Tyrone Power: Q&A with researcher Maria Ciaccia about one of the biggest film stars of the 20th century
Among the romantic leading men of the studio era, Tyrone Power, 20th Century Fox’s top male star from the mid-1930s to the late 1940s, is my favorite. He wasn’t the best actor of the bunch – that honor belongs to Gregory Peck. He wasn’t the sexiest, either – that honor belongs to Errol Flynn.
Yet, in my view Power was the one who, more than anyone else, from Clark Gable to John Payne, from Laurence Olivier to John Garfield, from John Gilbert to John Wayne, came across as genuinely warm, sensitive, and unaffected. (Ramon Novarro, the subject of my book Beyond Paradise, also possessed most of those qualities; Novarro, however, sometimes failed in the “unaffected” part.)
For instance, Tyrone Power is the very best big-screen Zorro (in Edmund Goulding’s The Mark of Zorro, 1940). A (very) few other actors may look as good as – but none looks better than – Power does as the doomed toreador in Blood and Sand or as the reluctant gangster in Johnny Apollo.
He delivers a surprisingly believable performance as an Indian aristocrat (!) in The Rains Came, and he looks the part – a tendency to overdo the earnestness – as the man looking for Something More in The Razor’s Edge. Power’s presence helps to raise The Eddy Duchin Story from the trashy to the tragic.
Also, precious few actors then or now have succeeded in displaying passionate romanticism on-screen. Even when playful, even when playing a cad, Power was a master at that. Among Power’s lucky leading ladies at Fox were:
- Madeleine Carroll (Lloyd’s of London).
- Loretta Young (Ladies in Love, Love Is News, Café Metropole, Second Honeymoon, Suez).
- Alice Faye (In Old Chicago, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Rose of Washington Square).
- Sonja Henie (Thin Ice, Second Fiddle).
- Annabella (Suez).
- Norma Shearer (Marie Antoinette).
- Myrna Loy (The Rains Came).
- Linda Darnell (Day-Time Wife, Brigham Young, The Mark of Zorro, Blood and Sand).
- Nancy Kelly (Jesse James).
- Dorothy Lamour (Johnny Apollo).
- Betty Grable (A Yank in the R.A.F.).
- Rita Hayworth (Blood and Sand).
- Joan Fontaine (This Above All).
- Gene Tierney (Son of Fury, The Razor’s Edge, That Wonderful Urge).
- Maureen O’Hara (The Black Swan, The Long Gray Line).
- Frances Farmer (Son of Fury).
- Anne Baxter (Crash Dive, The Razor’s Edge, The Luck of the Irish).
- Jean Peters (Captain from Castile).
- Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray & Helen Walker (Nightmare Alley).
- Wanda Hendrix (Prince of Foxes).
- Cécile Aubry (The Black Rose).
- Micheline Presle (American Guerrilla in the Philippines).
- Susan Hayward (Rawhide, Untamed).
- Ann Blyth (I’ll Never Forget You).
- Patricia Neal (Diplomatic Courier).
- Piper Laurie & Julia Adams (The Mississippi Gambler).
- Terry Moore (King of the Khyber Rifles).
- Kim Novak (The Eddy Duchin Story).
- Ava Gardner (The Sun Also Rises).
- Mai Zetterling (Seven Waves Away / Abandon Ship).
- Marlene Dietrich (Witness for the Prosecution).
Although Power himself was never nominated for a best actor Oscar, four of his star vehicles received best picture nominations: In Old Chicago (1937), Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938), The Razor’s Edge (1946), and Witness for the Prosecution (1957).
I wrote at length about Tyrone Power on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his death in November 2008. At about that time, I got in touch with Maria Ciaccia, who wrote the program notes for Power’s tribute and who has done extensive research on Power’s life and career.
Among Ciaccia’s credits are research for Fox’s Tyrone Power box set; assistant research for biographies on Greta Garbo, Audrey Hepburn, Louise Brooks, Clara Bow, Barbara Stanwyck, and Tony Curtis; the weekly podcast “The Golden Age of Hollywood”; the “Where are they Now” column for People magazine online; and the book Hollywood Hunks of the ’50s (Excalibur Publishing), in which she talks about the likes of Tony Curtis, Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, John Derek, Jeffrey Hunter, Robert Wagner, Farley Granger, Jeff Chandler, and John Ericson.
Additionally, Ciaccia was a Contributing Editor for Hollywood Studio Magazine and currently writes for about.com. Among her interview subjects are Zsa Zsa Gabor, James Earl Jones, Rod Steiger, Marion Ross, Steve Allen, Olympia Dukakis, Richard Beymer, Marni Nixon, Eddie Albert, Henry Winkler, Michael Keaton, Buddy Ebsen, and many others.
Recently, Ciaccia kindly agreed to take part in a q&a (via e-mail) for Alt Film Guide. See below and follow-up posts.
Tyrone Power website.
Photos: Courtesy of Maria Ciaccia.
- How would you describe Tyrone Power the actor? How would you describe Tyrone Power the man?
Tyrone Power the actor: very versatile, disciplined, hard-working, capable of doing much more than he was allowed to do throughout most of his career. Charismatic, exuded a great warmth and charm on the screen. Extremely committed to acting and mindful of his family dynasty.
As a man, he was extremely passionate, down to earth, funny, generous to a fault, loyal, and nonconfrontational. He was given to some dark moods; he was unhappy about his career after the war and bitter about being written off by the critics because of his good looks. He fell in love hard and fast, married in haste, repented at great leisure, and paid a fortune in alimony until the day he died. However, he was a great provider for his family, which included his mother, his sister, his own children, and his stepdaughter Anne. Humble, extremely gracious to fans. Anne Baxter said that he was Larry Darrell in The Razor’s Edge in real life. Loved the good things in life.
