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Star of the Month: Dick Powell
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Dick Powell - Thursdays in December

No other actor had a career so neatly divided into three chapters like Dick Powell, the TCM Star of the Month for December. Powell first gained fame as the cherub-faced crooner in Warner Bros. musicals of the 1930s. During the following decade he completely reversed his image to become a hard-boiled private eye in film-noir crime capers. In later years, he became a successful producer and director of movies and television shows while maintaining his visibility as an actor, appearing as a wry and weathered leading man.

Through the various phases of his career, Powell maintained an underlying affability and easygoing charm that endeared him to audiences. Throughout December he is celebrated not only as Star of the Month but as the winner of our third annual TCM Backlot Member Vote, beating out veteran actor Melvyn Douglas to stand alongside previous years' winners: Lana Turner and Myrna Loy.

Richard Ewing Powell was born in Mountain View, Arkansas, on November 14, 1904. He was the middle brother of three. When he was 10 years old, the family moved to Little Rock, where Powell attended Little Rock College and sang with local orchestras. He toured the Midwest with the Royal Peacock Band and in 1927 joined the Charlie Davis Orchestra, which was based in Indianapolis. Powell later moved to Pittsburgh and found success as a singing master of ceremonies at various theaters. Within this time, he had married and divorced his first wife, model Mildred Maund.

Powell recorded vocals with the record label Vocalion, which was owned by Brunswick Records, a label bought by Warner Bros. in 1930. The studio was impressed by Powell's talents and offered him a movie contract in 1932. He made his film debut as a singing bandleader in Blessed Event (1932).

Movie audiences quickly warmed to Powell's vigorous tenor voice and snappy acting style. Warner Bros. liked to keep their contract players busy, and by the end of the decade Powell made more than 30 features (some of them on loan-out to other studios). TCM is showing no less than 26 of this collection!

42nd Street (1933), a mega-hit musical with musical numbers staged by Busby Berkeley, cast Powell as Ruby Keeler's love interest in a cast that also included Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, George Brent and Ginger Rogers.

Now elevated to stardom, Powell also had huge successes in the Warner musicals Footlight Parade (1933), again playing opposite Keeler with James Cagney and Joan Blondell also starring; and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), costarring with Keeler, Blondell, Rogers and William Warren. Powell would also appear in Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935) and Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936).

Altogether, Powell and Blondell made 10 movies together at Warner Bros., including Dames (1934), Broadway Gondolier (1935), Colleen (1936) and Stage Struck (1936). The couple clicked offscreen as well and were married in 1936. (They would divorce in 1944.) Among Powell's other musicals with his alternate performing partner, Ruby Keeler, were Flirtation Walk (1934) and Shipmates Forever (1935).

Powell enjoyed a change of pace playing Lysander in the Warner Bros.' Oscar-nominated version of A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935). But he tired of the repetitious nature of such musical vehicles as The Singing Marine (1937), Cowboy from Brooklyn (1938) and Naughty But Nice (1939). He complained that, "I'm not a kid anymore, but I'm still playing Boy Scouts."

At the end of the 1930s, he left Warner Bros. to work at Paramount. His best opportunity there was a non-singing role in Christmas in July (1940), a sparkling screwball comedy directed by a master of the form, Preston Sturges. For MGM, Powell starred opposite Lucille Ball in the musical comedy Meet the People (1944), which also featured the future Mrs. Powell, his third wife, June Allyson.

Then came the movie that would mark a permanent end to Powell's onscreen image as a clean-cut crooner: the RKO film noir Murder, My Sweet (1944), in which he was unexpectedly and successfully cast as rough-edged private eye Philip Marlowe under the direction of Edward Dmytryk.

Powell's other vehicles in the tough-guy tradition included Cornered (1945), another film noir for RKO directed by Dmytryk; Pitfall (1948), directed by Andre de Toth and released through United Artists; and RKO's Station West (1948), a Western in which Powell's hard-bitten, undercover Army agent was similar to his noir heroes.

In 1950, Powell acted opposite wife June Allyson in two films at her home studio, MGM, where she was now a major star. The Reformer and the Redhead is a comedy about a zookeeper's daughter who falls for a crusading attorney, and Right Cross is a drama set in the world of boxing.

Powell's other performances of the period included those in MGM's historical drama The Tall Target (1951) and Universal Pictures' whimsical comedy You Never Can Tell (1951, TCM premiere), in which Powell plays a reincarnated German shepherd!

Powell had one of his best roles as a cynical screenwriter in MGM's film-industry drama The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). His final theatrical feature was RKO's Susan Slept Here (1954), a romantic farce in which Powell is again a Hollywood screenwriter and Debbie Reynolds is a delinquent teenager put under his charge.

By then, Powell had begun directing features beginning with Split Second (1953) and continuing with The Conqueror (1956), You Can't Run Away from It (1956), The Enemy Below (1957) and The Hunters (1958). He famously remarked that he preferred directing to acting because "you don't have to shave or hold your stomach in."

Powell, who had also been active in radio, moved into television at a fortuitous time, when programming was shifting from live productions to filmed shows. He became president of the Four Star Television production company, which created a string of successful crime, Western and adventure series through the early 1960s. He appeared as guest star in some of the productions and hosted the anthology series The Dick Powell Show.

Powell had a daughter, Ellen, with Blondell and adopted her son, Norman Powell. He had two more children with Allyson: Pamela (adopted) and Richard Jr.

Powell died of cancer in 1963. It has been theorized that he contracted the disease during the filming of The Conqueror in St. George, Utah, a location that was downwind of atomic tests conducted by the U.S. government. Of the 220 people in the cast and crew, 91 reportedly developed some form of cancer including Powell and stars John Wayne and Susan Hayward.

by Roger Fristoe


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