November 14: Happy Birthday Dick Powell!

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Some actors are stamped with a certain role and are never able to move beyond it. It is called type casting, and Hollywood, which has always been more commercial than artistic, revels in the practice. Why not? Once they have found an actor who can fill a certain type of role, and do it well, what is the sense in changing as long as money is still being made?

dick-powell-c-1930sWhen Dick Powell came to town, he landed one of the typecasting plums, that of Musical Comedy Romantic Leading Man. From the dawn of the Talkies until the 1950’s, the MCRLM was assured to find work, even well past his prime. His leading lady could expect to be tossed aside before she turned 30, but the MCRLM would be playing the fresh-faced college boy into his forties. Powell, however, felt that he had more to contribute, and he was correct.

Powell really was the fresh-faced, bound to succeed at anything sort that he portrayed in his early musicals. He grew up in Indiana and attended Little Rock College where he excelled at his studies, at business, but especially in performing. He began playing cornet and performing in campus musicals. Rather than moving directly into the business world, after college he went on the road with Charlie Davis Orchestra.

With a rather casual tenor style ( Powell did not have the classical training like many big band singers of late 1920’s the band was popular on the mid-Western dance circuit and landed a recording deal with Vocalion. Hollywood noticed, and when Vocalion’s parent company was bought by Warner Brothers, song-and-dance man Dick Powell was a sweet part of the deal.

Through the 1930s, Powell appeared in musical after musical, including 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1933, Flirtation Walk and On The Avenue. Although he was enjoying a good deal of success, Dick realized that an aging pretty boy was going to seem ridiculous, even if the studio heads did not.

Dick_powell_-_publicityHis pleas to play other roles fell on deaf ears. He lobbied for the lead in what was to become a film noir classic, Double Indemnity, but was denied yet again. The role went to another Hollywood “nice guy”, Fred MacMurray (Fred thought it was a casting mistake, but acknowledged that it was the role which turned his career around). MacMurray’s success helped open the door for Dick to work with director Edward Dmytryk in Edward Chandler’s Murder My Sweet(1944). Powell became the first actor to play Philip Marlowe, and broke away from the MCRLM mold forever.

The year 1944 also found Powell in his first steady radio dramatic role. Radio was part of the Hollywood star machine at the time, and Powell had appeared on a number of musical variety programs as well as the Radio Movie anthologies in support of his films. Private eye Richard Rogue of Rogue’s Gallery was rather less hard boiled than Philip Marlowe, but he was no creme puff. Radio detectives of the period were expected to get beat up in every episode, but when Richard Rogue took a powder he would be visited by his alter-ego Eugor (Rogue backwards). Very often it was during his conversations with Eugor that the shamus figured out whodunit.

Through the forties and fifties Powell became a popular film “heavy” in films like Cornered, Johnny O’Clock and Cry Danger. He also made an even bigger splash on radio as Richard Diamond, Private Detective. Richard Diamond was the creation of writer Blake Edwards, who would be better known for films Operation Petticoat, Breakfast At Tiffany’s and the Pink Panther movies. Although Powell had to chops to play a very credible radio noir detective in the hard-boiled tradition, Diamond was a decidedly light-hearted detective. Edwards even convinced Powell that it was OK to sing in the role!

Screen Guild PlayersPowell the businessman realized that TV producers were going to be happier using the resources of the Hollywood film industry than continuing in New York sound stages, and with David Niven, Ida Lupino and Charles Boyer founded Four Stars Television. He also expanded into film direction; his classic submarine film The Enemy Below (1957) won the Academy Award for Special Effects.

The ambitious film The Conqueror (1956) was not Powell’s last creative effort, but it was allegedly the one that killed him. Produced by Howard Hughes and starring John Wayne at the height of his career, the epic should have been one the great hits of the decade. Even with Dick Powell’s direction and the support of Susan Hayward and Agnes Moorehead, the film was more than a critical flop. It is considered one of the worst films ever made. The real tragedy of the movie came from the fact that the exterior photography was shot in St. George, Utah, just 137 miles downwind from the Nevada Test Site, location of above ground nuclear testing in the early 1950s. Although the production company had government assurance that it was safe, 91 of the 220 people in the production company developed cancer. Although tobacco was a contributing factor in many cases, especially Wayne and Moorehead, radiation is suspected to have contributed to the early demise of Powell, Susan Hayward, and many others.

