Coming to Terms with an Imperfect Idol

I love Myrna Loy. It started with the Thin Man films, a series of murder mysteries starring William Powell as a private detective named Nick Charles and Loy as his wife, Nora. Nick was very much the typical 1930s film male: dapper, quick-witted, drunk, and sexist. Rather than accept her husband’s conduct, Nora cut through Nick’s misogyny with rolled eyes and biting comments, refusing to take his obnoxious behavior seriously. In return, Nick plainly loved her madly. It was a relationship that felt authentic to me – flawed, but authentic. In other films, Loy’s characters were always beautiful, always self-assured, and always the equal of the leading man. That is, in other films after debut of The Thin Man in 1934.

Before The Thin Man made her a star, Myrna Loy was a contract player for the Warner Brothers studio. Within days of signing with Warner Brothers in 1925, 19-year-old Loy realized she was the studio’s new “exotic,” a white actor hired specifically for non-white secondary roles. For seven years, the studio assigned her to play non-white characters almost exclusively, from a Native American woman to a Senegalese double agent in blackface to several East Asian characters. As a contract player, Loy had no control over the roles she was given by the studio. Any refusal would have violated her contract, and other studios would have blackballed a young and inexperienced actor with a reputation for rocking the boat. In addition, film censors forbade mixed race couples in 1927; a film with a white protagonist now required a white romantic interest, even if either portrayed a person of color.

In her autobiography, Loy denounced the films as “racist concoctions,” but any evidence that she attempted to refuse the roles pales in comparison to the real life damage to the actors who should have been cast in the first place. In 1928, Chinese American actor Anna Mae Wong was slated to play Onoto, the lead role in the film The Crimson City. When white actor John Miljan was cast as the man who rescued Onoto from slavery, Wong was replaced with Loy in accordance with the censorship guidelines. As a direct result of the snub, Wong left Hollywood to attempt a career overseas. She would return to the United States periodically, either to take secondary roles or to pursue leading parts that went to white actors, but Wong never received the roles or attention her talent deserved in the U.S. Wong was far from an anomaly; Japanese-American actor Lotus Shibata launched an acting career as Karen Sorrell in the early 1930s before settling for small roles under the name Lotus Long – when she was credited at all.

In 1932, Loy informed the studio that the role of Fah Lo See in The Mask of Fu Manchu would be her last “exotic” character or she would entertain offers from other studios. The studio acquiesced rather than risk losing what was now a proven talent. For the next 25 years, she played the sophisticated, saucy, white characters that made her famous. In her mid-50s, she became disenchanted with the number of bland, doting mother roles she was being offered and turned her attention to politics instead. She began by supporting Democratic senatorial candidates in her native Minnesota but soon branched into tackling civil rights issues on the national level. She was named co-chair of the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing (NCDH) in the early 1960s. During her tenure, the NCDH convinced President John F. Kennedy to sign Executive Order 11063, which forbade discrimination in federally subsidized housing. She pushed for the inclusion of a fair housing provision in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and kept pushing until it was passed in 1968. In the meantime, she pressured then Governor Ronald Reagan of California to fix that state’s abysmal housing discrimination history.

For years I held on to my Myrna Loy Redemption Narrative, wherein she was absolved of being forced into racist roles by the mean old studio system by striking against another bastion of institutionalized racism later in life. It makes a nice little story, doesn’t it? A nice, simplistic, dangerous little story that casts Asian actors and the countless families who were denied government-subsidized housing as secondary characters in the salvation of one very privileged woman. Ultimately, I had to be honest with myself about my own tendency to put the white lady in the center of the plot and how that very action perpetuates the oppression that I claim to oppose. Systematic oppression can be incredibly insidious that way. It is not enough to address oppression in its most basic form – to not be racist, or homophobic, or transphobic, or ableist – because oppression doesn’t always happen on a personal level. Oppression is a network of prejudices and disguised motives that both creates margins and puts people on them. Oppression is a movie studio that signs a white teenager to a binding contract, selects her for roles portraying Asian women, and then passes the blame for underemployed Asian actors to film censors and ignorant audiences. Oppression is film censorship guidelines so strictly defined that it is virtually impossible to cast even one non-white actor in a leading role. Oppression is a federal government that takes tax money from all of its residents, refuses some the shelter built by those very taxes, and then claims it does not have the power to override state segregation laws. Oppression is turning real life into a morality play that continues to give Myrna Loy a leading role that does not belong to her.

I am still allowed to love Myrna Loy, but only as a woman who benefited from institutionalized racism, recognized that fact, and later worked to dismantle a similar system. Anything more complicated would belie the stories of the people who lived marginalized within that system. Her campaign for fair housing in no way cancels out the grievous injustices she helped sustain, but it does show personal growth in a direction that I quite admire. In that context, it is one small journey that feels authentic to me – flawed, but authentic.

3 replies on “Coming to Terms with an Imperfect Idol”

Excellent research and analysis, tart, as usual.

I also enjoy mid to late career Myrna, and have not viewed her racist roles. Because I don’t want to shatter my screen admiration of Muriel and Nora. That’s thinking like a silly fangirl. Also I would have a very difficult time watching her in brown, black, and yellow face. Seeing her painted as such would force me to open my eyes and mind and think, think hard about what’s happening on screen.

Sometimes I just toss away my thinking cap and just want to enjoy what I see on the screen. But deep down that inner voice, or third eye, tells me, “No, this crud aint’ right. You know what you’re seeing is wrong, so wrong.”

For me, watching those films feels disrespectful to the actors who were passed over. I’ve seen several of the most notorious films of that type, I know the themes and stereotypes, and now I want to know about the people who should’ve been cast instead. (cue pouring over a certain lady’s tumblr)

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