- How did Tyrone Power become Fox’s top male star?
He was initially offered a contract at Universal, but Katharine Cornell convinced him that he wasn’t ready. By the time Fox made an offer, he was more prepared, so he took it. As the studios did in those days, future stars were brought along slowly – first in small parts and then the parts got gradually bigger.
He was in Girls Dormitory and made a splash when he appeared in two scenes at the end of the film; Hedda Hopper sat through the film again to make sure she got his name right.
He had a slightly larger role in Ladies in Love. Then he tested for Lloyds of London, which was scheduled to star Don Ameche. When he and Zanuck saw the test, Henry King voted for Power and told Darryl Zanuck that Power had the makings of a star. Power had fourth billing, but he literally walked out of the theater a movie star.
- What about his off-screen relationship with his In Old Chicago and Alexander’s Ragtime Band co-stars, Don Ameche and Alice Faye?
Tyrone was very close friends with both of his frequent co-stars; in fact, he developed friendships with many, many of the stars with whom he appeared: Gregory Ratoff, Loretta Young, Hildegarde Knef, Christopher Plummer, Terry Moore, Dorothy Lamour, Anne Baxter, Henry Fonda, John Carradine, and many others. He and Alice shared a birthday [May 5]. He knew Don Ameche before going to 20th, and as Hildegarde Knef reports in her book, The Gift Horse, Tyrone was a frequent visitor backstage at Silk Stockings in which she and Don starred on Broadway.
Don and Tyrone were notorious for playing tricks on Alice during filming, including sending her little dressing room, which was on wheels, careening through the studio. Tyrone also pressed back one of Alice’s false nails during a love scene; and he had a Lauren Hutton type filler between two of his teeth – she got it into her mouth. They were silly kids, in their early twenties, working off steam.
- Did Tyrone Power generally get along with his co-stars and directors? Anyone he particularly liked working with? Anyone he particularly disliked working with? What was his relationship like with Henry King and Henry Hathaway, who directed him in, respectively, 11 and 5 films?
Power got along beautifully with everyone, and he was extremely close to both the Hathaways and the Kings. He did not like working with Kim Novak [in The Eddy Duchin Story], and initially he didn’t like working with Linda Darnell, who started playing adult roles prematurely, though later on he certainly did like working with her.
He was completely entranced by Rita Hayworth and according to his stand-in, did nothing but stare at her during the entire production of Blood and Sand.
- What was his relationship like with Darryl F. Zanuck?
Power was very close with Darryl Zanuck and his wife, Virginia; they were like surrogate parents to him, although Zanuck and all of the studio heads were business first. Power trusted Virginia and confided in her, even sending Lana Turner to her for advice when she became pregnant with his child. When Zanuck launched his own production company in the ’50s, he got Power for The Sun Also Rises. Actress Mai Zetterling said Power was “Darryl Zanuck’s favorite actor.”
Tyrone Power was a Fox contract player for nearly two decades. Were there any roles he wanted to get – whether at the studio or elsewhere – but that went to someone else? Any projects he wanted Darryl F. Zanuck to pursue, but that never came to fruition?
You name it, he lost out on it. Zanuck refused to lend him out after Marie Antoinette because he had what amounted to a supporting role, and he felt that MGM had used him unfairly; however, Norma Shearer had demanded him. He was offered the role of Parris in Kings Row; Zanuck refused to loan him out. [Robert Cummings got the part.] Supposedly he was to do Golden Boy [William Holden played the title role]; instead of loaning him out, Zanuck brought director Rouben Mamoulian to 20th for Power.
He was also up for Ashley in Gone with the Wind; Shearer wanted him for a film she was to produce in the ’40s; again, no go. You have to figure that as the #2 star in the world, there were many offers. He was scheduled for How Green Was My Valley, but the role he was to play was cut.
While the war was still on, he tried to negotiate a new contract for one film a year and the ability to work outside the studio, but the studio played hardball and he was forced to re-sign. After all, none of those returning stars had any idea what they were coming back to, and Power was told (and I’m sure others were told the same thing): the studios were busy grooming new people and if they weren’t happy with their contracts, they could go elsewhere.
- Following an initially successful comeback after World War II, Power’s career faltered in the late 1940s and early 1950s. What happened? Had Fox suddenly lost interest now that they had Gregory Peck, or …?
No, Power is the one who lost interest. He left Hollywood after Zanuck pulled Nightmare Alley from distribution and basically finished off his contract in Europe. He did Mister Roberts in London, toured in John Brown’s Body – he turned to the theater. He even refused From Here to Eternity to do a play. He was one of Harry Cohn’s favorite actors, and Cohn had wanted him for lots of things. What Power wanted to do ultimately was a film a year, and that’s what he did, as soon as he was able to dump Fox.
- Did Tyrone Power ever say which film and/or performance was his favorite? And why? Do you have a personal favorite Tyrone Power performance and/or movie?
His favorite film was Nightmare Alley and the part of Stan in that was his favorite part. He was very proud of having done Blood and Sand and Witness for the Prosecution (above). He was only proud of four films, he said: the aforementioned three films, plus Abandon Ship / Seven Waves Away. I assume Mark of Zorro was another favorite, also This Above All and The Long Gray Line. It’s a shame he didn’t live because both Billy Wilder and John Ford would have used him again.
My own favorite is Nightmare Alley, but I also love The Rains Came and The Razor’s Edge. I like most of them. I’ll be honest and say I could do without Pony Soldier, That Wonderful Urge, and Untamed. I chose two of my favorites, Cafe Metropole and Love is News for the second Tyrone Power box set.
Follow-up post: “Gay Rumors: Tyrone Power & Errol Flynn.”