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Monday, May 05, 2014

One Hundred Years of Tyrone Power

Star Centennial For A Leader Among Leading Men

The Tyrone Power Centennial Blogathon is today. Go to The Lady Eve's Reel Life or They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To for details and links to participating writers. Tyrone Power seems to me a longer ago star than he actually was. He worked from the 30's until 1958, was "of" that first decade in a way he'd not be after the war when his kind of leading man got displaced. Successors to Power didn't trump his act with youth, but each seemed a generation away from his prewar nova that burned brightest before an industry and its male stars enlisted. Consider surprising dates of birth: Burt Lancaster 1913, Tyrone Power 1914, Gregory Peck 1916, and Robert Mitchum 1917. These boys could have been in high school together, and yet Power seems their senior by backward leap to a Hollywood his contemporaries reshaped while Ty went on, albeit reluctant, in fan-driven romance man mode. I had a drama teacher in college who'd written Ty some teen-girl mush and got back a reply on stationary bearing a family crest. Imagine Bob Mitchum or Lancaster going for such affect, and yet, here was Power's way, an actor proud of his acting legacy and forebears representing it.

Out On The Town with Sonja Henie

Ty began as a "matinee idol" and then couldn't shake it. On him, the label hung heavy. Not a help was cameras caressing him as they had Valentino in silent days. There'd even be remakes of non-talkers like The Mark Of Zorro and Blood and Sand. Power compliance to nearly a reel being dressed for bullfighting makes him seem at the least a willing object of fetish, almost like Rudy given dialogue or Elvis minus the songs. He risked a worse label of boy-toy for fan-girls, Zanuck having to off-cast him in toughies like Johnny Apollo to ward off the "sissy" brand insiders like writer Nunnally Johnson had assigned. Problem for Power was his being too ideal for a dream factory's dream man. He was serenely competent, had a splendid voice cultivated on stages since a boy, and wore costumes with more élan than real-life courtiers of eras past. So of course he'd sign off under a family's crest.

Could Power Have Been The First Pic Star To Install a
Pinball Machine In His Home?
To some, he seemed more lovely boy than lover boy, posed for publicity with both epaulets and a cravat. Offscreen pairing with Sonja Henie smacked of studio arrangement, and what mind conceived a union with French actress (and Suez co-star) Annabella? For all of pressure publicity brought to bear, Power got better as he went, as did the vehicles. He'd be "King of Hollywood," along with Jeanette MacDonald, in 1939 exhibitor polling, and for a winner's first/only time, you could imagine him willing to wear the thing home (unlike before and after Kings Clark Gable and Mickey Rooney, who couldn't hand back the prop quick enough). Power understood what it needed to be a star, having come from entrenched biz background, and adapted himself easily to studio demand, but there'd come tiring of sameness so far as the films. The war, of course, would change this and more.

He'd enlist to the Marines as a private, seeking fields of action, which for Power would be the Pacific and flying relief to Iwo Jima, among other islands he'd pilot-hop. A born hobbyist, he liked planes and bought one in wake of the WW, also 16mm movie gear after having charge of same for base and bush movies. Platoon mates would cheer Betty Grable, then look back to see Power manning the projector. It was during this stint as camp exhibitor that he came to realize how formula most Hollywood product was, not just his own (TP's wartime journal has crisp appraisal of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, The Clock, A Royal Scandal, others). While Power was overseas, young men were being developed to possibly assume his place, Gregory Peck and Cornel Wilde among those seen in new features while by-now Lt. Power still served.

The road back was paved with prestige. Zanuck settled on something special for warrior homecoming and spent the most-ever for a black-and-white Fox picture, $3.3 million on The Razor's Edge. Power was good and the movie reasonably so, but the edge was off his knife and not a few of squealing multitude had crossed over to Peck, who some at 20th regarded a new and improved Tyrone Power. Not willing to chance the unexpected, Zanuck would pour money but not variance on sword/sash that was Captain From Castile and follow-up of sorts, Prince Of Foxes, but who knew these costumers would turn out so grim as noirs coming into postwar fashion? The Power character's family is wrested away from him and slaughtered in Castile, then he's bound up for eye-gouging as the Prince Of Foxes. Zorro and caped kin never faced ordeal like this.

