Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming, by James Kotsilibas-Davis and Myrna Loy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 147 photographs. 372 pp. $22.95. ``They had faces then,'' declared Norma Desmond, commenting on the great days of the silent movies. Norma was played by Gloria Swanson, herself a great star of the silents, in that Hollywoody film about Hollywood, ``Sunset Boulevard.''
Norma Desmond was being nostalgic, but she was right. The ladies had striking faces, but then so did the men. Rudolf (The Sheik) Valentino was one. In real life it was Valentino who got a screen test for a teen-ager named Myrna Williams. As her career developed, her artistic friends decided that Williams was too ordinary a name for a face like Myrna's.
Someone suggested ``Myrna Lisa,'' a not too subtle takeoff on the Mona Lisa. Somewhat better taste prevailed, and Myrna Williams chose Myrna Loy. Myrna Loy. The rest, as Hollywood is fond of saying, is history.
With collaborator James Kotsilibas-Davis, Myrna Loy writes her own history, interspersed throughout by friends and costars adding perspective to events and people in her life. Lots of good photographs in the book, but with 124 films to her credit a filmography would have been a good idea.
Montana born, Myrna moved with her family to California in time for the heyday of the movies. From childhood games around movie lots, she grew into the hardworking star of such classics as ``The Thin Man'' series with William Powell. By the '30s, Hollywood had developed the romantic, screwball comedy. Myrna rose to stardom along with Irene Dunne, Carole Lombard, and Claudette Colbert when they collided, with delightfully crazed determination, with the likes of Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, and Clark Gable.
Myrna says, ``It's got to be inside you somewhere.... I've always felt that inside thing, especially in films, because so much is in the eye, so much is in the face.''
As she became ever more photogenic, so did her acting improve. ``The Rains Came'' was a big picture with Tyrone Power in 1939. ``The Best Years of Our Lives'' of 1946 was an enormous success with Fredric March. Later, she took on the theater, growing through the trials and tribulations of the road. Neil Simon's ``Barefoot in the Park'' was a fine success for her. And live theater led her into live television.
Along with her career there was serious and continuous public service, starting with World War II hospital visits, fund drives, and - after the war - a growing interest in the United Nations and UNESCO. Hollywood in the McCarthy era roused her to fight for human rights, with a political awareness and activity rewarded by a special friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt.
Loy is candid and fair about her four marriages, and her story is, as it should be, filled with delicious revelations about the studios, John Barrymore, Will Rogers, Judy Garland, Roddy McDowall, and Joan Crawford, plus of course, a cast of thousands.
The star with the great face is a great lady.
Gene Langley is a free-lance book reviewer.