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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

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.


Blogger East Side said...

I agree with your review of "Murder My Sweet." Raymond Chandler said Powell was the best Phillip Marlowe of them all.

One of the New York PBS stations used to air "Four Star Theatre," an anthology series produced by and starring, I think, Ida Lupino, David Niven and Charles Boyer. Wonderful show. Why doesn't anyone produce half-hour drama anthologies anymore?

One more thing. On one of his shows (possibly "Zane Grey Theatre"), Powell explained that the Ku Klux Klan got its name from the click-click sound of a rifle being cocked. (Click-click = ku klux!) How he (or his writers) came up with that is a mystery worthy of Phillip Marlowe.

7:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is Mickey Rooney also in that group photo?

10:37 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Yes, that's Mickey! I completely overlooked him. Sorry, Mick!

11:08 AM  
Anonymous Cheryl said...

While I agree with your thesis statement, I personally hate Dick Powell as Marlowe. I wouldnt' mind if he was in non-Chandler films noir playing some other character, but he is so not Marlowe.

11:17 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

Oh, Cheryl;

I so beg to differ. I'd rate Powell's Marlowe #1, Mitchum's #2 (in "Farewell, My Lovely;" not in "The Big Sleep"), and Bogart's a distant third.

And I love Powell's crooning, too. He manages to tread the fine line between playing it absolutely straight while letting us know that he knows that it's all nonsense.

3:31 PM  
Blogger J.C. Loophole said...

I agree with your assessment of Powell- but I would offer someone who could come close. Randolph Scott. Scott's early pictures as the nice guy and sometimes third in a love triangle (re: his part in his pal Cary Grant's My Favorite Wife)or war hero. Then his 40's and (especially) 50s westerns are different altogether. His parts were tougher and weren't always heroes. His westerns became more complicated and adult in character if not necessarily in plot.

6:23 PM  
Anonymous Griff said...

I agree with many of your thoughts about Powell, but as for your challenge, I would respectfully (if irreverently) submit the name...


6:43 PM  
Anonymous Griff said...

As for "East Side"'s comment on Powell's Ku Klux Klan explanation -- surely the poster is familiar with the Sherlock Holmes story, "The Five Orange Pips," in which the great detective tells Dr. Watson all about it:

"'Have you never --' said Sherlock Holmes, bending forward and sinking his voice -- 'have you never heard of the Ku Klux Klan?'

'I never have.'

Holmes turned over the leaves of the book upon his knee. 'Here it is,' said he presently:

'"Ku Klux Klan. A name derived from the fanciful resemblance to the sound produced by cocking a rifle."'"

6:48 PM  
Blogger East Side said...

To griff: I had no idea that the Ku Klux Klan/rifle reference went back to Sherlock Holmes. It's my understanding that "Ku Klux" derived from the Latin word "Kuklos," meaning
circle. The Klan would gather 'round in a circle before torching the cross. But thank you for letting me know the deriviation of the rifle story. I wonder where Sherlock -- or, more accurately, Arthur Conan Doyle -- came up with that.

As for Powell as Marlowe... I would guess that Chandler thought that Bogart and Montgomery brought too much of their own personalities to the part, whereas Powell's wasn't as strong. Don't get me wrong -- I think he did a fine job in the role, better than I expected. But Bogart is Bogart, no matter who he plays. Which, I guess, is why he's still considered one of the greats.

9:12 PM  
Blogger jtk said...

Maybe the only other star to undergo a complete image change was another Powell...William, though perhaps he wasnt really a major star in silents.

9:42 PM  
Anonymous EddieH said...

Here's a little Dick Powell trivia for you. He was a very devoted 3-D camera enthusiast. In fact, he was the president of a 3-D camera club that included a number of Hollywood luminaries.

2:34 PM  

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