If an actor is said to be “underplaying,” what does that mean exactly? It might mean not doing the obvious thing and not displaying the obvious emotion. Or it might mean feeling various emotions but holding them back and only sharing a tiny portion of them. This is a risky strategy, because most audiences might just think you can’t “act,” at least not in the expected way. When Myrna Loy made The Rains Came (1939), she was thirty-four years old and an established star. The film is what used to be called a “well-mounted” production, filled with dramatic incident and exotic settings and lots of extras and love crises and natural disasters. The role of Lady Edwina Esketh, a dissolute, promiscuous noblewoman who redeems herself through sacrifice and love, would seem to provide a juicy opportunity for showboating. It’s easy to imagine Bette Davis in the role, her eyes popping with restless desire. Whereas Loy had the kind of eyes that always seemed half-closed even when they weren’t.
Loy’s playing of Lady Esketh is cool, modest, almost non-committal, and this approach can seem alienating at first, but if you focus closely on what she’s doing, her under-the-radar work starts to pay dividends. The film’s producer Darryl Zanuck called her into his office midway through the shooting and complained about her performance, but Loy stuck to her own interpretation. She was known for her dry handling of light comedy, high comedy, even farce, and she refuses to play Lady Esketh full out as temperamental or mercurial, as practically any other actress of her time would have done. Instead, Loy keeps her cards close to her vest and lets her knowing attitude do the rest. Her expressive voice is light and almost fey, but very grounded, with ringing intonations, and this makes it different from a huskier yet more vacillating voice like Jean Arthur’s.
Even when Lady Esketh changes her tune, Loy doesn’t go all Noble. In fact, underneath the self-sacrifice her Lady Esketh seems to be as flip and above-it-all as ever, somehow, and this works well for the film. “I hate scenes,” she tells her lover George Brent, and this would be a laugh line for a Davis or a Joan Crawford, but Loy is an actress who actually does hate “scenes” or drama. She’s basically detached, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have feelings. It’s just that she doesn’t parade them around as other performers do.
This instinct Loy had for underplaying didn’t always work out so well. In Parnell (1937), Loy and Clark Gable do a lot of walking around and talking quietly to each other, and they come off like zombies in period dress. But her moderation in many other films was so unusual and original that Loy fashioned her very own type of screen character. She was almost never a working girl, but more usually a wife, a mistress, a lady with money and time for play, so fetching that she got away with lots of nose wrinkling and eyelash fluttering without ever seeming coy.
As a young girl, Loy had seen Eleonora Duse on the stage, and she had admired the restraint of that fabled actress. “Oh, I could have cried all over the place in many of my films, but it just didn’t feel right,” she said in her charming 1987 memoir, Being and Becoming. “The audience loses respect for the character. It seems that instinctively I’ve done this kind of underplaying a good deal in my work. That brand of acting had impressed me since first seeing Duse. She had an inner light, you see; you’ve got to have it…You can’t be thinking about how many people you’re having for dinner.” According to Loy in her book, nearly all of her leading men and many of the other men she met developed crushes on her, and that’s understandable. She had the damndest nose, turned up at the end and elaborately structured, and that reserved, hard-to-get manner that promised the deepest bliss if you could melt some of her reserve.
Loy was born in Montana, and she began her career early as a dancer in live prologues for silent films. She was an extra in the original Ben-Hur (1925), and for the next nine years she made eighty-odd movies, mostly in bits. As a maid in Ernst Lubitsch’s So This Is Paris (1926), Loy just walks across a room. She’s a lady in waiting to Lucrezia Borgia in Don Juan (1926) and a chorus girl in the first talking movie, The Jazz Singer (1927), and she was continually cast as vamps and tramps, often of Chinese, Latin or all-purpose “foreign” extraction.
In her first full talkie, The Desert Song (1929), Loy plays Azuri: “That name means tiger claws!” she informs us, in a hilariously BEEG! accent that she came up with herself. She’s very sexy in that movie, but she’s also making a kind of joke of sex, and this campy attitude also informs her Yasmini in John Ford’s The Black Watch (1929) and her gypsy temptress Nubi in The Squall (1929). Loy is enjoyably over the top in these roles and in some of her other vamp parts of this time, and she worked so often in this exaggerated fashion that maybe she was just all tired-out by the time she became a star in 1934 with The Thin Man, and so she made a low-key style out of this tiredness.
Loy is a hoot in The Truth About Youth (1930) as a gold-digging singer with a temper, and she was time-stoppingly lovely in her brief role in Ford’s Arrowsmith (1931). She had one promising scene with Robert Young in New Morals for Old (1932), but then the film drops her entirely. Loy steals Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932) with just a couple of naughty lines, socking them home in an attention-getting way that’s rather far removed from her later laidback delivery, but she was still being cast as vixens in racist concoctions like The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), where her Fah Lo See delights in having men whipped, and Thirteen Women (1932), where her hypnotic half-caste takes methodical revenge on a bunch of sorority girls who spurned her. It must have taken much stamina and patience to wait out all these years and all these small and unworthy parts. She had a lead in a modern dress version of Vanity Fair (1932), which was shot in ten days at a poverty row studio, sometimes from 4AM to 4AM. Loy does an intriguingly subdued Becky Sharp, but maybe she was too exhausted to play it any other way.
The speedy director W.S. Van Dyke took her in hand in 1933 at MGM, and her parts began to improve. She thrived with John Barrymore in the sophisticated comedy Topaze (1933), and she fell in with her best partner, William Powell, in Manhattan Melodrama (1934), where she also tussled with Clark Gable. The Thin Man was made by Van Dyke in sixteen days, and it set up a long-running formula for Powell and Loy that proved irresistible. As Nick and Nora Charles, a private detective and his heiress wife, Powell and Loy struck up a bantering attitude with each other that still feels like a fresh and attainable ideal of marriage.
The mystery plots of their six Thin Man films were usually perfunctory, but that didn’t matter because audiences really came to see Nick and Nora verbally jousting and keeping each other entertained. Just listening to them is a pleasure: Powell with his deep, plummy voice and Loy with her bright, high, tinkling one. “They hit that wonderful note because he always did a wee bit too much and she underdid it, creating a grace, a charm, a chemistry,” observed George Cukor.
Nick and Nora are party people, and the running gag in their films is that they always want to get a rest or take a break but they never seem to, and that suits Loy’s Nora just fine. She married Nick for excitement and great sex and teasing that always goes right up to the edge of being dangerous but never topples over into hurt feelings (it did just one time, in After the Thin Man (1936), when Nick drunkenly mentions making a mistake and Nora for a brief moment thinks he means he was mistaken in marrying her because her family is so stuffy). Nora can be slightly dizzy, but she is also flexible and tough. “There’s a girl with hair on her chest!” says a cop in The Thin Man, after Nick and Nora have just gotten out of a scary scrape with a gunman and she comes out blithely crying for more action.