The Many Faces Of Dick Powell
I'm going out on a limb here and making a declaration which all readers can disagree with or correct me on. Here goes --- Dick Powell was the only major star to successfully undergo a complete image change, becoming an even bigger star than he'd been with the old image. There --- now name someone else who did that. As Dell Henderson said in Choo Choo, I dare you, I defy you! Over the years, I’ve asked a number of friends to address the issue --- no one yet has proposed another actor or actress who did it. And remember --- it has to be a total transformation --- not just an occasional casting against type. Okay, enough of that. Back to Dick.
Dick Powell was a great actor and a visionary producer. Some people like him best in those singing Warner parts, but I think he’s best in film noir. Sometimes he came off insipid in early musicals, but that wasn’t Dick’s fault. One feels his embarrassment in those, that underlying desire to push a grapefruit into Ruby Keeler’s face. By 1936, Dick’s need to bust out of those song-fests was palpable --- just consider the costumes he wore in Hearts Divided, with Marion Davies. Why not put on a dress on the man and be done with it? By way of compensation, I understand Dick did have a fling with his leading lady, though the record doesn't reflect his having woke up the next morning with a horse-head sharing his bed (W.R. Hearst presumably having mellowed somewhat by this time). In the wake of the Warners sentence, Dick found pickings even slimmer elsewhere. Paramount wanted him to sing some more (and whose idea was that pencil mustache?), and Universal added insult to injury by placing him in support of Abbott and Costello! Now mind you, In The Navy is fine if you like the boys, but it didn’t take a sooth-sayer to know Dick’s career was in big trouble by this time. They say he really went after Double Indemnity at Paramount and no doubt would have been great in Fred’s part (not that Fred was any slouch). Anyway, Dick met the head studio dog in an elevator shortly after and read him the riot act. Surprisingly, Dick's onerous contract was settled then and there, leaving Dick to set up Murder, My Sweet at RKO ....
This first still is Smiling Dick from Footlight Parade, a great picture, but Cagney’s picture. That’s a fab hat Dick’s wearing, but we suspect he’d rather have worn Jim’s shoes. Dick was known as a "pleasing tenor". Do tenors please anyone anymore? Maybe so, but I doubt any future (male) stars will break into the business based on that qualification. Next is Wide-Eyed Dick half-smiling for the Sunday section. Is that deadly (in the good sense) suit his way of letting us know a change is in the air? Maybe he’s just gotten off that Paramount elevator --- still a little startled, uncertain of the future, but determined to forge ahead.
Well, this next fabulous shot is the New Dick Powell (that’s how the posters read) in Murder, My Sweet. We never tire of seeing Dick in that picture. Watch what he does with props next time. Always picking things up off desktops, sniffing a cigarette before he’ll put it in his mouth, etc. I wish other actors were as good with handy objects. Ever seen Dick do his thing with hotel keys? Look at Cornered --- it’s beautiful. And when he gets off that train at the beginning of Cry Danger! (great, great movie, by the way), watch how he tests the weight of his suitcase, as if determining whether someone’s heisted anything out of it. Then there's proof that Dick could do a western, and a good one --- Station West (1948), and that’s Jane Greer with him (can you believe this doll was once married to Rudy Vallee?). Lots of good dialogue here, and Ray Burr’s the villain. Finally, there's Dick after he became one of the absolute power centers in early television. Lots of people have forgotten what a pioneer he was in that field. You could say he invented the whole concept of big stars doing anthology work. Nobody said no when Dick called. Look at this ensemble for just one 1961 episode of The Dick Powell Show (he produced, hosted, and sometimes performed). From left to right, Ronald Reagan (looks like Ron was in about the same shape here as Dick just before he left Paramount --- talk about a complete forthcoming image change!), Nick Adams (Frankenstein Conquers The World still a bright star on his horizon), Lloyd Bridges (what a drag it must have been having to swim your parts), Mickey Rooney (is there anyone he didn't work with?), Edgar Bergen (I challenge you to detect this man’s lips moving!), Jack Carson (beatnik attire, Jack?), Ralph Bellamy (bet he either doesn’t get the girl or is revealed to be the surprise killer, maybe both), Kay Thompson (Think Pink!), Dean Jones (always seemed too open and friendly for serious parts) --- seated is Carolyn Jones (girlfriend Ann got to see her on stage once) --- and the man in charge (you can tell by his expression), Dick Powell. What a shame he died so young in 1963. Aaron Spelling often said Dick was his mentor (but would Dick have given us The Love Boat?). We’ve seen pictures of his son, by last wife June Allyson, and he looks exactly like Dick. Wonder if Allyson owned the rights to all those shows he produced. Anybody know? We’d love to see them on DVD some day, just for the star-studded casts, if nothing else.