If Clark Gable was the King of Hollywood, then Tyrone Power was its – more handsome, more charming, more pleasant – Crown Prince.
Allan Ellenberger has reported on and posted photos of the memorial service marking the 50th anniversary of the death of Tyrone Power, 20th Century Fox’s top male star from the mid-1930s to early 1950s. The service was held at Hollywood Forever Cemetery’s Chapel of the Psalms, where Power’s funeral was held on Nov. 15, 1958. Among those in attendance were Power’s children Taryn Power, Tyrone Power Jr., and Romina Power, in addition to two of Power’s former co-stars, Terry Moore (King of the Khyber Rifles) and Coleen Gray (Nightmare Alley).
Now, to say that the young Tyrone Power was good-looking is akin to saying that the sun is hot. He may not have been the greatest of actors, but all he needed was to flash a smile – or even brood a bit – for me to just about forget everything and everybody else sharing the screen with him.
Okay, so perhaps I’m exaggerating somewhat here, for Power shared the screen with some of the best-looking female stars of the studio era, among them Gene Tierney, Frances Farmer, Linda Darnell, Rita Hayworth (photo), Betty Grable, Joan Fontaine, Jean Peters, Alice Faye, Norma Shearer, Kim Novak, Loretta Young, Myrna Loy, Dorothy Lamour, Susan Hayward, and Maureen O’Hara. There were also French imports Annabella (whom he later married) and Micheline Presle, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Blondell, Sonja Henie, Mai Zetterling, Patricia Neal, Nancy Kelly, Piper Laurie, and fellow Fox player Don Ameche (who did become invisible whenever he shared the screen with Power).
Born into a theatrical family – his father, Tyrone Power, Sr. , was a renowned English actor and the grandson of a renowned Irish stage star – in Cincinnati, Ohio, on May 5, 1914, Tyrone Power began his Hollywood career appearing in bit parts in the early 1930s. Following some stage work in mid-decade, he landed one of the (semi-)leading male roles in the Fox melodrama Ladies in Love (1936) – the ladies in question were Janet Gaynor, Constance Bennett, Loretta Young, and Simone Simon – and from then on was cast in nearly thirty of that studio’s top productions of the late 1930s and 1940s.
Among those were Lloyds of London (1936), replacing first-choice Don Ameche and wearing an unbecoming wig while wooing Madeleine Carroll; the slow-moving super spectacle In Old Chicago(1937), one of the biggest hits of the 1930s, in which he fights brother Ameche and wins the heart of Alice Faye while Miss O’Leary’s pyromaniac cow wreaks havoc on the city; The Rains Came (1939), a solid disaster (floods, earthquakes) melodrama in which Power capably plays an Indian nobleman in love with White Woman Myrna Loy; the watchable Technicolor Western Jesse James (1939), in the title role; and Johnny Apollo (1940), once again in the title role as the best-looking thug Hollywood has ever produced.
(During that period, Power all but disappeared under a ridiculous blondish wig in the MGM blockbuster Marie Antoinette (1938, right), starring Norma Shearer. That may well have been his most ineffectual performance; so much so that Fox’s Darryl F. Zanuck reportedly refused to loan out the actor again for a number of years. Thus, Power missed out on Warner Bros.’ well-respected Kings Row in 1942.)
Upon his return from World War II, Power’s features had hardened considerably. He was only 31 or so when he starred in the Academy Award-nominated drama The Razor’s Edge (1946), but looked close to 40. (In fact, in many of his later films he looked a number of years older than his actual age.) Following the success of The Razor’s Edge, Fox continued giving him choice assignments for a little while, but by the late 1940s Gregory Peck, only two years younger than Power, had become the studio’s most prestigious star. Power, for instance, was never nominated for an Oscar, but between 1945-49 Peck starred in three best picture nominees and one best picture winner, in addition to nabbing no less than four best actor nods during that same period.
Most of Power’s vehicles from the late 1940s on were barely watchable, while several were of even lower quality. Fox alternated between casting Power in A productions of variable quality (Captain from Castile, The Luck of the Irish, That Wonderful Urge, Rawhide) and what amounted to B fare (An American Guerrilla in the Philippines, Pony Soldier, King of the Khyber Rifles). Needless to say, Power’s career faltered in the early 1950s, though the actor managed to regain his box office footing with the highly successful romantic melodrama The Eddy Duchin Story at Columbia in 1956.
A major career renaissance seemed to be taking place as Power landed key roles in the 1957 film adaptations of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (for which Power – and just about everybody else in the cast – was much too old) and Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, as the man on trial. That came to an abrupt halt the following year when the actor collapsed on the Spanish set of the epic Solomon and Sheba after a particularly arduous swordfighting scene with George Sanders. Power, 44, died shortly thereafter of a massive heart attack. (Curiously, Power’s father had died on a film set in 1931. Yul Brynner was brought in to reshoot Power’s scenes. Directed by veteran King Vidor, the historical melodrama was released in 1959. Vidor later said that with Power, Solomon and Sheba would have been “a simply marvelous picture,” but without him it became “an unimportant, nothing sort of film.”)
My favorite Tyrone Power film and performance are his Don Diego de la Vega in the 1940 version of The Mark of Zorro (right). Under Rouben Mamoulian’s masterful hands, Power is the perfect Diego/Zorro: foppish/dashing, humorously fey/humorously deadly, and, mask or no mask, stunningly handsome. The film itself (adapted by Garrett Fort, Bess Meredyth, and John Taintor Foote) is a clever, rousing (Alfred Newman’ score is a great help), fast-paced rendition of the Old California tale, featuring a flawless supporting cast that includes gorgeous Linda Darnell, Basil Rathbone, J. Edward Bromberg, and Gale Sondergaard. Even Eugene Pallette, hardly the most likable of actors, is a pleasure to watch in this one.
