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Marvelous Myrna

March 24, 1991|JOE SALTZMAN

There were more beautiful actresses and there were more accomplished actresses, but none personified the modern, witty and wise woman as much as Myrna Loy, who made nearly 125 films in a career that lasted more than 60 years.

For reasons known only to the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences, Loy never received an Oscar. But Monday night she finally will be recognized for her unique place in film history by being given a special Oscar for lifetime achievement.

Fewer than two dozen of her films are available on home video but, happily, they are among her best. There is her effervescent performance as the first married woman (and in the third film, mother) to be portrayed as a hard-drinking, two-fisted, independent, sexy female on screen. In "The Thin Man" series as Nora Charles, the better half of Nick Charles (William Powell), she is still charming in the still funny film series of the husband-and-wife detective team.

There are six films beginning with the original The Thin Man in 1934 (90 minutes, MGM/UA tape and laser video disc), a title that has absolutely nothing to do with the appearance of Nick Charles (it applies to a victim in a case Charles is investigating), although the name stuck for the five other films that followed from 1936 to 1947.

Loy personified the modern American wife giving back as much as she took, still lovable, warm and friendly while delivering sarcastic barbs and sophisticated, unladylike sexy innuendos. "The Thin Man" came from Dashiell Hammett's original story, but it was writers Albert Hackett and his wife, Frances Goodrich, and director W.S. Van Dyke II who put the bite into a marriage that never stood in the way of fun, booze and murder mysteries. Their dog, Asta, and their witty byplay were quoted and copied all over America during the 1930s and '40s.

The five follow-up films never captured the charm and wit of the original, but are good enough, and Loy was never better. All are available on MGM/UA tapes: After the Thin Man (1936, 113 minutes) features a very young James Stewart as a suspect; Another Thin Man (1939, 103 minutes) introduces Nick Charles Jr. as a baby who grows up during the series; Shadow of the Thin Man (1941, 97 minutes) took Loy to the race track; The Thin Man Goes Home (1944, 100 minutes), and the final film Song of the Thin Man (1947, 87 minutes). They are as fresh and enjoyable today as when they were first released, and if Loy had done no other films she would have been an actress to remember and to honor.

But there was so much more, including her portrayal of the quintessential wife who stood by her husband as he goes off to war and returns as a battle-scarred veteran in William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives. The film won seven Oscars, including best picture, best director and best actor, but for some reason Loy didn't get nominated for the Academy Award, much less win. Watching her performance today it is difficult to reason why. It is a timeless performance capturing the mood and pathos of postwar United States and the wives who helped their husbands readjust to civilian life (1946, 170 minutes, Embassy-Orion tape or disc).

If there were any doubt of the range of Loy's acting ability, there is her portrayal of an alcoholic mother in John O'Hara's chronicle of a war veteran's rise to fame, From the Terrace (1960, 144 minutes, CBS/Fox tape or disc). Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward pale besides Loy's realistic drunken mother and Leon Ames' portrayal as the bitter father.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Loy was paired with the most popular male actors in film history:

She was the judge who ordered Cary Grant to wine and dine her sister Shirley Temple so the teen-ager would get over her infatuation with him, before falling in love with Grant herself in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, (1947, 95 minutes, RKO-Turner Entertainment Company tape and Image Entertainment laser video disc).

She was the hot-headed heiress who slaps a libel suit on Spencer Tracy's newspaper before William Powell (her most frequent and witty male companion on the screen) seduces her and brings her to her senses in one of the best of the screwball-newspaper comedies of the 1930s, Libeled Lady (1936, 98 minutes, MGM/USA and a sparkling laser video disc edition). The performances crackle with excitement and Loy never looked more beautiful or vulnerable. She also played with Powell in MGM's extravagant The Great Ziegfeld (MGM/UA, 1936, 177 minutes; MGM/UA tape and disc), and made a surprise, gag appearance in Powell's The Senator Was Indiscreet (1947, 81 minutes, Republic tape and disc).

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