
Powell was married three times and amicably divorced twice. The first time to actress Eileen Wilson (1915-1930), the mother of his only child, television writer, William David Powell*; the second, more famously and for a much shorter time, to Carole Lombard (1931-1933). That divorce went so well, he later starred with Lombard (at his insistence, in fact) in My Man Godfrey, a performance which earned the both of them Academy Award nominations.
There's a joke in there somewhere.
Powell (also famously) dated Jean Harlow for two years and the couple were engaged at the time of her tragic death from kidney failure at age 26 in 1937. Powell had her interred in a multicolored marble mausoleum at Forest Lawn in Glendale, expecting to join her there. However, he met third wife, Diana Lewis (see Cry Havoc!) in 1940, married her three weeks later, and remained married to Lewis until his death in 1984.
Powell was diagnosed in 1937 with rectal cancer, a secret he kept for many decades. At the time, it was said that his break from acting was due to a stomach ailment, but Powell was undergoing a new-ish radiation treatment, and made a complete recovery. He worked continuously until the mid-1950s, then gracefully retired to the desert with Diana Lewis.
William Powell lived to the age of 91, by all accounts a happy man with many friends.
* Very sad story about William David Powell. Diagnosed with hepatitis and kidney disease, a severely depressed Powell killed himself (are you sitting down?) by stabbing himself in the chest repeatedly in the shower. He left a long note to his father. They were very close.