William Horatio Powell in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 29 July 1892.
Attended high school in Kansas City; University of Kansas, Lawrence,
briefly; American Academy of Dramatic Arts, New York, 1911–12.
Married 1) the actress Eileen Wilson (divorced 1931), son: William
David;2) the actress Carole Lombard, 1931 (divorced 1933); 3) the actress
Diana Lewis, 1940.
1912—Broadway debut in
; 1913–15—in road company of the melodrama
Within the Law
; then acted in the Harry Davis company, Pittsburgh, the Baker company,
Portland, Oregon, the Jessie Bonsteele company, Buffalo, and others;
1918–19—with Castle Square Stock Company, Boston;
1922—film debut in
; 1925–31—contract with Paramount, followed by contract with
Warner Brothers, 1931–34, and MGM, 1934.
Best Actor, New York Film Critics, for
Life with Father
The Senator Was Indiscreet
5 March 1984.
Films as Actor:
Spanish Love ; Sherlock Holmes (Parker) (as Forman Wells); When Knighthood Was in Flower (Vignola) (as Francis I); Outcast (Withey) (as DeValle)
The Bright Shawl (Robertson)
Under the Red Robe (Crosland) (as Duke of Orleans); Romola (King) (as Tito Melema); Dangerous Money (Tuttle)
Too Many Kisses (Sloane); Faint Perfume (Gasnier); My Lady's Lips (Hogan); The Beautiful City (Webb)
White Mice (Edward Griffith); Sea Horses (Dwan); Desert Gold (Seitz); The Runaway (William DeMille); Aloma of the South Seas (Tourneur); Beau Geste (Brenon) (as Boldoni); Tin Gods (Dwan); The Great Gatsby (Brenon)(as George Wilson)
New York (Reed); Love's Greatest Mistake (Sutherland); Special Delivery (Goodrich); Senorita (Badger); Paid to Love (Hawks); Time for Love (Tuttle); Nevada (Waters); She's a Sheik (Badger); Feel My Pulse (La Cava)
Beau Sabreur (Waters); Partners in Crime (Strayer); The Last Command (von Sternberg); The Dragnet (von Sternberg); The Vanishing Pioneer (Waters); Forgotten Faces (Schertzinger)
Interference (Mendez); The Canary Murder Case (St. Clair)(as Philo Vance); The Green Murder Case (Tuttle) (as Philo Vance); Charming Sinners (Milton); Four Feathers (Schoedsack and Mendez); Pointed Heels (Sutherland)
The Benson Murder Case (Tuttle) (as Philo Vance); Paramount on Parade (as himself/Philo Vance); Shadow of the Law (Gasnier); Behind the Makeup (Milton); Street of Chance (Cromwell); For the Defense (Cromwell)
Man of the World (Wallace); Ladies Man (Mendez); The Road to Singapore (Green)
High Pressure (Le Roy); Jewel Robbery (Dieterle); One Way Passage (Garnett); Lawyer Man (Dieterle)
Double Harness (Cromwell); Private Detective 62 (Curtiz); The Kennel Murder Case (Curtiz) (as Philo Vance)
Fashions of 1934 (Dieterle); The Key (Curtiz); Manhattan Melodrama (Van Dyke); The Thin Man (Van Dyke) (as Nick Charles); Evelyn Prentice (Howard)
Reckless (Fleming); Star of Midnight (Roberts); Escapade (Leonard); Rendezvous (Howard)
The Great Ziegfeld (Leonard) (title role); The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (Roberts); Libeled Lady (Conway); My Man Godfrey (La Cava) (title role); After the Thin Man (Van Dyke) (as Nick Charles)
The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (Boleslawsky); The Emperor's Candlesticks (Fitzmaurice); Double Wedding (Thorpe)
The Baroness and the Butler (Walter Lang)
Another Thin Man (Van Dyke) (as Nick Charles)
I Love You Again (Van Dyke)
Love Crazy (Conway); Shadow of the Thin Man (Van Dyke)(as Nick Charles)
The Youngest Profession (Buzzell) (as himself)
The Heavenly Body (Hall); The Thin Man Goes Home (Thorpe)(as Nick Charles)
Ziegfeld Follies (Minnelli) (as Florenz Ziegfeld); The Hoodlum Saint (Taurog)
Song of the Thin Man (Buzzell) (as Nick Charles); Life with Father (Curtiz) (as Clarence Day); The Senator Was Indiscreet (Kaufman)
Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (Pichel) (as Mr. Peabody)
Take One False Step (Erskine); Dancing in the Dark (Reis)
The Treasure of the Lost Canyon (Tetzlaff); It's a Big Country (Wellman and others)
The Girl Who Had Everything (Thorpe); How to Marry a Millionaire (Negulesco)
Mister Roberts (Ford and LeRoy) (as Doc)
On POWELL: books—
Morella, Joe, and Edward Epstein, Gable & Lombard & Powell & Harlow , London, 1971.
Francisco, Charles, Gentleman: The William Powell Story , New York, 1985.
Quirk, Lawrence J., The Complete Films of William Powell , Secaucus, New Jersey, 1986.
Baxt, George, The William Powell & Myrna Loy Murder Case , New York, 1996.
On POWELL: articles—
Current Biography 1947 , New York, 1947.
Jacobs, Jack, "William Powell," in Films in Review (New York), November 1958.
Hurley, J., "Nora on Nick: Myrna Loy Talks about Her Co-Star," and "Remembering William Powell," by S. Rabin, in Films in Review (New York), October 1982.
Obituary in New York Times , 6 March 1984.
Obituary in Variety (New York), 14 March 1984.
Buckley, Michael, "A Final Tribute: William Powell," in Films in Review (New York), May 1984.
Rickey, C., "Bittersweet William," in Film Comment (New York), May/June 1984.
Winokur, Mark, "Improbable Ethnic Hero: William Powell and the Transformation of Ethnic Hollywood," in Cinema Journal (Champaign, Illinois), Fall 1987.
Drabelle, Dennis, "The Art of William Powell," in Film Comment (New York), May/June 1993.
* * *
William Powell specialized in urbane cynicism, signifying unflappable, upper-class charm with the smallest gesture. A dependable actor at the MGM stable in the late 1930s and the 1940s, Powell, whether romantic, comic, or sinister, kept his edge of witty sophistication invariably intact.
Brief stage training in the early 1920s led to film work. His features—trim moustache, expressive eyes, close haircut—were ideal for silent picture villainy. He remained a busy supporting actor during that decade. Powell easily bridged the transition to sound, which utilized his talents fully. With the addition of his persuasive, carnival-barker voice, Powell was roguishly slick rather than suspicious, suitable for lawyer and detective parts as well as smooth criminals. One of his earliest talkie assignments, as the private eye Philo Vance in The Canary Murder Case , served as a preliminary for the role most closely associated with him: Nick Charles to Myrna Loy's Nora in the screen adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man . Powell and Loy generated a rare, extraordinary chemistry on-screen, pioneering a concept that would become a staple in screwball comedy—marriage could be fun, a partnership. The stars paired in 13 films altogether, including five additional Thin Man outings.
His subsequent screen roles were variations on the Charles theme, igniting a succession of classic comedies— Libeled Lady , My Man Godfrey , Double Wedding . Health problems led to relative inaction in the 1940s and after, but by choosing his roles with care and accuracy, he eased into genial character parts. In Life with Father , as the irascible Clarence Day, Powell reached another career peak. He chose to retire after his warmly received portrait of Doc in Mister Roberts .
Talent and fortunate material contributed to Powell's success. He ranks among the best sophisticated comedy stars, and his work remains eminently entertaining.