William Powell was not the best-looking guy in the Hollywood stable of stars. His nose was too big, his hairline receeding, his chin was weak and he didn’t look good in a swimsuit.
But he certainly was one of the most appealing.
For starters he had a wonderful voice. He got his big break in pictures in 1929, when the studios were looking for good actors that sounded good, as the talkies were the latest sensation but the technology of the times made eveyone sound 1/2 octave higher than their real-life pitch.
Powell was an actor of great presence, not because he was tall (6′), but because he projected integrity. As his IMDB biography said,
Powell could play any role with authority, whether in a comedy, thriller or drama.
On the surface, William Powell was a man of contradictions: He was funny but never was a fool. He was born in the 19th century, but embodied the sleek modernism of the 20th century Art Deco era in the Thin Man movies (of which the first one was the only one slightly based on the Dashiell Hammet novel). He was a character actor who was a leading man.
He seduced you with your eyes wide open.
In our days when men are protrayed in film, TV, and media as bumbling fools, Powell would have been entirely dismissed because he always was the grown-up. He was the father figure who actually played the title role in Life With Father.
I was thinking about William Powell because this morning AMC was playing How To Marry A Millionaire. The movie’s a showcase for its female stars but Powell stole it from them. He plays a rich old guy who brings Lauren Bacall to the altar (at the time, the real-life Powell was 62 years old, and she was 29), fully aware that she was marrying him for his money. Yet at the very last moment, because he loved her, he set her free to marry the man she loved. And you knew she was a fool for not loving him.
William Powell: A manly man, for our times.