By now, Myrna Loy’s enduring portrayal of Nora Charles in the Thin Man series has pushed the fact that she was hardly an overnight success into the recesses of movie history. Loy served one of the lengthier movie star apprenticeships, appearing in over 70 films before she caught on with the public (for a more recent example of eventual-star stamina, check out Jack Nicholson’s pre-Easy Rider  resume.) Given Loy’s immense gifts as a comic actress, and her obvious sex appeal, it’s surprising it took her so long. However, until she appeared in the mob comedy-melodrama, Penthouse (1933), she was typecast either as a “bad girl” or as a multi-cultural exotic with a non-specific accent. Some producers even tried to pass her off as Asian!
Penthouse is one of those Depression-era pieces of fluff that deflates the rich while glorifying salt-of-the-earth types. In other words, it was exactly what audiences wanted to see at the time. Warner Baxter stars as Jackson Durant, a wealthy lawyer who gets a kick out of defending gangsters and lowlifes. Unfortunately, Jackson’s snooty fiancée (Mae Clarke), isn’t particularly taken with his clientele, so she leaves him for a man of a higher social standing (Phillip Holmes). When she winds up murdered, Jackson pursues the killer, and meets Gertie Waxted (Loy), a no-nonsense call girl who’s truer to Jackson than the murdered woman ever was. Guess which two characters fall in love?
[ZK note: the above paragraph isn’t accurate. Jackson Durant’s snooty fiancée, Sue Leonard (Martha Sleeper), isn’t murdered. She leaves him for his friend,Tom Siddall (Phillip Holmes). It is Siddall’s mistress, Mimi Montagne (Mae Clarke), a night club hostess, who is murdered. Then Sue Leonard comes to Durant for help. Did the reviewer actually watch this film?!]
Penthouse is a spiffy, thoroughly enjoyable time-killer. More importantly, though, it served as the first teaming of Loy and director W.S. Van Dyke, who would mastermind the majority of her Thin Man pictures. In fact, Van Dyke was as responsible as anybody for getting Loy out of character actress hell. After directing Penthouse, Van Dyke personally approached Louis B. Mayer and stated that Loy would become one of the biggest stars in Hollywood if the studio would just keep giving her ‘American girl’ roles.
According to Loy, who was always nonplussed by her stardom and unlikely to invent such a story, Van Dyke passed through the MGM commissary shouting, “This girl’s going to be a big star! Next year she’ll be a star!” Shortly thereafter, Mayer assigned Van Dyke the task of directing a boxing picture starring heavyweight champion Max Baer. Van Dyke immediately recruited Loy to play the female lead (in The Prizefighter and the Lady, 1933), and they were officially a team.
Then, less than a year later, Van Dyke (who made a little over three films a year for 25 years) cast Loy opposite Clark Gable in a gangster picture called Manhattan Melodrama (1934). It says a lot about Loy’s then-growing popularity that gangster John Dillinger, who said Myrna was his favorite actress, attended a Chicago screening of Manhattan Melodrama, even though he was the most wanted man in America. While exiting the theater, Dillinger was shot dead by the F.B.I. (No word on whether he gave the picture a thumbs-up.)
The first Thin Man movie followed in short order, and Loy became “a big star.” Her effortless grace as a light comedienne is a testament not only to her talents, but to Van Dyke’s ability to see what so many other people had missed.