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
Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess
What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.
Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.
Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.
Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.
Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?
Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.
Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife
Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.
Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.
Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.
Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.
What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.
Famous guest stars?
The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.
Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.
Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.
Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.
The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.
Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.
Classic TV Revisited: The Royal
The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.
The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.
Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.
Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.
Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”
A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.
First broadcast: 2003
Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden
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