The Crooner, the Noir-Tough Guy, the Director/Producer

I couldn’t let today go by without a birthday post for Dick Powell. Born today in 1904 in Mountain View, Arkansas, Powell went from small town to theater MC, to a Hollywood contract with Warner Brothers.

TCM had a birthday tribute today for Powell with some of his lesser-known films, including his debut in Blessed Event (Del Ruth, 1932). It was kind of a strange little film, featuring Lee Tracy as a gossip columnist who ends up in more trouble than he bargained for after ticking off different members of society, most notably a mob boss (and we all know how mob bosses deal with such things). Powell plays singer/bandleader Bunny Harmon, who has a feud with the gossip columnist. Where this started, I have no idea, it’s never really explained. Apparently, he just doesn’t like him. Powell’s part screams Warner Brothers wanting to show off their new acquisition. He sings several songs, and  doesn’t have a lot of dialogue. It wouldn’t be until the following year’s 42nd Street that Powell would break out as a star.

Some of my vintage piano sheet music, all from 1930s Warner Brothers films

Because of the success of 42nd Street and the Gold Diggers films, Powell was cast in musicals left and right, usually with a familiar ensemble cast that included second wife Joan Blondell, repeat love-interest Ruby Keeler, Hugh Herbert and Guy Kibbee. Some of these, like Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade and Dames are very good. Others start to show the cracks in the formula, and they start to get repetitive. Dick Powell started to think so, worrying that he would be pigeon-holed in musicals for the rest of his career. He and Blondell left Warners in search of other opportunities.

After seeing nice guy Fred MacMurray land the lead role in Double Indemnity, Powell lobbied hard for a dramatic role. He finally got his wish, landing the role of Philip Marlowe in RKO’s Murder, My Sweet. It was a part that would change his entire career. Powell rode that success to many films playing noir tough-guys, but also dabbled in some lighter roles, some with third wife June Allyson. Towards the end of his career, Powell moved behind the camera, taking several directing opportunities, as well as moving into the new frontier of television as the founder of Four Star Productions. An astute businessman, Powell was a workaholic with a vision, and his career choices throughout the years reflect that.

As Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet

Dick Powell was also quite the radio personality. He served as Master of Ceremonies on Hollywood Hotel for several years during the 1930s, voiced many of his movie characters on the Lux Radio Theater adaptations, and played witty private investigator Richard Diamond.

Sadly, Powell died from lymphoma in 1963, aged 58. Who knows what he might have achieved as television continued to mature.

While I love Powell in many of his noirs (his Marlowe is my favorite, ringing true to the character I imagine when I read Raymond Chandler), I choose to remember him in his musical roles. He had sweet boyish charm, a bright smile and one of the most powerful and beautiful tenor voices I’ve heard. Happy 107th birthday to a wonderful talent. Your film presence still makes me smile.

I leave you with goofy little promotional short that Warner Brothers did for Dames:


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