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?
When 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.
His 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!
Powell 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.