Saturday, August 23, 2014

Tyrone Power, Forgotten Movie Star

Tyrone Power, 1914-1958.

Tyrone Power at the beginning of his movie career, mid 1930's.

Charles Laughton and Tyrone Power in Witness for the Prosecution, 1957.
Billy Wilder’s 1957 film Witness for the Prosecution, based on the play by Agatha Christie, was the last movie the popular matinee idol Tyrone Power completed before his death the following year. Witness for the Prosecution starred Power as a man on trial for murder, Charles Laughton as his defense attorney, and Marlene Dietrich as his wife. It’s an interesting movie, with especially good performances from Laughton and Power. Laughton plays Sir Wilfred Robarts, a defense attorney who is recovering from a heart attack, and his nurse Miss Plimsoll, (played by Laughton’s real-life wife Elsa Lanchester) is eager for Sir Wilfred to not take any new cases that might cause him to overexert himself. Then in walks Leonard Vole (Power) a man who is about to be arrested for the murder of an older widow who recently changed her will to make Vole the beneficiary of her estate. Vole protests his innocence, and Sir Wilfred, highly intrigued, agrees to take the case. Power is very effective because the actor playing Leonard Vole needs to be sympathetic and likable, and Power was both of those things. Since the end of the movie expressly told me not to reveal all of the surprises of the plot, I won’t say anything more about what happens. No spoiler alerts for 57 year old movies here!

I’m using Witness for the Prosecution as an excuse to write a short piece about Tyrone Power’s film career. I don’t claim to be an expert on Power’s career, as I’ve only seen three of his movies: Witness for the Prosecution, The Black Swan, and the excellent film noir Nightmare Alley. Power had an interesting, and highly successful, career. He was an extremely popular movie star for more than 20 years, from the mid 1930’s until his untimely death from a heart attack at the age of 44 in 1958.
Power was under contract to 20th Century Fox for the majority of his career. Power’s striking good looks assured him of a substantial female fan base, and he quickly became one of the most popular matinee idols of the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. Power was an amazingly handsome man who won the genetic lottery big time with his thick dark hair, lively eyes, chiseled features, high cheekbones, dramatically arched eyebrows, and winning smile. Power acted in a great variety of movies, and he found success in many different film genres, including period dramas, light comedies, westerns, war movies, and swashbuckling action films. 

Although Power was an extremely popular movie star for a long time, I would wager that few people under the age of 50 today know who he was. Power’s long filmography is unfortunately not terribly distinguished. His movies, for whatever reason, have not made it into the canon of “great movies.” Power never won an Oscar. Indeed, he was never even nominated for an Oscar. He doesn’t have one signature performance that every movie fan has seen.

Power’s career is similar to that of his swashbuckling contemporary, Errol Flynn. Flynn was also a highly popular actor who might not be that well known today, but his turn as Robin Hood in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood has entered the canon of “great movies” and probably remains his most well-known performance. Another actor who was similar to Power and Flynn was Robert Taylor-who was to MGM what Power was to 20th Century Fox-namely, their handsome leading man who could also handle action films. Like Power, neither Flynn nor Taylor were ever nominated for an Oscar. 

Despite not receiving a lot of acclaim for his acting skills, Power actually was a fine film actor, and his performance in the gritty 1947 film noir Nightmare Alley is excellent. Unfortunately, because it was such a departure from his usual screen image, Nightmare Alley was not heavily promoted by Fox and flopped at the box office. Power had worked very hard to get Nightmare Alley made, and it was no doubt a great disappointment to him that Fox didn’t promote it whole-heartedly. It was difficult for Power to find roles that didn’t rely only on his good looks. During the 1950’s Power became more dissatisfied with the kind of movies he was offered, so he acted in plays more and more frequently.
Director Billy Wilder had extremely high praise for Power’s work in Witness for the Prosecution. He said of Power:

“He was one of those rare occurrences in Hollywood, he was an absolutely totally gentleman….He was excellent and professional and prepared and intelligent…totally impeccable in his professional life…The picture we did together was one of the few joys of my professional life.” (The Secret Life of Tyrone Power, by Hector Arce, p.269) 

In his personal life, Power was an excellent pilot, a skill that served him well during his World War II service in the Marines. Power flew missions carrying wounded troops out of Iwo Jima and Okinawa during 1945. Like many men of his generation, Power never bragged about his military service, but he was proud of it. After World War II ended, Power dated Lana Turner. According to Turner’s daughter Cheryl, Power was the love of Turner’s life. Unfortunately, they never married and split up. I think it’s unfortunate they didn’t have any kids together, because those children would have been amazingly good looking. 

The film critic Jeanine Basinger is a huge Tyrone Power fan, and she has a full chapter about Power’s life and career in her 2007 history of the Hollywood studio system, The Star Machine. Basinger thinks that Power was the best-looking man ever, and, tellingly, the section in the index with the most entries for Power is “physical beauty of.” Actress Alice Faye, who co-starred with Power in three movies, said of him, “All my life, I was asked what it was like to kiss Tyrone Power.” 

Tyrone Power would have turned 100 in May 2014. His good looks and charisma still jump off the screen, and he’s a movie star who should be better remembered today.


Anonymous said...

While I agree with much of what you say, I'm not sure Tyrone Power is as forgotten as you might think. As far as people under 50 knowing him, the only people who appear to know any movie star today are those interested in classic films, no matter the age. Today voice teachers complain that students don't know Barbra Streisand - I'm not kidding. One high school class post-Titanic didn't know Leonardo DiCaprio - again I'm not kidding. It's not like it was when there was no television, no Internet distraction, no reality stars, and movie stars were on magazine covers, doing ads, making tons of movies everyone saw, on the radio and on billboards. You would be shocked by what some people have never heard of. As far as Tyrone, his 100th birthday is this year and it has been celebrated in sold-out venues in Cincinnati and Chicago, with an event in Wilmington NC and one in Wisconsin coming up in the future, and one huge event in LA that includes an exhibit at the Hollywood Museum and two nights of films in November. For the 50th year of his death, American Cinemateque ran three nights of films to sold out houses in LA.

Anonymous said...

To contine: While it's true that he doesn't have a library of great films, what he does have is a library of very, very popular films. When the first box set of his films came out, Fox couldn't believe how well they sold; as a result, they released 10 of his films on another box set. If you look at the years of his career, you will see sometimes as many as three of his films in the top ten box office hits, and that includes in his final years. Tyrone Power remains today one of the top box office stars of all time according to Quigley and he continues to be discovered by classic movie buffs today. Don't let TCM fool you. He was a huge star. But remember, I said movie buffs. And that isn't everyone. You might also note he has been mentioned more than once on shows like Mad Men and The Simpsons, and there have been three plays published where the character's name is Tyrone Power. This year, a book came out in Canada called "Ty," about a woman who is obsessed with Tyrone Power.

Anonymous said...

And no, the book is not about me. I might add that film historian Jeanine Basinger is crazy about him, and put him on the cover of her book The Star Machine.

Mark said...

Thanks for your comments! Maybe I should have picked a different title for the post, like "underrated" instead of "forgotten." I'm happy to hear that 100th birthday events celebrating Tyrone Power and his work have been so well received. You're definitely right that now there are more people completing for fame with movie stars, which has diluted the star power of the movies. And yes, I'm always shocked at who people haven't heard of!

It's great that Power's box set sold very well, that's good news as catalog titles tend to not sell well, which is unfortunate because there are still so many old movies that aren't available on DVD or Blu-Ray. I'm looking forward to watching more of Tyrone Power's movies.

It sounds like you are a big Tyrone Power fan, I'm glad you're promoting his work. All of us movie fans need to stick up for our favorites so they are still remembered.

Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness, who could forget Jamie Boy? Anyone who has seen any Tyrone Power movies would go back for more. You forgot The Mask of Zorro that allowed Power to play the dandy and he is quite funny in many scenes. I agree that few today outside of film buffs would know him but he fueled many a teenage fantasy for me!