Battle of the Powells: William vs. Dick

dickToday, TCM pays tribute to Dick Powell, airing 14 of his films as part of Summer Under the Stars. Earlier this month, a day had been devoted to William Powell. As a major fan of both stars, I can’t decide if I was more excited to listen to Dick Powell croon and crack wise, or watch William Powell woo his costars with wit and style.

Like several male stars from the Golden Age, neither Powell was classically handsome. Yet, both are attractive and appealing because of their cultivated charisma and star images. WP was the elegant gentleman who exuded romance and class, while his keen sense of humor prevented his characters from becoming too high brow or pompous. Though he played oily cads very early in his career, his star image as the suave gent was cemented by the 1930s and remained remarkably consistent until his last movie, Mr. Roberts, in 1955. I admire those Golden Age movie stars who were able to maneuver their images through the changes in the industry and the ravages of aging. But, then again, who doesn’t respect Dick Powell for completely changing his star image from the sweet-faced crooner of backstage musicals to the wise-cracking, hard-boiled anti-hero of film noir.

williamWilliam Powell is the very essence of romance in his films from the 1930s. His graciousness and consummate manners seem like a throwback to another era, when men treated women with respect and approached them with gallantry. Or, perhaps there never was such an era and it is only “movie memory” that makes me think there was. Even when his character deceives Myrna Loy—his most constant costar—in Libeled Lady or goads her in Double Wedding, we know he will ultimately act in her best interests at the expense of his own. WP’s best tool for charming women was his voice—so smooth, soothing, melodious.

Dick Powell’s voice was also his best asset, and not just because he could sing in that high tenor voice (see 42nd Street today at 1:00pm). With his impeccable timing and sarcastic tone, he could toss off a verbal barb with wit and aplomb. Of all the actors to play Philip Marlowe, Dick Powell was the best at handling Raymond Chandler’s wise-cracking one-liners and smart dialogue. Revisit Murder, My Sweet this evening at 9:15 on TCM and focus on Powell’s line delivery. The back-and-forth banter between Powell and his leading ladies in his film noirs is a verbal dance—sexy in its sarcasm and modern in its suggestion that all romance is a sham. This is miles away from William Powell’s star image—yet I find both romantic in different ways.

DICK POWELL WAS SUCCESSFUL AT CHANGING HIS STAR IMAGE, WHICH WAS HIGHLY UNUSUAL DURING THE GOLDEN AGE.

DICK POWELL IN ‘MURDER MY SWEET’: DP WAS SUCCESSFUL AT CHANGING HIS STAR IMAGE, WHICH WAS HIGHLY UNUSUAL DURING THE GOLDEN AGE.

WP IN 'DANGEROUS MONEY' FROM 1924 WHEN HE WAS STILL PLAYING CADS.

WP IN ‘DANGEROUS MONEY’ FROM 1924 WHEN HE WAS STILL PLAYING CADS.

Both Powells ended their acting careers about the same time in the mid-1950s. WP’s last romantic role was in How to Marry a Millionaire as Lauren Bacall’s wealthy, older beau (TCM, Aug. 30, 8:00pm). In the end, she leaves him at the altar for a gas-pump jockey played by Cameron Mitchell, which always makes me yell, “You idiot,” at the screen. WP retired in 1955, living a quiet life with wife Diana Lewis for the next three decades. Dick Powell’s last film as an actor was the romantic comedy Susan Slept Here, released in 1954, in which he stars as a middle-aged screenwriter pursued by a spunky teenager, played by Debbie Reynolds. Modern audiences might be squeamish about the age difference, but this unique comedy directed by Frank Tashlin downplays the romance while it mocks Hollywood. DP left acting for the other side of the camera, directing a few films before finding his niche as a television producer with his company, Four Star Television. Four Star was responsible for The Detectives Starring Robert Taylor, The Westerner with Brian Keith, Wanted: Dead or Alive with Steve McQueen, and The Dick Powell Show, an anthology series that attracted the biggest stars, including Gregory Peck, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, and David Niven. DP enjoyed the other side of the camera, once joking, ” The best thing about switching from being an actor to being a director is that you don’t have to shave or hold your stomach in anymore.”

