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Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood

I have never heard anyone speak harshly of Myrna Loy. In fact, just the mere mention of her name elicits such a positive response it is hard not to crack a smile. My first encounter with Myrna’s films was her work with Cary Grant in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dreamhouse.

She is brilliant in both roles and is one of Grant’s greatest co-stars. When I eventually discovered her films from the 1930s, I finally understood why she is so highly regarded among classic film fans. Soon I began scrounging for every Loy performance I could find, including all the films she made with the charming William Powell, with whom she co-starred 14 times.

In the late eighties, Myrna Loy worked extensively and exclusively with James Kotsilibas-Davis to pen her autobiography Being and Becoming. This personal account has been the only significant information regarding Loy’s private life and career until now. Emily W. Leider, author of Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood, utilizes Loy’s recollections from Being and Becoming, along with newly obtained material, in an attempt to piece together more of Loy’s life story.

Leider begins with a detailed account of Myrna Loy’s childhood leading up to being discovered in Hollywood. In her hometown of Helena, Montana, a young Loy took an interest in performing arts–especially dance. After the death of her father, Myrna, her mother, and other relatives moved to Southern California. She continued taking dance lessons and eventually sought work to provide for her family. More importantly, Myrna desperately wanted independence. In 1923 she was hired as a prologue dancer at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre. For frame of reference, these elaborate stage productions (which provided in-house entertainment for moviegoers), were akin to the prologues featured in Busby Berkeley’s Footlight Parade. Before long, Loy’s beauty and talent were noticed by Rudolph Valentino and his wife Natacha Rambova. Myrna quickly acquired her first uncredited role in the 1925 film What Price Beauty?

After several of these smaller roles, Loy was offered parts as exotics, often playing a temptress and homewrecker. She would be typecast in this kind of role until around 1934 when she gave breakout performances in Manhattan Melodrama and The Thin Man. Although she had shed one typecast, she gained another in being labeled “the perfect wife.”

Leider writes of Loy’s early years in Hollywood, including when she fell in love with a married man, producer Arthur Hornblow. Eventually they married, but Arthur’s infidelities and lack of commitment led to their divorce. Myrna had four husbands in all, yet never found the reciprocal love she so desperately sought. Since she could not find complete happiness in her romantic life, Myrna looked for other ways to gain fulfillment. She was a dedicated volunteer during WWII and raised millions of dollars in war bonds for the cause. She was also quite active in liberal politics and outspoken against the House Un-American Activities Committee. A staunch supporter of President Roosevelt, Loy soon became friends with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and the two worked closely on social and political causes. Myrna was also an unabashed supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, which was not a popular stance at the time. Later in her career and life, Loy retreated from Hollywood to New York where she remained until her death in 1993. In the final years of her life she was finally recognized by The Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences with a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award. Up to that moment, Loy had never even been nominated for an Oscar.

I have long awaited a biography on Myrna Loy. Her autobiography Being and Becoming is out of print, so finding an affordable copy has proven to be difficult. When I first heard of Emily W. Leider’s book, I was ecstatic. Unfortunately, I have to admit that I am slightly disappointed. Leider’s account of Myrna Loy’s early life is well written. I appreciate her attention to detail in retelling Loy’s story from a different perspective than what has already been written. What I noticed is Leider references Loy’s book numerous times (almost to the point of distraction), and it quickly becomes apparent that perhaps there really isn’t much information about Loy’s life outside of what has already been written. In other words, Loy wrote what she thought we should know about her and therefore disclosed a filtered, if incomplete version, which is fair. That said, there are a few new bits of information in The Only Good Girl in Hollywood, that according to Leider, Loy either briefly mentions in passing or ignores completely in her autobiography. For example, Leider discusses the reason behind Loy’s inability to bear children, something that Loy never divulged.

One of the trappings of the star biography is an author’s tendency to give synopses of movies in an actor’s filmography. In telling the story of Loy’s early fledgling career and rise to prominence in Hollywood, Leider often falls into the pattern of film synopsis and review. I understand that anecdotes from the filming of Loy’s movies is important to paint a complete picture of the surrounding events in her life. However, when plotlines are detailed from start to finish accompanied by critique and opinion (either Leider’s or that of a film critic), it is too much.