A star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6915 Hollywood Blvd honors Dick Powell.

Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Debut on The Royal Gelatin Hour

Bergen, Charlie, Sneed

The first thing to keep in mind is that Rudy Vallee was not enthusiastic about having a ventriloquist act on his program. On the August 6,  1936, episode of The Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour,  he stated on the air “…ventriloquism hardly makes good radio.”

Rudy Vallee

That night was the radio debut of noted comic and ventriloquist Frank Gaby (according to our sources, it was Gaby’s only credited radio appearance). Not surprisingly, he flopped. Gaby had been a successful vaudevillian, and to be fair, when he appeared on Fleischmann’s he was forced to use Rudy as his dummy because everyone knew that ventriloquism would not work on radio.

Ventriloquism comes from the Latin root meaning “belly noises”. It is a visual trick where the artist “throws” his voice so that it appears that his dummy or doll is talking. There is a pretty obvious disconnect between radio and visual tricks, so Vallee’s less than enthusiastic attitude towards ventriloquists is understandable.

Johan and Nilla Bergren’s boy, Edgar, learned ventriloquism from a pamphlet at the age of 11. A few years later, after developing his skill, Edgar hired Chicago woodcarver Theodore Mack to fashion the head of his life-long side-kick (Edgar made the body himself). The likeness was based on a precocious Irish newsboy. Bergren entered Northwestern University, performing with Charlie McCarthy to pay the bills. Soon he was doing Vaudeville full time and changed his name to the easier to pronounce Edgar Bergen.Edgar_Bergen_Charlie_McCarthy_1947


The Vaudeville circuit eventually drew Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy to New York. “America’s Premier Party-giver”, Elsa Maxwell, saw the act at a party for Noel Coward and helped Bergen to land a gig at the Rainbow Room. While rubbing shoulders with the well-to-do, Charlie adopted his trademark top hat, tuxedo and “Esky” monocle (for the Esquire magazine’s  cartoon mascot). One of the “swanks” who saw the act at the Rainbow was Julian Field, an executive at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. Part of Field’s duties was to find talent for the firm’s client’s radio shows,
The Royal Gelatin Hour in particular.

Given Rudy Vallee’s less than enthusiastic attitude about ventriloquists, it was surprising the Edgar and Charlie made it on the show at all, let alone into what was essentially the headline spot. Guest wise, it was a pretty slow night for Rudy.

The program featured a scripted and long-winded interview with Elsa Maxwell, mostly about how wonderful it was to be Elsa Maxwell. Cornelia Otis Skinner gave a humorous monologue about Christmas, Sleepy Hall introduced the electric banjo, and there was a dramatic sketch by Shirley Booth and Douglas Thomas best described as “forgettable”.

Charlie McCarthy and Edgar BergenEdgar was introduced right after the mid-show commercial break, traditionally the head-line slot. Charlie got his first big laugh on the radio when Edgar asked why he was so nattily dressed. “Well, its a long story… and a dirty one!”

The listening audience was both shocked and delighted! Although very tame by today’s standards, this was a bit ribald for 1936. However, Charlie could get away with it because he was a young boy. A boy made of wood at that! Later there is an exchange where Charlie claims “I never have more than, ah, four or five scotch and sodas….” “Goodness, four or five scotch and sodas would make you awfully drunk!” “Yeah, well, it helps!”

The shock of such adult musings with a little-boy voice was a hit with audiences and sponsors. Standard Brands fell over themselves to sign Bergen as the show’s featured comedians. When that 13 show contract was up they offered man and dummy their own Sunday night show, The Chase and Sanborn Hour.charliemccarthytoy


Charlie went on to become one of the most revered personalities on radio. Naturally there was a flood of Charlie McCarthy
merchandise, from dolls to boardgames to teaspoons. He was no stranger to scandal; his exchange with Mae West was considered so racy that the sex symbol was banned from NBC until 1950.

Edgar and CharlieAlthough he would create other dummies for his act, Charlie remained the one audiences wanted to see when Edgar Bergen performed. Bergen appeared on television both with and without his wooden side-kick. He played Grandpa Walton in The Homecoming and appeared with his daughter Candice on Y
ou Bet Your Life (Candice claimed to be jealous of Charlie, he had a bigger bedroom!)

Charlie remained a precocious little boy until Bergen’s death in 1978. He is now on display as an American icon in the Smithsonian Institution.

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