Few actors have changed their image in mid-career as totally and as successfully as Dick Powell. He joined Warners in the early Thirties in time for the heyday of that studio’s musicals.
He was a cherubic, clean-cut. singing juvenile in 42nd Street and all the rest, but there was a naughty twinkle in his eye and a relish in his voice as he went ‘Pettin’ in the Park’ – and else- where – with chaste Ruby Keeler and all those Busby Berkeley chorines.
He moved off to Paramount for light comedy without song in Preston Struges’ Christmas in July, and then suddenly emerged as Raymond Chandler’s tough private eye Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet. He was a revelation, solid, human, and his own man. He stayed in film noir for Cornered and a few more, showed a talent for broad comedy in You Never Can Tell, and then had a stab at direction. He made competent action movies, with the submarine drama The Enemy Below rather better than the rest, produced a deal of television drama, and was the comfortable host of a chat-show in his last years.
He was married to Joan Blondell, and then to June Allyson, who survived him. Here is our pick for five of his best movies.
42nd Street (1933)
Mixing memorable songs, side-splitting performances and a famed “backstage” plot, this beloved classic is generally considered one of the great Hollywood musicals of all time. Warner Baxter stars as Julian Marsh, a famous Broadway producer struggling to stage one last hit musical; Bebe Daniels is the starlet whose twisted ankle leads to a wide-eyed chorus girl (Ruby Keeler) saving the day in the nick of time. Featuring an early comic performance by the great Ginger Rogers, 42nd Street received Oscar nominations for Best Sound and Best Picture. 42nd Street is one of three 1933 Warner Bros. musicals that helped reinvigorate the genre at that time–the other two are Footlight Parade and Gold Diggers of 1933. All three films featured Powell, Ruby Keeler and Guy Kibbee.
Director: Lloyd Bacon
Cast: Warner Baxter, George Brent, Bebe Daniels, Ruby Keeler, Guy Kibbee, Una Merkel, Dick Powell, Ginger Rogers, Ned Sparks
Christmas in July (1940)
Preston Sturges’s second film as director is a fast-as-lightning comedy about a store clerk who is tricked into thinking he’s won $25,000 in a slogan contest. It isn’t until after he’s spent his “winnings” on presents for his girlfriend and everyone else who passes his way that the clerk discovers he’s been the victim of a practical joke. The Sturges stock company at its best. During production the title of the film changed constantly. Some titles considered were A Cup of Coffee (the title of Sturges’s original play), The New Yorkers and Something to Shout About.
Director: Preston Sturges
Cast: William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Dick Powell, Ernest Truex
Murder, My Sweet (1944)
The earliest screen depiction of famed detective Philip Marlowe is an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely. Former ’30s song-and-dance man Powell was an unlikely candidate to play the ultimate cynical dick with the code of honor but he does it quite successfully (some contend he was the best screen Marlowe). The plot concerns a quest for the missing girlfriend of bruiser Moose Malloy (Mazurki). Director Dmytryk skillfully captures Marlowe’s psychological disorientation as he moves from millionaire mansions to the seedy urban underbelly with a muted expressionism. The original title, “Farewell, My Lovely,” was changed so that Powell’s fans wouldn’t mistake the film for a musical comedy, his career staple; the 1975 remake with Robert Mitchum retains the original title.
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Cast: Dick Powell, Esther Howard, Anne Shirley, Claire Trevor
It Happened Tomorrow (1944)
Powell is a young reporter at the turn of the century who, thanks to his friendship with a deceased librarian, gets the newspaper a day early, allowing him to anticipate newsworthy events before they happen. Forewarned, Powell shows up for the big bank robbery and wins at the races with his spiritualist girlfriend. On the third day, however, he reads his own obituary, and, despite all his efforts, circumstances conspire to bring him to the hotel lobby where he is supposed to die. Fascinating fantasy, and the premise for the TV series Early Edition. director Rene Clair cultivated his surrealist tendencies after witnessing the horrors of WW I. After recovering from a spinal injury, he directed some of the most important films to French (and world) cinema in the 1920s.
Director: Rene Clair
Cast: Dick Powell, Linda Darnell, Jack Oakie,
You Never Can Tell (1951)
Surely here is one of the highest concepts (or perhaps the writers were the highest) in the history of Hollywood. A murdered dog who was heir to a fortune asks for and receives the chance to reincarnate as private investigator Powell (along with sidekick Holden, a former racehorse) to track the killer. He and the filly must return to Beastatory before the next moon or forever remain humanimals, but, after falling in love with Dow, the prime suspect, Powell may not return. The movie had an appropriate tagline, “A picture for people who think they’ve seen EVERYTHING!
Director: Lou Breslow
Cast: Dick Powell, Peggy Dow, Charies Drake, Joyce Holden, Albert Sharpe, Sara Taft