Tuesday, August 11

Tyrone Power

It was the face that set millions of hearts a-flutter.  The entire face was flawless but I'm thinking it was those eyes that were particularly devastating... so dark and welcoming... the full brows... and eyelashes so long that those who knew him said they could cast shadows on that beautiful face.  Some may prefer the word handsome but I think beautiful is more fitting.  Irony arrives when we learn that he found his face to be a curse.  Oh, he knew it opened doors for him, always had, and many of those were bedroom doors.  But he felt it kept him from being respected, being taken seriously as an actor... and he wanted that more than anything in the world... more than any woman, more than any man.

The only full decade that he worked as an actor was the 40s so it's particularly fitting that he is included in this segment of the blog but it's even more fitting that he gets this early posting because he was an enormously popular movie star.  (This posting was ready to go last Friday, but how was I to know his one-time costar, Coleen Gray, was going to pass away?)

Was he one of the great actors?  Perhaps not, but he was a very good one, completely believable in most all films he did.  It pained him a great deal that he was an enormously popular movie star.  He wanted to be regarded as one of the acting greats and to hell with the popularity which he regarded as mainly a pain in the ass.

He spent the majority of his career at one studio, 20th Century Fox and he was one of their all-time biggest moneymakers.  Darryl F. Zanuck put him in almost every film that he felt would be popular anyway but would be even more popular with Power in the lead.  The cash cow occasionally griped about the roles he was given (the swashbucklers annoyed him the most) and when he bellowed his dismay, Zanuck threw him a better script but it happened too infrequently.  Zanuck knew what that face would do to the stock at Fox.  And why not put that face with other beautiful faces already on the payroll.  It's not mere coincidence that Power costarred with Loretta Young in five films, Linda Darnell in four and Alice Faye and Gene Tierney in three.

A large part of Power's desire to shine as a great thespian is because he came from a theatrical family.  His mother was a stage actress and his father and his grandfather, both named Tyrone Power, were stage actors as well.  His father, who referred to himself as the greatest actor in the world, even managed to make it into silent movies.  He paid little mind to acting as a youngster but before long everyone but everyone told him with a face like that, he should be in the movies.  Furthermore, talkies hadn't been around for all that long and folks also noticed that he had a wonderful speaking voice.  Once making a decision to become an actor, he realized he had the family name to uphold.  It was heady stuff. 

He was born in 1914 Cincinnati, Ohio, but within a few years, the family, including a sister he adored, had moved to the San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles.  He and his sister were raised to think they were nobility.  While he always kept a little of that, as an adult he preferred a more down-to-earth approach.  He was physically weak and often sickly as a child.  His father considered him to be a bit on the effeminate side so he immediately bought young Ty a football and insisted they throw it back and forth.

His parents divorced while he was still young and he considered it the greatest tragedy of his young life.  He didn't know how to handle all his emotions and what eventually came of that is that he would compartmentalize his life and that never stopped.  As an adult, he was a certain person on the job, another for family and still another for his secret life.

All throughout his life his children, good straight friends and perhaps his wives have denied that Power had a thing for men.  It always amuses me because they apparently don't understand the meaning of the expression secret life.  They don't get that they don't know because he didn't want them to know.  Power was never out and most of his many affairs with men were fleeting, anonymous.

Any exception to that was Robin Thomas.  During the time Power was making the rounds of playhouses and trying to make a go of it on the stage, he ran into the ex-stepson of John Barrymore, who was as dark and beautiful as Power.  Friends at the time said that seeing them together took one's breath away.  But Robin, always just a half hour away from a breakdown, was too much for Power and far too open.  Thomas was devastated when Power broke up with him.  Thomas' next lover broke up with him and then killed himself and shortly afterwards Thomas did as well.

With his few closeted gay friends, Cesar Romero, Van Johnson, Rock Hudson and Charles Laughton, he would confide that he could never be exclusive with a man.  He said he needed a woman and he needed a family. But in the years to come, he would go beyond the garden-variety gay and delve into kinky behavior that is way too indelicate to elaborate on for this here lil ol' blog.  His friend Laughton often joined in.  What is for sure is that when someone who looked like Tyrone Power wanted some male-on-male action, it was never difficult to obtain.

It was during one of his forays into the theater that he was discovered by a talent scout for Fox and immediately signed to a long-term contract.  He was on his way but from the beginning he told Zanuck and his crowd that he wanted time off to do theater.  Sure, Kid, sure, they said, now smile for the camera.

Power had small roles in a few Fox films when he was given the lead in 1936's Lloyd's of London and he created a sensation.  Zanuck knew he made the right decision and there was probably not another male actor that the boss kept a closer eye on.  

The beginnings of the famous underwriting company was a backdrop for a love story involving Power and beautiful Madeleine Carroll.  The film was the first time he would costar with George Sanders.  Their fifth and final pairing is a rather famous event. 

Lloyd's of London was also the first of 10 times that Power worked for director Henry King.  King was one of Fox's most reliable and important contract directors.  Power sought King out and told him how much he admired his work.  King, in turn, found Power to be the most natural of actors and as easy to work with as any actor he'd ever known.  King was a great moralist with a strong sense of right and wrong and it is entirely possible that Power's ongoing relationship with such a man was responsible for the actor's need to compartmentalize his life.  King would say that Power had a great need to have people love him.

One of Power's most enduring, non-romantic friendships at the studio began in 1937 when he met Alice Faye.  Actually, early on, she sort of fell for him but realized he played in a large field.  Their three films together, In Old Chicago (1937), Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938) and Rose of Washington Square (1939), were great successes.  I own them all and find their pairing to be nothing short of magical.

Fox trumpeted Power's final film with Loretta Young, Suez (1938), about the building of the canal, but it seemed rather tedious to me.  What is noteworthy about it is his other female costar, Annabella.  And why is that?  Because they married.  She was French-born but had been living in the states for a short while trying to stake out a career.  She was a bit older than Power, athletic and had played a number of androgynous roles.  Their nine-year marriage was full of fun and frivolity.  They were great hosts and their parties were the envy of Hollywood.  You may recall in my piece on David Niven that it was at one of the Powers' parties that Niven's wife fell down the basement stairs while playing a game and died a few days later.

Before their marriage just sort of petered out, Power engaged in numerous affairs, most famously at the beginning of it with Judy Garland and at the end with Lana Turner.  These were not mere flings either and both women claimed to have been madly in love with him and thought he was in love with them.  Both ended poorly.  Garland, as one might expect, became unraveled and Turner knew it was over when she read that he had married actress Linda Christian.  The union with Annabella was also interrupted by Power's stint in the Marines.  Not uncommon with married gay and bisexual men, Power remained friendly with his ex-wife his entire life.  She, in turn, remained best friends with his sister.

Power had been the only real male star Fox had for awhile but that changed when actors like Henry Fonda, John Payne and Dana Andrews came along.  (They would all work with Power.)  Fonda would work with Power in Jesse James (1939), Fox's most popular film of the year.  It was as colorful and fictional as all movies on the famous outlaw were but the pairing of Power and Fonda was pure magic.  It was conceded Fonda was the better actor (history would agree) and that must have irked Power, but Fonda was nowhere as handsome nor as popular with the public or coworkers.  There is one scene in Jesse James where Power's face occupies the entire screen that is simply unforgettable.  Those Fox folks knew what they were doing.

Zanuck hovered over Power like an insecure mother so it is surprising that he loaned his little moneymaker to MGM to appear in the opulent Marie Antoinette (1939), playing second fiddle to Norma Shearer, no less.  But the trade for Power resulted in both Myrna Loy and Spencer Tracy being hired for Fox productions.

Power knew his films were doing boffo business at the box office but he had one of those urges to do something different.  He wanted to act... he wanted to play a heel and Johnny Apollo (1940) was what he had in mind.  Zanuck had Brigham Young (1940) in mind which Power thought was a bunch of historical hokum in which he wouldn't even have the title role (character actor Dean Jagger did).  Zanuck did what he always did... struck a bargain... and Power did both.  Whether Johnny flopped because the public didn't like to see him as a skunk and/or because Dorothy Lamour (borrowed from Paramount) was not the right leading lady for him, flop it did which is all Zanuck needed to tame his star. 

The Mark of Zorro (1940) and Blood and Sand (1941) were two more enormous hits for everyone.  Both costarred Linda Darnell (as did Brigham Young) and they were ideal pairing and Fox was trying to build them as a team.  Both films were rich in color with Power looking so good it hurt your eyes.  Blood and Sand had the added bonus of costarring gorgeous Rita Hayworth as the fiery Dona Sol.

A Yank in the R.A.F. (1941) also raked in the dough because it costarred Fox's most popular male star with its most popular female star, Betty Grable.  He was a cocky American pilot (is there any other kind?) in London and she was the ex he unexpectedly runs into.  Along with her other 1941 release, I Wake Up Screaming (coming up one day in more detail), Grable was on a high.  Both of these films were dramas.  Fox's mistress of musical mayhem was going dramatic.  Like her costar, she wanted to act, emote, recite Shakespeare... anything but lift her skirts and belt out another popular song.  Hey, she was good in these films, too, but it was soon back to musical hijinks, never to stray again.

It was only earlier this year that I first saw This Above All (1942).  I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.  Maybe it's because Joan Fontaine was never a draw for me.  But she is rather radiant here... perhaps sharing close-ups with Tyrone Power makes a girl want to spend another moment or 12 before the mirror.  The story of a rich British lass who joins the war effort and meets and falls in love with an AWOL American soldier is just the kind of old-fashioned film one might enjoy on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

The Black Swan (1942) was that lusty, swashbuckling stuff that Power dreaded.  When he was making films like this, the costume pictures as he liked to call them, he was at his most unsettled.  Drinking more, he and Annabella argued more and he was away from home more often.  But let it be said again that this was an enormously popular movie and no actor could ever look better or be asked to be better than in scenes with Maureen O'Hara.  These two Irish buddies would be even better working together 13 years later.

In many a biography I have read that Power and Errol Flynn had an affair or sorts in the mid-40s.  Of course Flynn's family vehemently denies that he was that way, just as Power's family has.  Why would two handsome, ego-driven, sexually insatiable actors, married to lovely ladies, fool around with other men?  Why, the idea...!  I'm gonna stop reading those fictional books.

He was a 1st lieutenant when he was discharged from the Marines in 1946.  His military service had a profound experience on him.  One can almost hear someone saying he left a boy and came back a man.  Those looks changed a bit, too.  Aw, forget any notion that this man was not still a handsome devil, but that blinding beauty might have been left on the battlefields.

He was so happy to be back that he signed another seven-year contract with Fox.  This might have been the time for that respected thespian inside him to take the outside and go seek employment elsewhere.  But he needed the money and Fox promised a prestige picture.  Here he felt was something that was well-written and rather profound and would not only give him something to chew on but Fox, for once, was completely behind it.  The film was called The Razor's Edge.

What set Zanuck apart from the other studio moguls was that he was part of the creative process as a former writer and current producer whereas the others were basically businessmen.  Zanuck went after as many popular novels as he could lay his hands on and Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge was precisely what he had in mind.  It concerned a man's quest for the meaning of life. 
Maugham would say it was about the road to salvation which was as difficult to walk as the sharp edge of a razor. 

Maugham himself figures into the story and veteran actor Herbert Marshall was signed to play him.  Also signed were Gene Tierney (in my opinion, the perfect Power costar), John Payne, Anne Baxter and Clifton Webb.  There must have been strong gay sensibilities in the writing and playing out of this story considering Maugham, Power, Webb and director Edmund Goulding all played on the other team.

Power thought he was perfect casting because, like his character Larry Darrell, he was searching and his religious feelings provided as many doubts and questions as they did safety nets.  I felt the same when I first saw the film and it had great meaning for me.  I was completely taken in by it and still am although my search has long since ended. 

Because of this cast and likely the subject matter, the film was popular with audiences.  But critics were less kind, saying that despite Power's long, heartfelt speeches about redemption, Darrell was basically a hollow and selfish person.  He waxed rhapsodic about the meaning of life with sensitivity but his actions were incongruent for such a philosophy.  Power turned down Gentleman's Agreement to do this film and he was glad he did.  I never saw the 1984 Bill Murray remake.

I thought his work in Nightmare Alley (1947) was among the best of his career.  This is another film that he browbeat Zanuck to allow him to do and once it finished filming, Zanuck did relatively nothing to promote it.  Power was desperate to play the phony spiritualist in a carnival but ultimately few saw it.  I'm glad I did.

The Captain from Castile (1947) was his last certifiable hit at Fox even though it was not his last at the studio.  The story of Cortez's invasion of Mexico was another crowd-pleasure and it didn't hurt that newcomer Jean Peters was a welcome addition to Power's stable of beautiful costars. 

