Saturday, November 14, 2020

A Tribute to Dick Powell

Note: I paid tribute to multi-talented Dick Powell here on his November 14th birthday in 2011. This year I'm honoring him with a brief career overview and a look at some favorite Powell films, adapted from my 2013 column originally posted at ClassicFlix. Please click on any hyperlinked title to read my extended review.

Dick Powell was, in my opinion, one of the smartest men ever in the movie business. He kept his career constantly evolving as he aged and times changed, making wise decisions and excelling in turn as a singer, actor, director, and producer. Powell also seems to have been universally admired by his colleagues, not always an easy feat while maintaining a high-powered career in the entertainment industry.

Powell was born in Arkansas in 1904. After graduation from Little Rock College, he eventually became a band singer and an MC for live acts at movie theatres. Within just a few years he was in Hollywood with a Warner Bros. contract, and it was quickly onward and upward.

Powell's first film was the very amusing comedy BLESSED EVENT (1932); he made several other films in 1932 and 1933, including TOO BUSY TO WORK (1932) with Will Rogers. He then quickly hit pay dirt singing in a series of classic Busby Berkeley musicals; he was memorably described as "one of Broadway's better juveniles" in 42ND STREET (1933).

Throughout the '30s Powell was the singer who introduced many songs which have become American standards, 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).

Once Powell parted company with Warner Bros. after NAUGHTY BUT NICE (1939), he spent the next few years appearing in a handful of comedies at a variety of studios. Some of these films were indifferent, but there were also two sterling classics: Preston Sturges' CHRISTMAS IN JULY (1940), in which Powell believes he's won a fortune in a contest, and Rene Clair's fantasy IT HAPPENED TOMORROW (1944), in which he receives newspapers which can predict the future.

In 1944, Powell accomplished one of the most amazing transformations in the history of the movies: The onetime baby-faced singer became hardboiled, sarcastic Philip Marlowe in MURDER, MY SWEET (1944), and a whole new phase of his career was born. Powell was now the tough, hard-edged, darkly funny star of film noir.

However, his career didn't stop evolving there; in the '50s Powell moved into producing and directing films, and he also created the hugely successful TV production company Four Star Productions. Powell was quoted by Tony Thomas in a 1961 Films in Review profile as saying, "I saw no reason why an actor should restrict himself to one particular phase of the business."

Behind the scenes, there are many stories underscoring Powell's reputation as a savvy, supportive colleague. When I saw Richard Erdman interviewed about CRY DANGER (1951) at UCLA in 2011, he said when he first met Dick Powell, who was one of the film's producers, Powell asked him what he thought of his part. Erdman replied that it was the best part in the movie, and Powell told Erdman he was correct and asked "How can we help you?" Erdman said Powell was always generous and supportive.

Joyce Holden, Powell's costar in YOU NEVER CAN TELL (1951), seen with him here, echoed those sentiments in a 2008 interview in the magazine Films of the Golden Age. When the interviewer, Tom Weaver, noted she had stolen some scenes from Powell, she replied, "But he would LET you...he ALLOWED it...That's the kind of guy he was."

She also added this interesting insight: "You know who really directed the film? Dick Powell. Absolutely. Every shot, I saw him conferring with Lou [Breslow, the credited director]. Dick was very circumspect...but it was very obvious that he had the ideas, the set-ups, the little innuendos...Dick really was a brilliant person...He was extremely talented."

When Alan Rode of the Film Noir Foundation introduced a 2012 screening of PITFALL (1948), he shared that he had recently interviewed Powell's PITFALL costar, Lizabeth Scott (seen here), and she said that Powell was kind and a joy to work with, and she termed her experience making PITFALL with Powell "delicious." 

Another compliment comes from actress Jean Porter Dmytryk, who was the wife of the director of MURDER, MY SWEET and who acted herself in Powell's CRY DANGER (1951); she wrote in a 2003 tribute to Powell in Classic Images: "He was so many things. First of all, he was the best businessman of any of the actors in Hollywood...I enjoyed working with Dick in his film CRY DANGER and appreciated his Eagle Scout attitude."

In his personal life, while a marriage to Warner Bros. costar Joan Blondell petered out after a few years, he found lasting happiness with June Allyson, whom he married in 1945. Powell and Allyson, seen here in a domestic publicity still, appeared together in MEET THE PEOPLE (1944), made before they were married, as well as RIGHT CROSS (1950) and THE REFORMER AND THE REDHEAD (1950).

