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 1939's Naughty But Nice, 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), 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, 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, but he found lasting happiness with June Allyson, whom he married in 1945.
Here are eight of my favorite Dick Powell titles, which help illustrate the depth and breadth of his career over the years; all are available on DVD.
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 singing '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. One of Powell's funniest performances; he has a chance to shine with physical comedy in a riotous final sequence.
(It Happened Tomorrow with Linda Darnell)
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 in a great filmography. He plays a detective desperately attempting to foil a plan to assassinate Abraham Lincoln before his inauguration in 1861.
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).
I'm still waiting for several favorite Powell movies to make it to DVD, 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) (Editor’s note: Laura didn’t have to wait too long as it was just released by Sony on Film Noir Classics, Vol. 4) 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; Station West (1948), a 'Western noir' costarring Jane Greer and Burl Ives; Mrs. Mike (1949), in which he plays a Canadian mountie in the filming of the classic book by Benedict and Nancy Freedman; the wonderfully witty and sarcastic Cry Danger (1951), one of my favorite film noir titles ever, costarring Richard Erdman, Rhonda Fleming, and Regis Toomey; and the delightful fantasy You Never Can Tell (1951), in which he plays a reincarnated dog (!). In the meantime, film fans are fortunate that a great many of Powell's films are available to enjoy on DVD.
Dick Powell was one of a significant number of people who died of cancer as a 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.
Laura Grieve is a lifelong film enthusiast whose thoughts on classic films, Disney, and other topics can be found at Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings
, established in 2005.