I would guess this is the image most of us conjure up when it comes to William Powell, who was born 117 years ago today. He's been gone for more than a quarter-century now -- although that isn't quite as long as the period between his last movie, "Mister Roberts" in 1955, and his death in March 1984.
Powell is my all-time favorite actor, someone I wish I could emulate...although I've never smoked and limit my drinking to an occasional beer. But the key to Powell isn't the martini he was often seen with as his most famous character, Nick Charles; it's instead that style, that wit, that clipped voice oozing with sophistication. (You can understand while Paramount cast Powell in the lead of its first talkie, "Interference.")
I think I've said this before, but it bears repeating: Once sound arrived, Powell played characters who were idealized versions of what men -- at least the white-collar variety -- aspired to be. (During the silent era, Powell was more often than not portrayed villains.) In their own ways, Cary Grant and Clark Gable (pre-World War II) each seemed too superhuman for the average male to emulate. In contrast, Powell was accessible; you could project yourself into Godfrey Parke or Philo Vance or Bill Chandler (his character in the screwball gem "Libeled Lady") or even Florenz Ziegfeld.
Speaking of "Libeled Lady" -- one of several classics Powell made in 1936, arguably the greatest year any actor has ever had -- here's his celebrated fishing scene from that film. The premise is that Powell, a reporter, is trying to get the goods on Myrna Loy's character, an heiress who's threatening to sue the paper Powell's working for over something it printed. Powell is trying to pass himself off as an expert fisherman, even though he's never angled in his life and is discreetly using a book for instruction. Walter Connolly plays the heiress' father. This clip proves Powell was not only adept with words, but was a brilliant physical comedian, too:
Of course, another reason many men wished they were like Powell was his success off-screen. While Powell was certainly a handsome man, nothing about him screams sex appeal (at least from a male point of view). Yet he married Carole Lombard -- and despite their divorce, remained good friends with her until her death -- and might have married another '30s legend, Jean Harlow, had kidney disease not claimed her at 26 (Powell was 16 years older than Lombard and nearly 19 years Harlow's senior). There must have been something special about him.
Normally, this would be the part where I would go into a segment about a salute to Powell on Turner Classic Movies in the U.S. today. Just one problem, there really isn't any. TCM isn't completely ignoring Powell's birthday -- though you'll have to be in the Pacific or Mountain time zones to take advantage of it. At 10 p.m. Pacific (or 1 a.m. Eastern), TCM is showing "Fashions Of 1934," starring Powell and Bette Davis. It's part of a program of pre-Code musicals -- though neither Powell nor Davis sing. I've never seen this film, so it might be worth checking out.
We'll leave you with this image of Lombard with her first husband, as they set sail on their honeymoon in Hawaii in 1931: