Monday, September 7, 2015

Movie Review: Tyrone Power in Lloyd's of London (1936)

Original poster for Lloyd's of London, 1936. No one told the publicity department that the title should have an apostrophe. Also, no one told the artist what Tyrone Power looked like, since the guy in the middle looks nothing like him.

George Sanders, Madeleine Carroll, and Tyrone Power in Lloyd's of London, 1936. Sanders is excellent playing the cad.

The impossibly handsome Tyrone Power, eyebrows fully plucked, in Lloyd's of London, 1936.
Insurance! Just the word itself brings about thoughts of action, adventure, and romance. Well, not really. But someone at 20th Century Fox must have thought so, because that’s the only explanation for the odd 1936 movie Lloyd’s of London, which attempts to glamorize the British insurance industry of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. (Does the title have an apostrophe? It should, because the company does, and the title card of the movie has one, but all of the original print ads omit the apostrophe.) Lloyd’s of London was the first starring role for Tyrone Power, and it launched him on a highly successful career, as he became one of the most popular leading men for the next twenty years, until his early death from a heart attack at age 44 in 1958. I wrote a short article last year about Power’s life and career, and I’ve also reviewed his 1956 movie The Eddy Duchin Story.

There were many actors in Tyrone Power’s ancestry, and his father, also named Tyrone Power, was a successful stage actor who also acted in many silent films and a few talkies. The elder Power grew closer to his son in the last year of his life, and he encouraged young Tyrone to pursue an acting career. Tragically, the elder Power died of a heart attack in his son’s arms in December, 1931.
Although Tyrone Power was technically named Tyrone Power Junior, he was only billed that way for his first few movies, and Lloyd’s of London was the first time he was billed as simply Tyrone Power.

1936 was a pivotal year in Tyrone Power’s career. At the beginning of the year he had just two bit parts to his credit when he was cast as a newspaper reporter in Sing, Baby, Sing, starring Alice Faye. But director Sidney Lanfield didn’t think Power was right for the part and replaced him with Michael Whalen. Power’s career wasn’t looking too promising at that point. However, Power was able to land a very small role in the 1936 movie Girls’ Dormitory. Power only appeared in one scene of the movie, and he was on screen for less than thirty seconds. (It’s often written that he only had one line of dialogue, but that’s not true, he actually has two lines and says four sentences.) In that brief amount of screen time, Tyrone Power made a huge impression on audiences. Power was only 22 years old in 1936, but he was already a strikingly handsome man with thick dark hair, lively brown eyes, chiseled features, high cheekbones, dramatically arched eyebrows, and a winning smile. When audiences got their brief glimpse of him in Girls’ Dormitory, they wanted to know who this handsome man was, and they flooded 20th Century Fox with fan mail asking about Power. 

Power was given a larger part in his next movie, Ladies in Love, although it isn’t clear if the positive feedback from Girls’ Dormitory was the reason. Ladies in Love was filmed “in the early summer of 1936,” according to Hector Arce’s biography, The Secret Life of Tyrone Power. (p.79) But according to, Wikipedia, and Fred Lawrence Guiles’ biography Tyrone Power: The Last Idol, Girls’ Dormitory wasn’t released until August of 1936. If this was the case, the audience’s reaction to Power in Girls’ Dormitory couldn’t have influenced the casting of Ladies in Love, since Ladies in Love would have already been in production by the time Girls’ Dormitory was released. The only way this would be possible is if there were early previews of Girls’ Dormitory in April or May. The other possibility is that the release date of August for Girls’ Dormitory is simply wrong. Film historian Jeanine Basinger, in her book The Star Machine, calls Girls’ Dormitory “an early-1936 release.” (p.145) That seems more likely, and it would fit the timeline better. If Girls’ Dormitory was released in March or April, there would have been a chance for the buzz surrounding Power to build, leading to his casting in Ladies in Love in May or June. But regardless of the release date of Girls’ Dormitory, audiences were clearly paying attention to Tyrone Power.

Sometime in the summer of 1936, as director Henry King was making costume tests for Lloyd’s of London, Tyrone Power visited his office. King had worked with Power’s father on the 1923 film Fury, but he did not know the younger Power. Impressed by Power’s confidence and presence, King persuaded studio head Darryl F. Zanuck to allow him to test Power for the lead role in Lloyd’s of London, even though he had just tested Don Ameche for the same part. Zanuck agreed, and King filmed a screen test with Power. When Power’s test was screened for Zanuck and other executives, all of the executives said they liked Ameche better. But Zanuck asked King who he preferred in the role. King said he liked Power better than Ameche, and when Zanuck asked him why, King responded: “Because this boy is younger. He’s better looking. He handles himself better. I can do more with him. The most important thing is that this studio is short of talent. In two years this boy could be the biggest young leading man in the motion picture industry, and God knows we need stars here instead of borrowing them from somebody else.” Zanuck said, “All right, put him in the picture before I change my mind.” (The Secret Life of Tyrone Power, p.83. Tyrone Power: The Last Idol tells the same story of Power’s screen test, with slightly different dialogue.) Of course, Henry King was right, and within two years Tyrone Power was indeed one of the most successful young actors in Hollywood, largely due to his roles in King’s films. King directed Power in 11 movies.

Suddenly, Tyrone Power had his first leading role, in a big budget movie that the studio was sparing no expense on. Loretta Young had originally been cast as the female lead, but she dropped out when Ameche was replaced with Power, and her role was filled by Madeleine Carroll, fresh off her appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic The Thirty-Nine Steps. Partway through filming, Darryl F. Zanuck told Henry King, “Henry, I’ve been watching the rushes. This boy is doing great…Take all the time you need with that boy because if you can keep him all the way through the picture as he is up to now, he’ll be a star.” (Tyrone Power: The Last Idol, p.9. The Secret Life of Tyrone Power tells the same story, again with slightly different dialogue-I suspect both authors interviewed Henry King.) 

The plot of Lloyd’s of London revolves around Power’s character, Johnathan Blake, a fictional character who starts working for the insurance company at a young age and works his way up through the ranks. When the movie starts, we see a young Johnathan, age 12 or so, overhearing sailors talk about how a ship will be deliberately sunk in order to collect the insurance money. So Johnathan and his best friend Horatio Nelson, the future Lord Nelson, sneak aboard the ship and overhear more of the nefarious insurance fraud scheme. Johnathan does what any 12 year old boy would do and exclaims, “We must tell Lloyd’s of London!” How Johnathan, living 100 miles outside of London, knows about Lloyd’s of London is never made clear. But Jonathan arrives in London, and because he delivered important information about this attempt at insurance fraud, he starts working at Lloyd’s. (Johnathan is an orphan, so there are no parents around to object to this child labor.) As a young boy, Johnathan is played by Freddie Bartholomew, who was a very successful child star in the mid to late 1930’s. Seen today, this prologue with Bartholomew seems overly long, and I wonder if this was an attempt by the studio to lessen the weight on Power’s untested shoulders by casting a more established actor as the younger Johnathan.

Eventually Tyrone Power makes his entrance and the story leap frogs forward at odd intervals of time, as suddenly Napoleon is in power, and Johnathan is spying in France by pretending to be a priest. In the process he saves Lady Elizabeth Stacy (Madeleine Carroll) from a lascivious soldier, and they make it back to England. As the Wikipedia page for the movie points out, the timeline of the movie is not accurate. Johnathan falls in love with Lady Elizabeth, but she is unfortunately married to the pompous cad Lord Everett Stacy, played by the pompous cad George Sanders, perfectly cast in his first Hollywood movie. Johnathan keeps pining away for Lady Elizabeth, and the script keeps name dropping Johnathan’s boyhood friend Horatio Nelson, although the two never meet again. (They just miss each other at one of Lady Elizabeth’s parties.) The movie ends with Johnathan watching Lord Nelson’s funeral procession, and we get an unnecessary flashback to the last time they saw each other, when they were 12. 

In his 1979 biography of Power, Victor Arce writes, “Seen today, it’s not clear how Lloyds of London, a dreary historical epic ranging from 1770 to 1805, could make a star out of anybody.” (The Secret Life of Tyrone Power, p.85) I agree. It’s even more unclear in 2015. It’s very surprising that Lloyd’s of London was a Hollywood movie and not a British film, as the film seems to be little more than rah-rah boosterism for a giant insurance company, and for the naval glory of the British Empire. The film’s ridiculous name dropping of Lord Nelson gets tiring as well. The only action in the movie happens to Lord Nelson and that all happens off screen. Horatio becomes a sailor, while Johnathan is the boring one who went into insurance. 

Tyrone Power does as good a job as he can with his first leading role. He’s let down by the material, and he’s good, but not yet great. His best scenes are the ones where he’s pretending to be a French priest, and where he’s rowing a boat across the English Channel with Madeleine Carroll. Power seems most natural during those scenes, and they offer us a glimpse of the dashing action hero that he would become. Power looks super handsome in Lloyd’s of London, but too often he’s just too made up. Power’s dramatic eyebrows were heavily plucked for Lloyd’s of London, which gives him a more effeminate look. Power was lucky his eyebrows grew back. Lana Turner had to shave her eyebrows for a tiny role in The Adventures of Marco Polo in 1938 and they never grew back! However, Power’s on screen charm is fully formed. Power is one of those actors that you just like right away, and his youthful enthusiasm serves the movie well. 

Lloyd’s of London premiered in New York City in November, 1936, and went into wide release across the country in January, 1937. It was a big hit at the box office, although the critics were lukewarm about it. Variety magazine said of Power in Lloyd’s of London, “He’s okay. He’s going places. He has looks and he has acting ability. The women ought to go for him in a big way.” (The Secret Life of Tyrone Power, p.88) Well, Variety hit the nail on the head there. Lloyd’s of London is an interesting movie, not because it’s a good movie, but because it’s the movie that launched Tyrone Power to stardom.

No comments: