William Powell is undoubtedly one of my favorite actors. Within the past two years I have watched almost all of his "talkies": all the films with Myrna Loy, his very first film, his last. This man is a genius who was given the same type of roles over and over again but who managed to make each one a memorable performance. He is most famous for the beloved character of Nick Charles in the Thin Man series, the witty and always slightly inebriated detective married to the "perfect wife," Myrna Loy, an actress who like Powell was also typecast and given the same type of roles over and over again. Powell's two other most famous films, of which he was nominated for an Academy Award, are My Man Godfrey (1936) and Life with Father (1947). He was also nominated for The Thin Man (1934), which gave new life to his dwindling career. Three nominations (and even that is upsetting as it is such a small number)... and not a single win.
Part of the problem is that the voters in the Academy always seemed to prefer dramatic performances over comedic ones, something that still holds true today. But what comedic actors and actresses make look so effortless is in reality a talent, a rare gift. To be able to pull off comedy without stooping to ridiculousness is a real art that sadly seldom gets rewarded.
So who did win those three years that William Powell was nominated?
1934 - Nominated for The Thin Man
Winner - Clark Gable in It Happened One Night
Don't get me wrong, It Happened One Night is a great movie. Like The Thin Man, it was also a low budget film and was from one of the Poverty Row studios, Columbia. Claudette Colbert had to be bribed and it was a punishment for Gable. But the film was a runaway hit, garnering five Oscars, for Best Picture and one each for it's stars, it's director, and it's writers. Gable is great in it, but not necessarily Oscar worthy.
Why Powell should have won: He took a low-budget mystery film that frankly isn't that good, and gave it sparkle. Whereas It Happened One Night had an intesting storyline - heiress runs away from loveless marriage and has to make it alone on the road, The Thin Man was a little routine. But with the insertion of witty dialogue that could have only been delivered by Powell, it was elevated to something magical. The performances of Powell and Loy are the only thing that have kept that film out of obscurity and will continue to keep it alive for decades to come.
1936 - Nominated for My Man Godfrey
Winner - Paul Muni in The Story of Louis Pasteur
First of all, I have never seen The Story of Louis Pasteur. But then again, how many people have? As Carole Lombard's "Forgotten Man" in the now classic My Man Godfrey, Powell is the straight man to the zany Bullock family. He is the glue that holds the picture together and because of this his performance stands out. Watch him. The pain of his past is in his eyes. The way he helps the family without their knowing it, how he acts when he is accused of a crime he didn't commit - all of it is beautiful. It is a performance with depth. And not only was Powell's performance great, but My Man Godfrey was the first film that had a nomination in all four acting categories: Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actors, so you know right away that people liked it. Powell was definitely a favorite as four out of the five films he was in that year were nominated. The Great Ziegfeld won best picture, the first biopic to do so.
1947 - Nominated for Life With Father
Winner - Ronald Colman in A Double Life
The role of Clarence Day in Life with Father was a role Powell fought to get. He knew it was the performance of his career. The film grossed $6 million in it's first run and won Powell the New York Critic's Prize. He knew what he was up against though: "Although he hoped to win the award himself, Powell was also pulling for Ronald Colman, who had given a towering performance as an actor who became so deeply involved in his role in a Shakespearean tragedy that he could not 'turn it off' when he left the stage. It was a tour de force role that any actor would give his eyeteeth to play, and Colman had made the most of it. Ronnie knew that Clarence Day was the finest part Bill had ever played on screen and felt that his old pal was his most formidable opponent in the race for the Oscar. In another ironic twist of fate, William Powell's best chance to win an Academy Award fell before the challenge of his best friend" (Gentlemen: The William Powell Story, Charles Francisco).
UPDATE 2/1/18: I have since seen A Double Life, and while Colman gives an amazing performance, there are several actors who could pulled off the role, but only William Powell could have played a character like Clarence Day and made what could have easily been an unlikeable character lovable. Out of all of his nominations, this is definitely the one he should have won.
His wife, the former Diana Lewis, gave Powell his own statuette. You can read about it in the article below.
Article taken from the Schenectady Gazette, 1970. It appeared in several other newspapers as well.
Another article, quoted in the book William Powell: The Life and Films by Roger Bryant, gives a few more details about the touching scene:
Finally supper was ready and Bill switched off the radio. In the center of the dining room table was a covered object surrounded by candles. Mousie ceremoniously placed Bill in front and made a short presentation speech much like the one they had just heard over the radio. Then with a flourish she whisked the cover off. There was a replica of the Academy Oscar, but this one had Bill's face as made up for his part in "Life with Father" and in one hand the miniature figure was holding a bag.William Powell may have never won an Oscar, but he is an Oscar winner in the hearts of all his fans and will continue to be for years to come.
William Powell and Jean Harlow at the 1935 Academy awards.