Overall, I have mixed feelings on Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood. I would like to revisit this book after reading Being and Becoming. Perhaps Leider’s book will be a nice companion piece to Loy’s, but in all honesty I was looking for something more.

Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood
ISBN: 9780520253209
University of California Press
October 2011
424 pages

Full Disclosure: I received a copy of Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood directly from the publisher, University of California Press. I would like to thank the publisher for the opportunity to review this book.

Book Review- Dear Cary: My Life with Cary Grant

For Cary Grant fans, the past year has been an eventful one. Several of his films have been remastered and released on DVD and Blu-ray, many of them for the first time. More importantly, we have been treated to not one, but two books about his personal life, something he guarded closely. The first book released this year was written by his one and only daughter, Jennifer. Good Stuff: A Reminiscence of My Father, Cary Grant is a daughter’s loving tribute to her beloved father, who just happened to be Cary Grant. I reviewed Good Stuff a few months back. You can find my review here. The second is written by Cary’s fourth wife and Jennifer’s mother, Dyan Cannon.

Dear Cary: My Life with Cary Grant details the courtship, marriage, and ultimate divorce between Cary Grant and the young and beautiful Dyan Cannon. In the book, Cannon spends a great deal of time recalling the beginning of their relationship, and she does so with great fondness. The couple spent many weekends at his home in Palm Springs, had romantic dinners, and enjoyed long holidays. When Grant was on set, Cannon would often accompany him and watch him work with the likes of Doris Day, Audrey Hepburn, and Leslie Caron. They appeared to be perfect for one another: he brought experience and maturity and she kept him young with her playfulness. Cannon describes this time as almost like living in a fairy tale. She was envied by many women because she was dating one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.

Once the newness of their relationship began to wear off, Cannon recalls that she noticed a different side of Grant– one that was troubled, conflicted, and controlling. He was very easily put in a bad mood and it would sometimes be days before Cannon knew the cause of it. Then there’s the subject of his mother. It is no secret that Grant had a strained relationship with his mother, Elsie. When he was a child, Elsie was sent away to a mental institution. At the time, Grant was told his mother was dead. It was not until his late twenties, when he was first starting out as a contract player with Paramount, that he discovered his mother to be alive. He found her to be cold and distant, and she was often critical of him. Despite this, Grant vowed to take care of his mother for the rest of her life while constantly striving for her approval. Whenever Grant would go visit his mother in England, Cannon noticed a negative change in his behavior. He even tensed at the mere mention of his mother’s name.

Right before they were to be married, Cannon discovered she was pregnant. Grant was absolutely ecstatic to become a father. Throughout the rest of their rocky marriage, Cannon states that Grant remained a loving father to their daughter, Jennifer. When divorce loomed over their relationship, Cannon asserts that she was convinced by Grant to participate in LSD therapy to try to save their marriage. Grant had been introduced to the drug in the late 1950s by his previous wife, Betsy Drake. He claimed it helped him be reborn and find peace. After their unconventional last-ditch effort to keep their family intact, the couple headed for divorce, which unfortunately was a highly publicized ordeal.

In writing her memoir Dear Cary, Cannon finally gains the closure she sought for so many years. Although she had a personal “liberation day” a few years after their divorce, she was not in the right place to appreciate their relationship for what it was. Cannon acknowledges her immaturity and willingness to do whatever she could to please Grant, and how it ultimately had a profound effect on their marriage. It also caused her to spiral into a deep depression leading to an eventual mental breakdown. She admits the love she had for him was real, though unsustainable. The years have acted as a kind healer to many wounds, and Cannon is finally able to appreciate their time together.

Overall I enjoyed Dear Cary. I appreciate that Cannon avoided turning her memoir into a trashy tell-all. The intimate moments between her and Grant are tasteful and kept to a minimum, as it should be. She mentions their divorce proceedings, but glosses over all the gritty details, such as their bitter custody battle over their daughter. A battle that lasted almost 10 years. One problem I do have with Cannon’s book is the sensationalizing of Grant’s LSD use. I think it is important to keep this information in context. For those who are unaware, Grant’s LSD therapy was legal. There were many psychiatrists and psychoanalysts who were experimenting with the hallucinogen at the time and there were documented benefits. Grant even wrote a short autobiography for a magazine that addressed his LSD usage. That said, it is not for everyone and can be extremely dangerous. Cannon discovered this the hard way and suffered a mental breakdown, for which the LSD was not the sole cause. Between Cannon’s Dear Cary and daughter Jennifer’s Good Stuff, I prefer the latter. Of course maybe it is not fair of me to compare them when they are from two completely different points of view. For those who are serious fans of Cary Grant, you should definitely read Dear Cary.

Dear Cary: My Life with Cary Grant by Dyan Cannon
ISBN: 9780061961403 (Hardcover)
It Books (Harper Collins)
352 pages

Full Disclosure: I received a copy of Dear Cary: My Life with Cary Grant directly from the publisher, It Books which is an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers. I thank the publisher for the opportunity to review this book.

Good Stuff Indeed

Last month, Raquelle from the classic film blog Out of the Past held a contest giveaway/drawing celebrating the 4th anniversary of her blog…and I won. My prize? A brand new copy of the long awaited memoir by Cary Grant’s one and only child, Jennifer Grant: Good Stuff: A Reminiscence of My Father, Cary Grant. Big thanks to Raquelle for hosting a fantastic contest!

Note: for ease, I will sometimes refer to Cary Grant as CG and Jennifer Grant as JG.

I, like many Cary Grant fans, have waited patiently for the release of Good Stuff, which had been postponed several times over the past few years. After reading, I now know why it took Jennifer so long to finish–she had to grieve the death of her father all over again. CG maintained well organized and immaculate records of JG’s childhood. One might say he was a bit obsessive about the little pieces of nostalgia he maintained, but knowing the reasons why, it’s hard to blame him for his excesses. First, CG was 62 years old when Jennifer was born. He knew the time he had with his daughter was limited and that sense of mortality placed great urgency on ensuring that she would remember him. Secondly, CG was robbed of a meaningful childhood and the little memorabilia he had was lost in the bombings of Bristol during World War II. Longing for that lost part of his childhood, CG made assurances that his beloved daughter wouldn’t be left without a detailed history of her childhood and their time together. For instance, he had a bank quality vault placed in their home at 9966 Beverly Grove Drive. Growing up, this served as some embarrassment for Jennifer, but writes that she is now eternally grateful for the gift of his detailed records. And detailed is an understatement. Every drawing, card, letter, and telegram bears a time stamp, most often in CG’s handwriting. The collection does not stop with paper. Jennifer writes about the hundreds of hours of video and audio she sorted through for the memoir. CG would often leave a tape recorder running while spending time with JG, or video taping her playtime in the backyard. A daunting process to sort through all the archives, but one that Jennifer relished.

Cary Grant with daughter Jennifer, 1973. Photo from Parade Magazine.
Cary Grant with daughter Jennifer, 1973. Photo from Parade Magazine.

Good Stuff is a loving tribute to a father…who just so happens to be Cary Grant. If you are looking for a biography about Grant’s rise to fame and his long career, you will not find what you’re looking for with this book. JG largely avoids mentioning her father’s career for the simple fact that she didn’t know that side of him. CG retired when Jennifer was born and the “Cary Grant” star persona was just that. It wasn’t who he was at home and in real life. She does briefly discuss some of her father’s famous friends and the impact they all had (and still have) on her life, so there are some Hollywood insider tidbits that classic film fans will enjoy. I was incredibly moved by Good Stuff. I laughed, cried, and smiled through every single page. Maybe that’s the parent in me, but I would be surprised if non-parents didn’t become a little emotional while reading.

I am thankful that Jennifer Grant opened up to allow us a glimpse of the 20 years she spent with her father. The process of discovering and pouring through her father’s archives was a personal, painful, and ultimately healing process. For her to share that with us is a gift.

I mentioned earlier that Good Stuff is not a biography of Cary Grant and his film career. If you are looking for good reading material on Grant and his career, allow me to make the following suggestions:

Cary Grant: A Celebration of Style  by Richard Torregrossa
Cary Grant: A Celebration
by Richard Schickel
The Complete Films of Cary Grant by Donald Deschner
Cary Grant: A Bio-Bibliography by Beverly Bare Buehrer
Evenings with Cary Grant: Recollections in His Own Words and by Those Who Knew Him Best by Nancy Nelson

You can also visit The Ultimate Cary Grant Pages for anything and everything Cary related–including an article/autobiography written by the man himself.