In terms of looks, Power is at his most god-like in the Technicolored Blood and Sand (1941), also directed by Mamoulian. Though eons better than the 1922 version with Rudolph Valentino, the film itself isn’t all that great; in this instance, Mamoulian seemed more concerned with the use of color and sets to express mood than with his leading man’s performance as the bullfighter to end all bulls – well, if only vamp Rita Hayworth hadn’t gotten in the way.
Another cool Power vehicle from that period is The Black Swan (1942), directed by the underrated Henry King. In this swashbuckling Technicolor adventure inspired by Rafael Sabatini’s novel, Power is a pleasure to watch as a pirate teasingly in love with feisty Maureen O’Hara. I also enjoyed the forgotten Prince of Foxes (1949), also directed by King, in which Power’s hero gets enmeshed with the Borgias (Orson Welles, Marina Berti) in Renaissance Italy.
Yet, I’d say that my second favorite Power vehicle was released near the end of his career. That’s The Eddy Duchin Story, corny and phony to the bone marrow, but somehow still effective as a tale of lost love – Kim Novak plays the girl Power’s musician falls for and loses much too soon. Then Power/Duchin himself falls ill shortly after falling in love again (with Victoria Shaw, who ended up not having much of a film career) and becoming reacquainted with his estranged young son (Rex Thompson). Director George Sidney somehow succeeded in keeping the melodrama from sinking the biopic, while cinematographer Harry Stradling did wonders for the film’s classy look. All that and “I’ll Take Manhattan,” too.
Not everyone, however, enjoyed it. “It plods from one gloomy climax to another for more than two hours,” wrote William K. Zinsser in the New York Herald Tribune. “… The writing is pedestrian. George Sidney’s direction is sluggish, and the actors go about their chores with apathy … Power smiles through the piano sequences and frowns during the soulful moments, but there is no middle ground.”
Power’s acting in Nightmare Alley (1947, under the direction of Edmund Goulding) and Witness for the Prosecution (directed by Billy Wilder) is generally considered his very best. (“Tyrone Power, who asked to be cast in the picture, steps into a new class as an actor,” said Time.) I haven’t seen the former, yet, in which Power plays a scuzzy carnie-cum-seer (above, with Coleen Gray), but I found the latter a major disappointment – not only in terms of storytelling and filmmaking, but in terms of acting as well. As far as I’m concerned, despite a cast of heavyweights such as Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, and Elsa Lanchester, that film’s best performances come courtesy of scene stealers Una O’Connor and Torin Thatcher.
Onstage, Power, who had been unhappy with most of his film work – according to Henry King, he “wanted to be a character actor” – did a reading of John Brown’s Body with Laughton on Broadway in 1953, appeared in Mister Roberts and The Devil’s Disciple in London, and toured the US in a version of Back to Methuselah. He reportedly claimed to be proud of only four of his films: Blood and Sand, Nightmare Alley, (the weak) Abandon Ship / Seven Waves Away, and Witness for the Prosecution.
Power was married three times, twice to actresses: French star Annabella, one of his Suez (1938, right) leading ladies (the other was Loretta Young) and minor supporting player Linda Christian. His daughter Taryn Power (with Christian) was the female lead in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), while his son, Tyrone Power Jr (with third wife Deborah Minardos), appeared in Cocoon (1985), which also featured best supporting actor Oscar winner – and former Power co-star – Don Ameche.
Power was also involved in a number of well-publicized affairs, including one with Janet Gaynor in the late 1930s (who at about the same time was having a not-at-all-publicized affair with Margaret Lindsay) and Lana Turner in the late 1940s. As for the stories about Tyrone Power having an affair with Errol Flynn, those sound as believable as the tales about Greta Garbo doing Marie Dressler.
Though Tyrone Power was a superstar for nearly 15 years and a major star for another ten or so, he hasn’t been given his due by today’s critics perhaps because he seldom worked with directors revered by that crowd. True, there was Mamoulian a couple of times, a Billy Wilder here, a John Ford there (the usually overlooked The Long Gray Line, 1956), but that’s about it. The directors with whom Power was most closely associated – Fox contractees Henry King (eleven times) and Henry Hathaway (five times) – are hardly known as auteurs or as directors of “prestigious” (i.e., tough, male-centered) films. (As an aside, I find it bizarre that Henry Hathaway and William A. Wellman, both of whom – more than capably – directed numerous action-oriented films featuring your usual movie toughies, have never developed the following of a John Ford or a Howard Hawks. )
Now, it could also be that Tyrone Power is ignored by today’s critics because the man was just too beautiful – in other words, impossible to be taken seriously. Worse yet, Power’s persona, even when he played thugs and low-lives, exuded a refined form of sensuality, sensitivity, and charm coupled with a certain “softness” – or rather, vulnerability – all of which are characteristics that, in a man, are not only undervalued but downright despised in our current crude-crass, gutter-trash cultural environment. Our loss.
Tyrone Power leading ladies
- 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).
The only seven above-the-title female players at Fox that Power didn’t make love to during his two decades at the studio were Jeanne Crain, June Haver, Vivian Blaine, Marilyn Monroe, Carmen Miranda, Shirley Temple, and Thelma Ritter.