WP ADJUSTS TO MIDDLE AGE IN 'MR. PEABODY AND THE MERMAID.'

WP ADJUSTS TO MIDDLE AGE IN ‘MR. PEABODY AND THE MERMAID.’

Quotes by William Powell tend to be far less light-hearted. Though happily married to Lewis for over 40 years, I can’t help but think two incidents scarred him, making him all too aware of his own mortality. Powell’s much publicized romance with Jean Harlow ended when she died unexpectedly. Supposedly Harlow wanted to get married but WP had been dragging his feet. The year she died, he noted to a reporter, “Life is rather sad for there is the primary and inescapable fact that when we are born we are, in that same instant, condemned to death.” Not long after, WP discovered he had colon cancer and agreed to a radical treatment involving radiation, though this fact was not revealed until after he retired. Much later, he commented on his good fortune as a movie star, “Money is the aphrodisiac which fate brings you to cloak the pain of living.”

Deciding on my favorite Powell flicks brought me no closer to knowing whether I would end up with Dick or William on that proverbial desert island. So, I offer my five favorites for each Powell, starting with WP.

1. Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid. WP stars as a man in a midlife crisis who discovers a beautiful, young mermaid while on vacation. The mermaid restores some of his youthful vigor as he struggles with the aging process and the problems of a stale marriage. WP has never been more attractive or charming.

LOY AND POWELL IN 'MANHATTAN MELODRAMA': THE FIRST SCENE THEY EVER SHOT TOGETHER.

LOY AND POWELL IN ‘MANHATTAN MELODRAMA’: THE FIRST SCENE THEY EVER SHOT TOGETHER.

2. Manhattan Melodrama. I am a sucker for this gangster saga for many reasons: It marks the first pairing of Myrna Loy and WP; Clark Gable costars in one of his best roles as a charming but morally corrupt gangster; a very young Mickey Rooney is dynamic as Gable’s character in childhood; and, this is the movie that Dillinger saw the night he was shot down in an alleyway outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater.

3. I Love You Again. Another of the 14 films Powell made with Myrna Loy. This time, WP plays a ruthless, self-centered husband who is knocked unconscious. He not only wakes up with amnesia but also with a change in personality. Loy is confused to discover her husband has become a nice guy who is still in love with her. This movie offers the best solution to a wayward husband—knock him over the head and hope he wakes up a new person.

WP PLAYS THE BOHEMIAN ARTIST IN 'DOUBLE WEDDING.'

WP PLAYS THE BOHEMIAN ARTIST IN ‘DOUBLE WEDDING.’

4. Double Wedding. WP stars as a nonconformist artist who lives in a trailer in an alley behind a bar. He befriends a young woman who is under the thumb of her straight-laced, all-business sister, played by Loy. Of course, Powell and Loy are a mismatch made in screwball heaven. WP as the archetypal bohemian artist in striped shirt and beret is the best part of the movie.

5. Life with Father. As the exasperated patriarch of a large family in 1880s New York, an older Powell stars in a slightly different role than the romantic leads of his younger days. Strict and a bit imperious, WP’s character is deflated by the crazy antics of his family. In addition to Powell, I love the nostalgia in the story, with references to Delmonico’s, Audubon Park, and other sites in old NYC. WP received an Oscar nomination as best actor.

At the mention of Dick Powell, most movie-lovers think of 42nd Street, the Golddiggers series, or Murder My Sweet, but his filmography offers a variety of interesting titles that don’t often make the film history books. Some of them are airing today, so call in sick and spend the day with Dick Powell.

DP CLIMBS THROUGH THE DOGGIE DOOR IN 'YOU NEVER CAN TELL.'

DP CLIMBS THROUGH THE DOGGIE DOOR IN ‘YOU NEVER CAN TELL.’

1. You Never Can Tell. The owner of a loyal German Shepherd leaves his fortune to his dog, but the dog is murdered for the money. The canine comes back as a private detective named Rex Shepherd, played by DP, to search for his killer. I love movies in which animals talk and act like humans, so this movie was made to order for me. Rex is assisted in his task by a secretary named Goldie, who used to be a horse. Despite the fantastical premise, this movie is genuinely funny, largely because of DP. The animal jokes are kept to a minimum, though Red does eat kibble, and Goldie can’t keep away from the racetrack.