Power would have seen noir duty eventually, even if he'd not "pleaded" to do Nightmare Alley, which was his best work for taking an already slippery persona deeper into the pit (in this case, one dug for carny geeks). He'd have been gratified too to know it's Nightmare Alley that is today considered first in overview of his career. Facile charmer Ty of the screen had way with confidence scheming that might have made for interesting image switch like Fox colleague John Payne's toward noirish cellar, but Power was way too big a name to take such demotion, and besides, pavement thrillers weren't known for profit-getting.

Tea Time with Second Wife Linda Christian

There was still intense interest in Power's love life, him trotting the globe, romancing Lana Turner here, marrying Linda Christian there, with films made offshore for chaser. It seemed at times as though the work was incidental to dating and newlywed games he played, but Power among Hollywood lead men was a most serious about craft of acting, and he after all had family tradition to uphold. That would translate to stage performing, which he'd done where possible all along, but being loose from Fox by the early-50's meant the star could immerse in legit. Wife-by-now Linda Christian thought that foolish and argued for likes of The Mississippi Gambler, a for-percentage deal with Universal-International that netted Power $750,000, a richer take than was ever had at 20th. Action was the arena screen men profitably got into after war service. James Stewart oft-did westerns through the 50's, but Power tries at the genre beyond Gambler (not strictly a western in any case) were either downbeat (Rawhide) or dull (Pony Soldier). Romance was how viewership continued liking him best, thus The Eddy Duchin Story as the decade's outstanding hit for Power.

Ty Trods Boards with Katharine Cornell
Prewar vehicles of his had dated, but Jesse James and The Mark Of Zorro proved evergreen, JJ in constant revival, while Zorro came back in wake of the Disney TV program with TP lookalike Guy Williams. Power meanwhile rolled dice at varied projects, some produced by his company, and not all featuring him. Witness For The Prosecution suggested how good he'd have been as a Hitchcock lead, Ty's duplicitous side being one the Master might make use of, but for fact clocks were running out and the next, Solomon and Sheba, would be Power's unfinished last. The collapse-on-set was grimly documented, photos taken, then published, of the star laid barely conscious on-set, then under a blanket awaiting medics that couldn't save him. He was just 44. Solomon and Sheba was more than half finished, but insurance paid United Artists' loss and director King Vidor began again with substitute Yul Brynner, who had presence but little of Ty's humanity (this later confirmed by Vidor). Somewhere there is (hopefully) hours of Power footage as King Solomon. Some of it showed up on a Fox TV series called That's Hollywood, but little more since.

Power called a lot of his work "a monument to public patience," but close look has much of it standing up well to modern inspect. There's a whopping 27 of his features I like a lot, and as a 16mm collector, I chased hard after IB Tech prints of Crash Dive, Blood and Sand, Captain From Castile, The Mississippi Gambler, others. Power has shown latter day capacity to gather up fresh fans born long after he left. Several have sites with lively chat boards. 20th Fox had success enough with DVD sales to issue a pair of Power volumes. His family (two daughters, a son) are, as I write, hosting revivals of Power films around the country for the 100th. Fox has a movie channel that uses his stuff a lot, but they aren't TCM, and until the latter leases all or most of Power, we'll not see fullest appreciation for his backlog. Also awaited, meanwhile, is a scope transfer for King Of The Khyber Rifles and anything at all of The Mississippi Gambler, which has been out of sight in the US for years. There are two biographies of Power, Hector Arce and Fred Lawrence Guiles the respective authors, as well as a Films Of ... from Citadel, now collectable. Among best recent considerations of Power's life and career is a chapter in The Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger.

More Tyrone Power at Greenbriar Archives: The Black Swan, Witness For The Prosecution, What A Lovely Couple, Lloyd's Of London, Girl's Dormitory, and A Star Says Thanks For The Bookings.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Power had only one major flaw...he didn't make more movies! On-screen perfection.

Great write-up!

2:00 PM  
Blogger The Lady Eve said...