This post is part of The Oscars Snubs Blogathon hosted by Silver Scenes and The Midnite Drive-In. Be sure to read all of the other posts to find out who should have won certain Oscars!
Sadly, my foray into old school comedy is not as richly built up as yours. I guess I prefer the slapstick more than the gentrified stuff that Powell was often in. Of the three, I've only seen The Thin Man and that was because it was a mystery movie, not for the comedic aspect. Good post. Thanks for signing on.ReplyDelete
I love slapstick as well - I grew up on Three Stooges! You should definitely see the other two! They are more comedy (both are very fast talking). The Thin Man is more witty banter. Thanks for hosting! It was fun :)Delete
You said a mouthful here: "To be able to pull off comedy without stooping to ridiculousness is a real art that sadly seldom gets rewarded." Amen to that, sistah! I totally agree when you said William Powell's delivery elevated The Thin Man into something special and memorable. It really is a routine film, but Powell's performance is one of the best, ever.ReplyDelete
Thanks for including your research on the Oscar race between Powell and Ronald Colman. That says a lot about both men.
I never would have thought of William Powell as an Oscar-Snubbed actor, I am ashamed to say, but your insightful post has opened my eyes. Thanks!
I should have added that real comedy is becoming a lost art - so many comedians use crude jokes as a substitute.Delete
I guess Powell is just so highly regarded and loved that one presumes he did win an Oscar.
Thanks for reading and hosting! I always enjoy a chance to write about this guy ;)
Great stuff. A criminal shame WP never won an academy award. H should certainly have been in contention for the three you mentioned but also - and just of the top of my head - After the Thin Man, Libelled Lady, The Last Command - could have won him oscars too.ReplyDelete
Well done finding that clipping from 1970, that was fun
Thanks! Yeah, he definitely should have been nominated more.Delete
Oh, William Powell!! He was such an amazing actor. I've been trying also, for the last couple years, to watch all the movies I can find of him too. Its a real shame William Powell never received an oscar in his amazing career. Not even an honorary oscar. I think out of all the nominates he had, he really should have gotten it for Life with Father. I believe, it was one of his favorite movies he made. But, it was probably a hard pick for him, since he had to go up against his friend Ronald Colman.ReplyDelete
I bet we've watched nearly all the same ones haha. At least Myrna Loy got an honorary Oscar - but then they had to give her one because she was never even nominated!!Delete
I would hate to be up against a friend for an award of that stature.
I love your article. William Powell was such an outstanding actor and an amazing man offscreen. I believe he also could've been nominated for Street of Chance and The Last Command. In 1936, he was nominated for My Man Godfrey. As you said, he was terrific. His performances in Libeled Lady, After the Thin Man and The Great Ziegfeld were outstanding and Oscar worthy. Four Oscar worthy performances in 1 year! That alone is worth being given an honorary award. Who has ever had such remarkable year. He could have also been in another best picture nominated movie that year. Romeo & Juliet. He was asked to take over John Barrymore's role, but refused out of respect for him. This man was on top of the acting world. His 1936 will never be matched. It's been 80 years since that amazing year and also 80 years since the most incredible Oscar night double date! Powell and Jean Harlow with Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. It is truly shameful that he has never been acknowledged or honored for his wonderful career.ReplyDelete
Maybe we could start some kind of petition!! :) As soon as I discovered William Powell I watched every film of his I could get my hands on. So far I've seen almost all of his "talkies" and just his very first silent. Both Street of Chance and The Last Command are titles that consistently pop up so I will have to look for them. Thanks for commenting!Delete
He is petition worthy!Delete
I've read on another blog that the Academy might have found the subject matter in My Man Godfrey too controversial - Hoovervilles and forgotten men and the like. He should've won just for the bit when he's washing dishes and tells Irene about his 'bitter experience' - you can really feel Godfrey's heartbreak. Bill didn't make many dud pictures and he brought a lot of money into the movie industry in the 30s, an honorary Oscar would've been the least they could do! Pffft! Oh and Street of Chance is a great picture:)ReplyDelete
I've never heard of that theory! Yes, he definitely deserved to be recognized for his consistent good performances. I haven't seen Street of Chance yet. I've seen almost all of his "talkies" and just his first silent.Delete
Powell- gentleman, class, and a really just all round great man! FOREVER BITTER HE DIDNT IN FOR GODFREY!!! And yes- how many of us have seen Muni's performance in Louis Pasteur?ReplyDelete
I don't even think I've seen Muni in ANY movie!!!Delete
I was always thinking that they should have given an Honorary Oscar at some point in the 1970s (when also overdue people like Cary Grant, Lillian Gish, Howard Hawks, Groucho Marx, Chaplin etc. recieved theirs) to Myrna Loy and William Powell together. Loy of course later got her Oscar in 1991, but by that point she was too frail to travel to Los Angeles.ReplyDelete
Lillian Gish, Howard Hawks?ReplyDelete