2. The Tall Target. This is my favorite film about Abraham Lincoln, though the 16th president appears in it for only a few moments. It is a fictionalization of a real-life event in which the newly elected Lincoln was threatened with assassination. Powell stars as NYC cop John Kennedy (no kidding) who gets wind of the plan and tries to stop it. Evocatively shot by director Anthony Mann, this gripping suspense thriller was panned at the time of release, proving that movie reviewers were no better back then than they are now. It airs on TCM at 3:00am, so set those DVRs.

'CRY DANGER' MADE INTERESTING USE OF L.A. LOCALES.

‘CRY DANGER’ MADE INTERESTING USE OF L.A. LOCALES.

3. Cry Danger. Powell’s ability to slay his enemies and his lovers with a well-turned phrase highlights this film noir about an ex-con who decides to find the low-lifes who set him up. Noir protagonists are often marginal to society; in this case, Powell ends up in a seedy trailer park over- looking downtown L.A. with femme fatale Rhonda Fleming and sidekick Richard Erdman, who plays a burnt-out ex-Marine. Sharp dialogue delivered with razor wit by colorful characters who will never fit into mainstream society.

it_happened_tomorrow

4. It Happened Tomorrow. With his usual light touch, Rene Clair directed this fantasy tale about a turn-of-the-century obituary writer who uncovers newspaper headlines that predict the news a day ahead of time. Powell’s lucky gift soon leads to trouble. Clair had wanted Cary Grant for the role but ended up with DP, who could play working stiffs with greater aplomb.

5. The Bad and the Beautiful. I actually enjoy watching Vincent Minnelli’s melodramatic condemnation of Hollywood more than Sunset Boulevard, though Wilder’s nightmare vision is more provocative. Powell plays a Southern writer and college professor who is lured to Hollywood to write a screenplay. His Southern belle of a wife, played by Gloria Grahame, is tempted by the Hollywood lifestyle, causing a strain on their marriage.

22 Responses Battle of the Powells: William vs. Dick
Posted By Bill : August 25, 2014 3:01 pm

RKO tested Raymond Chandler’s original title, FAREWELL MY LOVELY, and found it sounded like a Dick Powell musical, changed it to MURDER MY SWEET. On such a seemingly insignificant matter, a whole second career was built.

Posted By Ben Martin : August 25, 2014 3:01 pm

This is quite interesting, Susan. Thanks –
I always liked William Powell and fair or not, was never too keen on Dick once I got the impression he wasn’t very nice to (his second wife) Joan Blondell. (Probably not a fair grudge – there are several sides to any story, but…) Still, I am definitely setting my DVR for The Tall Target.
Another very sad chapter in William Powell’s life was when his only child William committed suicide in 1968 when he was only 43. I read that father and son were very close right up to the end.

Posted By LD : August 25, 2014 3:46 pm

A few years ago I purchased a box set of noir films which included MURDER, MY SWEET. Dick Powell was firm in my mind as a “song and dance” man and I felt his performance as Marlowe would not compare favorably with Bogart’s in THE BIG SLEEP. I was mistaken. He especially does well with the humor in the character without losing any of Marlowe’s toughness. This is one of my favorite films.

As for William Powell, I have seen more of his work than Dick Powell’s. I love him, especially as Nick Charles. There is something about his smile that can be charming, say “gotcha” or be like the cat that swallowed the canary. He is always a pleasure to watch.

Fortunately we don’t have to choose between the two Powell’s. We can enjoy them both, and I do, often.

Posted By Richard Brandt : August 25, 2014 4:41 pm

Big SPOILER ALERT re: Cameron Mitchell.

Erdman has great lines in CRY DANGER, too; sarcasm is his character’s armor.

Posted By Susan Doll : August 25, 2014 6:01 pm

Richard: Come now. There are no spoilers in Hollywood romantic comedies. If you don’t know within five minutes–or even from the cast list–who is going to end up with whom then you are from another planet. Who is not the point; the dance between then throughout the story is the point.

