By Elizabeth McLeod
Some performers were noted for their consistency — actors who spent their entire lives playing the same sorts of roles, singers who stuck to one style from beginning to end, producers whose consistency became a brand name. Some performers were noted for their versatility, adapting chameleon-like to whatever happened to be the trend or the style of the moment. Some performers managed to do both.
Few performers managed to successfully divide their careers into neat little compartments — excelling in one field only to give it up when they’d accomplished as much they felt they could and then move on to excel at something entirely different. One of the few who did so — and did so outstandingly — was Richard Ewing Powell.
Dick Powell was a Southern boy, although you’d never know it from his voice. Born in Arkansas in 1904, Powell grew up in the Ozark Mountains. But, he was no drawling hillbilly — he attended college in Little Rock where he developed a taste for literature, a taste for business, and a taste for music, not necessarily in that order. He enjoyed singing in campus theatricals, he played the cornet passably well, and this combination of talents happened to catch the notice of a traveling bandleader from Indiana — a chance encounter that changed his life.
Powell joined the Charlie Davis Orchestra in 1927, and quickly became a favorite with mid-western dance-band enthusiasts for his vigorous tenor voice. The Davis band had a recording contract with the Vocalion label, a subsidiary of Brunswick, and Powell’s recordings with the orchestra stood out from those featuring more traditional vocalists. The dance-band singer voice of the era was that of a precise, classically trained singer, who carefully wrapped his tonsils around every syllable. Powell’s style was more casual — while he didn’t croon in the Rudy Vallee manner, he shared Vallee’s attitude of informality, and it was different enough to catch the notice of the record-buying public.
It also caught the attention of Warner Brothers. In early 1930, that film studio purchased the Brunswick company…and Charlie Davis’s boy singer. Poweel had since moved on to try and lead a band of his own, and sounded like someone who might have a future in talkies, especially in the burgeoning field of movie musicals. But, by the time Powell was convinced to give Hollywood a try, the musical fad had crashed and burned. Although the demand for handsome boy singers wasn’t what it had been a few months earlier, the Warners staff thought he looked agreeable enough on screen to give him a shot as an actor. And maybe, if musicals ever came back…
That maybe didn’t take long to materialize. The musical genre began to stir again in 1932, and Warners took a chance on inserting Powell in the fast-moving newspaper comedy Blessed Event. That picture starred the fast-talking Lee Tracy as a Walter Winchell pastiche, at odds with the world of showbiz and the world of organized crim. Powell had a brief but memorable turn as a hostile radio crooner who crossed foils with Tracy’s relentless columnist. He got to sing a song as well — and his combination of snappy acting talent and smooth vocalization earned him a key role in the film that proved musicals were really back, the legendary 42nd Street.
Powell, as song-and-dance-man Billy Lawler, was something new in musical comedy. He was no pasty-faced middle-aged “juvenile” — the film already had one of those in the puffy 40-year-old person of stage veteran Clarence Nordstrom. Powell played his role with zip, panache, and a sort of glowing virility that made him pop right off the screen. When he serenaded grinning chorus girl Toby Wing with his rendition of “Young and Healthy,” you knew he wasn’t singing about gym class. Suddenly, Dick Powell was a star.
He kept up the momentum later that year with Gold Diggers of 1933, in which he appeared as a restless rich boy looking for love and adventure in show business. Here he made emphatic his difference from the traditional musical-comedy juvenile — by telling off Clarence Nordstrom on screen, dismissing him as an old-timer, and finally by taking his place in the show. Gold Diggers was an even bigger hit, and Powell was one of Warners’ hottest commodities.
Powell starred in a string of musicals over the next several years — some of them outstanding, some of them very good, and some of them just routine. He was frequently paired, as in his first two hits, with Ruby Keeler — but offscreen his eye fell on another frequent co-star, the zesty Joan Blondell. The two were married in 1936, and Dick Powell began to seriously reconsider where his career was headed. He may have supplanted the Clarence Nordstrom type of musical-comedy juvenile — but he was already past thirty, and if he hung on with the same type of role for too long, he knew he would end up becoming Clarence Nordstrom. He badgered Warners for different sorts of roles, but the studio kept casting him as a snappy song-and-dance man. Even when he got a chance to work at another studio — Fox — he ended up in the same old type of role. Finally, he decided he’d had enough.
In 1944, Dick Powell was forty years old, divorced from Joan Blondell…and still a romantic tenor, singing on a radio show for a beauty cream popular with middle-aged women. He knew that a picture was being made from James M. Cain’s hardboiled crime thriller Double Indemnity, and pressed himself forward for the part, desperate to do something different with his career. Although Fred MacMurray — another converted boy singer — got that role, Powell caught the notice of director Edward Dymytrik, who was just then preparing a screen adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Murder My Sweet. This part Powell got — and his crooning days were over.
The new film-noir Dick Powell pushed the song-and-dance man aside forever. He was clearly older, his face grown slightly craggy, his once-boyish features now becoming harsh and hawkish. It was a perfect look for private eye Philip Marlowe — you could see the handsome innocence of youth weathering into the disillusionment and cynicism of middle age — and Powell’s performance in the part was spellbinding. The next few years saw a succession of similar roles, and Dick Powell was a top star once again, one of the toughest tough guys in town.
On the heels of this new success, radio again beckoned. He starred in the west-coast detective thriller Rogue’s Gallery, and in 1949 picked up his definitive radio role in Blake Edwards’ eccentric thriller Richard Diamond, Private Detective. Edwards had designed the series as both an homage and a parody of the hard-boiled genre — specifically targeting Sam Spade. With Powell now fully at ease in his new niche, the performer was not averse to having a little fun with the situation. Richard Diamond was a figure who never took himself too seriously, and Powell recaptured some of the youthful spark that had first made him a star in his, layering it over his new hard-as-nails persona to create something unique in the realm of radio detective drama. As an extra treat, Edwards convinced Powell that there was no harm in his singing a song from time to time, and these brief reprises of hits from Powell’s earlier career gave the program a lighthearted feeling that no other detective show could duplicate. Richard Diamond ran for three years, with Powell enjoying himself all along the way.
By the end of the series, he was moving on to the third phase of his career. As he neared fifty, he knew that his days as a lead actor were numbered — and that greater security would be found on the other side of the camera. Teaming with David Niven, Charles Boyer, and Joel McCrea, he formed a new production company: Four Star Television. Anticipating that television would shift from New York-based live productions to filmed Hollywood programming, Powell and his colleagues quickly established the company as one of the key players in the industry, cranking out a string of successful crime, western and adventure series through the late fifties and early sixties, including a television version of Richard Diamond. While David Janssen played the title role in that program, Powell himself appeared in some of the Four Star productions in guest star roles, and hosted his own anthology series, but his most important contribution was his sharp business acumen.
Sadly, Four Star Productions would outlive Dick Powell. He developed cancer in 1962, and died in early 1963 at the age of fifty-nine. Some theorize that his premature death was the result of exposure to radioactive fallout while directing the adventure film The Conqueror at an abandoned atomic testing site in Nevada a decade earlier. But, whatever the cause, Hollywood was robbed of one of its most compelling personalities — a man who enjoyed not one, not two, but three outstanding careers in a city that seldom granted anyone a single real success. That was Dick Powell — a man who truly led three lives.
Copyright 2013 Elizabeth McLeod and RSPT LLC. All rights reserved.