Vintage Hunk: Dick Powell
Dick Powell is pretty much forgotten today, but this fine actor had two major film careers: as a singing juvenile in the 1930s Busby Berkley musicals and as a hard-boiled tough guy in the 1940s film noirs.
Then, when times changed, he had the forethought to reinvent himself and become a creative force in 1950s television as a producer and director.
He was also married to two of the most popular actresses in Hollywood (Not at the same time!)— Joan Blondell and June Allyson.
Dick clearly knew how to get around.
Richard Ewing "Dick" Powell was born in Arkansas in 1904. Starting his career as a singer with the Charles Davis Orchestra, he made some records in the late 1920s and those recordings led to a contract with Warner Brothers in 1932. In this depression decade, Powell became a star in the popular musicals that Warners produced— many of them directed by the legendary Busby Berkeley. He not only starred in the most famous of these gems, 42nd Street, but followed up this hit with Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1933, Dames and a number of other popular faves. Powell had a nice singing voice and his cute looks made him a female fan favorite.
As the Warner musical fad waned and his contract expired, it looked like Powell would be a cinema has-been as he neared 40. But Powell was smarter than most of his contemporaries. He knew he had to change his image and fast. He tried to get the lead in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity but Fred MacMurray got the role. Finally, in 1944, RKO gave him the professional lifeline with the lead role in Murder, My Sweet playing Philip Marlowe.
In this film version of the Raymond Chandler book Farewell, My Lovely, Powell was tough, sexy, hard-bitten, and he made Murder My Sweet a huge hit. Fans and critics were amazed that the dimpled singing juvenile of the '30s was this new sexy anti-hero. Murder, My Sweet is one of the great film noirs of all time with co-star Claire Trevor, who is equally memorable as the murderous Velma. Trevor's great line: "I'm so near peace..." when she pleads with Powell to kill her husband, is noir talk at its most delicious. Humphrey Bogart is the most famous Philip Marlowe, but most critics and author Raymond Chandler always thought that Powell was the best. He was cynical, sexy, funny and true to the iconic character.
Suddenly Powell was a star again. He made a number of other good '40s noirs including Cornered, Johnny O'Clock and the best of the bunch— Pitfall. This 1948 gem had Powell as an insurance salesman happily married to Jane Wyatt (Father Knows Best), who gets mixed up with gorgeous Lizabeth Scott and murderous Raymond Burr (pre-Perry Mason). One of the joys of this film now is seeing Los Angeles and Santa Monica in 1948, as a lot of this great noir was filmed on location.
Adding to Powell's new popularity was his 1945 marriage to MGM star June Allyson (left). Powell had previously been married to '30s star Joan Blondell but his marriage to the much younger Allyson was a fan magazine sensation. Dick and "Junie bug" were splashed all over the papers like a 1940's Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie.
Powell changed gears again in the 1950s. Despite a few good parts— the best being the caustic writer husband of Gloria Grahame in The Bad and the Beautiful— Powell turned to directing and television. He was one of the founders of Four Star Television. Powell made a fortune in the early days of TV and his directorial efforts included the great Split Second, (a taut remake of The Petrified Desert) a drama set near an atomic testing site.
Unbeknownst to everyone involved, the ghastly Howard Hughes turkey The Conqueror would be the catastrophe in Powell's life. Filming on location in St. George, Utah near US atomic testing sites would prove fatal to almost everyone involved in the film. Of the 220 cast and crew, 91 developed cancer and 46 died from it; actors Powell, John Wayne, Susan Hayward, and Agnes Moorhead were in that group.
Powell's cancer took him away in January, 1963. He left behind his widow June Allyson and four children: daughter Ellen and adopted-son Norman from Joan Blondell, adopted-daughter Pamela from June Allyson, and Dick Powell, Jr.; Dick Jr. played his father in a premiere scene in the classic Day of the Locust.
Powell was a cute juvenile, a sexy film noir hero, and a wonderful actor overall. Rent or buy Murder, My Sweet and you can see this hunk at his very best. My own favorite performance is still the cynical writer in The Bad and the Beautiful. Powell is still pretty sexy in this film and his brilliant performance outshines the more famous co-stars. He was, without a doubt, a true original.