By 1949 he had a new wife in fiery Mexican starlet Linda Christian.  Calling her an actress may be overkill.  Before the divorce seven years later, they had two daughters and many fights, many of them splashed across the pages of the world's newspapers and she would leave him for actor Edmund (The Egyptian) Purdom.

During their marriage, Power's film work was decidedly lackluster with films such as Diplomatic Courier, The Black Rose, American Guerilla in the Philippines, I'll Never Forget You and Prince of Foxes.  A 1951 western, Rawhide, with Susan Hayward, had them as hostages at a stagecoach stop and it was better than expected. 

During this time he also returned to stage work.  John Brown's Body was a play he toured with for some time and he was proud of his work.  Both he and Fox knew it was time to part ways.  His pictures weren't showing the profits they usually did and he was not pleased with the choice of films he was pretty much forced to do.  So he left the studio.  It must have felt like running away from home. 

Universal pitched him a sweet deal to do The Mississippi Gambler (1953), a routine riverboat story that turned out pretty well with Power at the top of his form and a beautiful Piper Laurie at her tempestuous best as a spoiled southern belle. This film came out not too long ago on DVD, making me a happy cowboy.

Another of the great Power performances came with The Long Gray Line (1955) where he worked for the crusty old Irishman, John Ford.  Reunited with O'Hara as his wife, Power played real-life Marty Maher, noncommissioned Army officer who spent 50 years at West Point.  Power proved his acting chops in this one, changing his voice, effecting an Irish brogue and aging.  The critics were most kind and the coins poured in. 

I suppose I should deride Untamed (1955) as some sort of Gone with the Wind wannabe, but I confess to enjoying it.  And I feel certain Susan Hayward was reminded of her Scarlett O'Hara audition when she filmed it.  A fiery Irish hellion attempts to settle in South Africa around the time of the Boer Wars and runs into an old flame.  Power, though top-billed, had the secondary role.

Power had known 1920s society pianist Eddy Duchin and looked a bit like him so it was a slam-dunk that he would sign for The Eddy Duchin Story (1956), and do such a good job.  It was a sentimental tale with a great look and beautiful music.  It was also enormously popular at the box office.  Duchin died at 42, something else he would have in common with his portrayer.  It's the only time I am aware of that Power publicly commented on a squabble with a leading lady.  About Kim Novak he would say confusion between temperament and bad manners is unfortunate.

He returned to Zanuckland for The Sun Also Rises (1957), a hoped-for success of Hemingway's story of disillusioned expatriate writers living in France and Spain in the 1920s.  I thought it was a good movie despite Power, Ava Gardner, Errol Flynn, Mel Ferrer and Eddie Albert being a little too long in the tooth and it didn't do well at the box office.  Power's portrayal of a sexually-incapacitated Jake Barnes proved what a good actor he was.  He was as sexually active as ever.  His divorce from Christian was final before filming began.
Also in 1957 he would appear in Billy Wilder's presentation of Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution and would give the best performance of his career.  In thinking about it, I think it's fair to say Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton gave the best performances of their storied careers as well.  Christie said the screen adaptation of her story of a man on trial for killing a rich widow was the best she had seen.   Power was a good choice because it was vital that his natural earnestness and charm come shining through in the character of Leonard Vole.  It was a happy set with the only discordant note being Dietrich's sniffing out Power for amore.  It didn't work.

One wonders how Power could have signed on for Solomon and Sheba, the type of costume drama that he had loathed making at Fox.  But a percentage deal that sweetened the pot is obviously what turned his head.  A few months before filming commenced, he married for the third time.  It seemed kind of sudden and mysterious to the newshounds and Power received some rare bad press.   Within a short time it was revealed that he was going to be a father again.

Filming with Gina Lollobrigida and George Sanders began in Spain and within a short time Power was saying he didn't feel well, but he trudged on.  Even on the day of a big sword fight scene with Sanders he was still under the weather.  It was during that scene that Tyrone Power died of a massive heart attack at age 44.

One wonders what might have been.  Since leaving Fox he had had some good roles and done some of the best work of his career.  Would he have gone on to be recognized as a great actor and gotten the respect he always sought?  I'd like to think so.

Several months later the son he always wanted and would never know was born.  He, too, was named Tyrone Power and would grow into quite the handsome man.

Next posting:
Movie review


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