Great - and astute - wrap-up on the life/career of Tyrone Power. Have read several books about Power (those you mention plus Mai Zetterling's and others similar), most interesting, I thought, was Basinger's assessment in "The Star Machine."

Very disappointing that TCM did nothing in honor of Power on his centenary.

5:17 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

Two obscure movie ads... obscure because I rescued from microfilms from Argentina that are available online but hard to navigate:

10:15 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

Two rare ads from Argentina that I rescued from microfilms that are available online but are hard to search:

10:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your take on Power's career. I'd just like to say two things if I could. One, my foundation, Movie Memories, is hosting events around the country that include some or all members of the Power family -- not all of them, but some. I also organized an event for him in 2008 at the Egyptian Theatre.

The other thing I'd like to say is I didn't quite get what you were saying about Tyrone and Annabella. In one of my blogs to celebrate his 100th birthday on this blogathon, thanks to Lady Eve, I

talk about his first two wives. Annabella marrying Power allowed Zanuck to ruin her career. He had her blacklisted. The last thing he wanted was for Tyrone to get married. He tried to reconcile with her in the '50s, but though she loved him, he had really hurt her, and she said no.

I had correspondence from Annabella's daughter, Ann, and I also know her dearest friend, and it was a great love ruined by the war, his dalliances, and the fact that she couldn't conceive. They wrote one another some very gut-wrenching letters as well over the years.

As for Sonia Henie, you need to read her brother's book. That may started as a studio setup but it didn't end that way. Her brother gets into some graphic details as does I believe Budd Schulberg, and her brother publishes some of Power's notes to her. Too funny, and that section is worth reading.

12:33 AM  
Blogger Cliff Aliperti said...

Wonderful and colorful write-up of Power's likewise career. So detailed and yet several of my favorite titles (and I'm betting a few of your "27") are not even mentioned! Absolutely agree with your take on Power not getting his due until TCM is able to treat him like one of the stars from their regular catalog. The channel does so much for classic movies, but I always feel a bit of a pang when a big Fox or Paramount star goes more forgotten than they should because of lack of TV/video exposure. Was very excited to see you participating in the Power-Mad Blogathon, loved the post!

2:13 AM  
Blogger iarla said...

Beautiful looking men had better luck in European cinema - Alain Delon - and Power could never quite escape his 'niceness', a lesser gift for a male star in American movies (as opposed to, say, British films). He was lucky to have lasted as long as he did, lacking Flynns sexual threat to counterbalance his beauty, and, in some ways, to have died young. That old audience loyalty towards movie stars doesn't exist anymore - look at John Travolta, or Richard Gere, both reminiscent of Powers type of Star allure in their heyday. For fans, it's hard to imagine Fox without Power as one of it's emblems, surface, glossy and bland.

8:35 AM  
Blogger Hamlette (Rachel) said...

I hadn't really learned much about Tyrone Power before this, though I own several of his films because they're quite enjoyable. Thanks for this informative article! I really enjoyed learning a bit more about the man behind those movies.

3:26 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer has appreciative words for Tyrone Power:

As a young man, Tyrone Power was almost astonishingly beautiful, and he had the kind of voice that distinguished so many of the stars, dark and well-modulated, like whiskey aging in the keg. He also wanted to be a great actor, but this was never really acknowledged by either the critics or his peers, other than as an ambition. He did readings towards the end of his career but never sought to go on stage. Had he done so, he might have enjoyed a better reputation in that regard. Instead, he was thought of as a star to the very end, and yet there is a certain quality to his performances which eludes all but the very best actors. Almost always there is a sense that he is listening to what another is saying, reflecting on it, and responding in kind. He is not merely an actor waiting to say his line, but a person living in the moment. This kind of playing is very generous to other players, so that it is not surprising how good the other performances are in his pictures, when they can play off him. This was also a quality that Joan Fontaine in particular brought to her performances. The one film they made together, "This Above All," was a somewhat conventional approach to a thoughtful Eric Knight novel about a man deciding whether he can take the lives of other men in war, but hardly surprising, given that it was made in the midst of a war. The playing of Power and Fontaine, however, is exquisite in its sensitivity, when each pause seeming to resonate with words said and unsaid.


7:36 PM  

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