Monday, November 14, 2011

A Birthday Tribute to Dick Powell

Actor-Singer-Director Dick Powell was born in Arkansas on this date in 1904.

Powell was one of the smartest, most business-savvy men in Hollywood, who kept his career evolving as he aged and times changed. He started out as a crooner in Warner Bros. musicals of the '30s, including a string of Busby Berkeley classics (Powell's character in 42ND STREET was memorably described as "one of Broadway's better juveniles"); then left Warner Bros. and starred in classic early '40s comedies directed by the likes of Preston Sturges and Rene Clair; famously reinvented himself as a film noir star beginning with 1944's MURDER, MY SWEET; then in the '50s, he moved into directing and producing, including the highly regarded Robert Mitchum submarine thriller THE ENEMY BELOW (1957); and finally, he became a TV producer and host, creating the extremely successful Four Star Productions.

Powell was similarly a wise career advisor to his wife, June Allyson. As a mentor early in her career, before they were a romantic item, he cautioned her against taking an assigned role as the "beautiful" sister in TWO GIRLS AND A SAILOR (1944). After reading the script he told her that, although he didn't want to hurt her feelings, she needed to ask Louis B. Mayer to test for the role of the plain sister. Mayer agreed to both the test and the casting change; the roles played by Allyson and Gloria DeHaven were switched, and Allyson became a major star.

It's an interesting historical footnote that Powell may have had some influence on the course of U.S. political history, as he worked hard for years to convince Ronald Reagan to switch from the Democratic to the Republican Party. Powell and Reagan talked politics endlessly, along with George Murphy, who later became a U.S. Senator. June Allyson, who always referred to her husband by his full name, Richard, wrote in her autobiography, "I do not know whether it was Richard or Nancy and her staunchly Republican family who finally switched Ronnie's allegiance to the Republican party. I only know Richard took full credit for it and chortled with glee over the conversion." Upon hearing the news from Reagan that he'd become a Republican, Powell mused to his wife, "What have I done?" and said Reagan would "probably end up running for President someday -- and making it."

Among his many interesting achievements, as a musical star in the '30s Powell introduced several Harry Warren standards which have become part of the "Great American Songbook," including "I'll String Along With You" in TWENTY MILLION SWEETHEARTS (1934), "I Only Have Eyes For You" from DAMES (1934), "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" in ON THE AVENUE (1937), and "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby" in HARD TO GET (1938).

It's hard to name my favorite Dick Powell films, but a short list would include ON THE AVENUE (1937), where he was teamed with Madeleine Carroll and Alice Faye in a great mix of music, comedy, and romance; the charming Rene Clair fantasy IT HAPPENED TOMORROW (1944), where he was marvelously funny and very nicely teamed with Linda Darnell; the underrated film noir JOHNNY O'CLOCK (1947), which I prefer to the more famous MURDER, MY SWEET; his wonderfully sarcastic role in CRY DANGER (1951), one of my favorite films seen in 2011; and the Christmastime comedy SUSAN SLEPT HERE (1954), filmed in eye-popping color.

I could easily go on to list his role as a Mountie in MRS. MIKE (1949) or as the detective trying to prevent Lincoln's assassination in THE TALL TARGET (1951) or as the acerbic writer in THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952). Powell had a very deep, memorable career which I feel I've just begun to truly appreciate over the past couple of years.

Powell was one of many who died of cancer as the result of radiation exposure while making THE CONQUEROR (1956), which he directed. I deeply regret his too-early death in 1963, as it would have been fascinating to see what his career held next. Fortunately for us all, he left behind an extensive body of work which will be enjoyed for generations to come.

Dick Powell films reviewed here at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings: GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (1933), FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933), 42ND STREET (1933), FLIRTATION WALK (1934), DAMES (1934), TWENTY MILLION SWEETHEARTS (1934), GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935 (1935), VARSITY SHOW (1937), HOLLYWOOD HOTEL (1937), ON THE AVENUE (1937), HARD TO GET (1938) (also here), COWBOY FROM BROOKLYN (1938) (also here), NAUGHTY BUT NICE (1939), CHRISTMAS IN JULY (1940) (also here), STAR SPANGLED RHYTHM (1942), IT HAPPENED TOMORROW (1944), MURDER, MY SWEET (1944), JOHNNY O'CLOCK (1947), STATION WEST (1948), TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH (1948), MRS. MIKE (1949), RIGHT CROSS (1950), THE REFORMER AND THE REDHEAD (1950), CRY DANGER (1951), THE TALL TARGET (1951), YOU NEVER CAN TELL (1951), THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952), and SUSAN SLEPT HERE (1954).

2012 Reviews Update: BLESSED EVENT (1932), SHIPMATES FOREVER (1935), COLLEEN (1936), CORNERED (1945), and PITFALL (1948).

2013 Reviews Update: THE ENEMY BELOW (1957), which Powell directed; BROADWAY GONDOLIER (1935).

Additionally, here's my tribute to Powell for ClassicFlix.

2015 Update: Reviews of Blu-ray editions of 42ND STREET (1933) and MURDER, MY SWEET (1944), plus reviews of COLLEGE COACH (1933) and MEET THE PEOPLE (1944).

2016 Update: Here's a review of the new Blu-ray release of SUSAN SLEPT HERE (1954).

2017 Update: Here's a review of TOO BUSY TO WORK (1932), plus a review of the Powell-directed SPLIT SECOND (1953).

December 2018 Update: TCM Star of the Month: Dick Powell.

November 2020 Update: Here's A Tribute to Dick Powell, an updated edition of my 2013 ClassicFlix post.

2021 Update: Here's a review of a new Blu-ray of IT HAPPENED TOMORROW (1944).

2022 Update: Here's a review of the sparkling new Blu-ray edition of GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (1933).


Blogger Carrie said...

I knew there had to be a reason I was listening to him on XM this morning on the way in to work!

Dick Powell truly grows on you. I absolutely adore his voice and amongst the alt rock loaded on my iPod, I've got an album or two of Powell music queued up. Makes for an interesting random playlist ;0)

He truly found a niche later in his career with the detective genre. One of my favorite OTR shows is Richard Diamond, Private Detective. He always sings a little at the end of each show with his gal.

5:12 PM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

When you began listing all of those wonderful movies I realized just how many I consider "favourites".

Dick's introductions on "Zane Grey Theater" make me feel as if we're having a nice talk about the upcoming program. Not everyone can pull that off.

11:36 PM  

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