Here are eight favorite Dick Powell titles, which help illustrate the depth and breadth of his career over the years; all are available on DVD and some have also had Blu-ray releases. Complete details on availability are part of each review linked below.

FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933) - My favorite of the several films Powell made with Busby Berkeley, it includes the stupendous production number "By a Waterfall," sung by Powell. Powell was paired in this with his frequent '30s costar Ruby Keeler; they made a delightful film team.

ON THE AVENUE (1937) - An effervescent mix of music and comedy, with Powell romancing gorgeous Madeleine Carroll while singing "You're Laughing at Me." There's more movie magic when Powell and Alice Faye sing "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm."

IT HAPPENED TOMORROW (1944) - A lighter-than-air fantasy in which Powell is charmingly teamed with Linda Darnell (seen here). One of Powell's funniest performances; he has a chance to shine with physical comedy in a riotous final sequence.

MURDER, MY SWEET (1944) - Powell's Philip Marlowe is beaten and drugged but never loses his sarcastic sense of humor, and underneath the tough exterior there's an appealing vulnerability.

PITFALL (1948) - A dark take on family life with Powell as the bored husband of Jane Wyatt; he spends a couple of days dallying with Lizabeth Scott and then comes to his senses, but it may be too late. Raymond Burr plays a stalker obsessed with Scott who beats Powell and threatens his life.

THE TALL TARGET (1951) - This Anthony Mann "train noir" is one of Powell's very best titles in a great filmography. He plays a detective desperately attempting to foil a plan to assassinate Abraham Lincoln before his inauguration in 1861. I've enjoyed this film multiple times.

SUSAN SLEPT HERE (1954) - Powell's last starring feature film is colorful fun, with Powell as a wisecracking screenwriter who finds himself "babysitting" and then falling in love with a 17-year-old juvenile delinquent (Debbie Reynolds). Powell's self-deprecating sarcasm helps deflect any awkwardness in the leads' age difference, and the film is a feast for the eyes, with gorgeous sets and eye-popping Technicolor.

THE ENEMY BELOW (1957) - This WWII film, produced and smoothly directed by Powell, focuses on the battle of wits in the cat and mouse game between a destroyer captain (Robert Mitchum) and the captain of a German U-boat (Curt Jurgens).

Since this column was first written over seven years ago, a number of additional excellent Powell movies have been released on DVD and/or Blu-ray, including JOHNNY O'CLOCK (1947), in which he runs a gambling joint while juggling relationships with Evelyn Keyes and Ellen Drew and dealing with a persistent cop (Lee J. Cobb); STATION WEST (1948), a terrific "Western noir" costarring Jane Greer (seen here) and Burl Ives; the wonderfully witty and sarcastic CRY DANGER (1951), one of my favorite film noir titles ever, costarring Rhonda Fleming and Powell's good friend Regis Toomey along with the previously mentioned Dick Erdman; and the delightful fantasy YOU NEVER CAN TELL (1951), in which Powell plays a reincarnated dog (!).

Still awaiting DVD or Blu-ray release are TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH (1948), in which he plays a U.S. Treasury Agent who travels worldwide as he attempts to break up an opium ring, and MRS. MIKE (1949), in which he plays a Canadian Mountie who marries city girl Evelyn Keyes (seen here) in the filming of the classic book by Benedict and Nancy Freedman. In the meantime, film fans are fortunate that a great many of Powell's films are available to enjoy on DVD and Blu-ray.

Dick Powell was one of a significant number of people who died of cancer which was very probably the result of radiation exposure on location making THE CONQUEROR (1956), a film he directed. His death in 1963 was a great loss to all who love high-quality films and television, but he left behind a superb body of work which continues to provide viewers with countless hours of entertainment.

This post is adapted from an article originally posted at ClassicFlix in 2013.


Blogger barrylane said...

Thumbs up.

12:24 PM  
Blogger Margot Shelby said...

Another movie I had never heard of is You Never Can Tell. It sounded so nice I looked for it right away on and found it. Absolutely charming and cute. Just what we need right now. Thanks for the recommendation, Laura.

7:54 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you, Barrylane! We definitely share an appreciation for Mr. Powell.

Margot, I'm delighted that my article encouraged you to seek out YOU NEVER CAN TELL and that you enjoyed it! So much fun. Thank you for letting me know!!

Best wishes,

11:09 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Newer›  ‹Older