Posted By Ben Martin : August 25, 2014 6:02 pm

Ha – Well said Susan.

Posted By Susan Doll : August 25, 2014 7:21 pm

Richard: Well said about Erdman, an actor I am not very familiar with. Wish TCM was showing this film today.

Posted By Emgee : August 25, 2014 7:40 pm

I like both Powell’s and why choose when you can have both, but when push comes to shove Dick gets my vote.
WP played the suave, sophisticated gentleman admirably until the end, whereas DP really made an interesting career switch as both an actor and director. Split Second is a real tense thriller and The Enemy Below a great war movie ( but let’s not mention The Conqueror ever again…..)

So congratulations Dick, and William, pour yourself another cocktail; you’ll get over it.

Posted By george : August 25, 2014 7:59 pm

Someone should forward this to Nathan Rabin, whose book “My Year of Flops” claimed THE CONQUEROR was directed by “former actor William Powell.” (I hope that was corrected in the second edition, if there was one.) There is a difference!

I’ve been watching some of William Powell’s early-1930s (pre-THIN MAN) movies, such as STREET OF CHANCE and FOR THE DEFENSE. I don’t think any silent actor adjusted to talkies as quickly and smoothly as Powell did. His performances hold up today.

Posted By Qalice : August 25, 2014 9:16 pm

What, no MY MAN GODFREY? No matter, both Powells are impressive and worth remembering. Although, if I had to wind up on a desert island with one, it would have to be William!

Posted By Doug : August 26, 2014 12:50 am

Thank you so much, Susan! For years I’ve been to recall that dog and horse murder mystery I saw as a kid-which just goes to prove that “You Never Can Tell” what you will learn when visiting Morlocks!
I know WP’s films much better than DP’s. Double Wedding is tops for me, then of course Godfrey, Libeled Lady, and the FIRST “Thin Man”. Even though the age disparity with Ginger Rogers was a bit off putting, Star of Midnight is a pretty good little movie.

Posted By vp19 : August 26, 2014 1:14 am

The Powells collectively married (or romanced) three of the big screen’s blonde goddesses — Bill wooed Carole Lombard and Jean Harlow, while Dick wed Joan Blondell.

Posted By Susan Doll : August 26, 2014 1:33 am

Doug: You are so welcome. I am glad that I solved a mystery for you. I love YOU NEVER CAN TELL.

Posted By Jenni : August 26, 2014 2:24 am

Love William Powell. One of my faves is his pairing with Kay Francis in One Way Passage-so romantic!!! I also love Life with Father. Getting ready to write about it for an upcoming blogathon for films based upon stage plays, in fact. Enjoyed looking at both actors careers, Susan,and DP is excellent in Murder, My Sweet. Tall Target is a good movie, too. Viewed it last time it was on TCM. The late Ruby Dee is in it too, her part is small, but a key one.

Posted By george : September 2, 2014 7:55 pm

I love Roger Ebert’s comment: “William Powell is to dialogue as Fred Astaire is to dance.”

Posted By Blonde Ice (1948) – [Public Domain Movies] | mostly music : September 16, 2014 7:43 am

[…] Battle of the Powells: William vs. Dick […]

Posted By cc : March 25, 2015 4:02 pm

No problem choosing for me. I love William Powell. I missed TCM’s
day of WP movies in August. I saw the lineup after the fact and
was so disappointed. He had such a life with so many real highs and real lows.

Posted By sonofzorro : July 28, 2015 10:15 pm

I like them both, but Dick Powell wins it for me and not for his movies which were great, but his radio show Richard Diamond, Private Detective.

Listen to them through old time radio apps on OS or android, humor , action, and ends with a song usually crooning to his girlfriend.
All are great but the episode called the music critic is timelessly funny, written by Blake Edwards of the Pink Panther movies fame. Hope this is of interest to some.

Posted By Susan Doll : July 29, 2015 2:37 pm

SonofZorro: Thank you so much for the info. I am just now getting into old-time radio. Would love to hear Richard Diamond.

Posted By Dan : September 26, 2016 4:24 am

Can’t believe anyone could even speak of The Bad and the Beautiful in the same sentence as Sunset Boulevard. While it was a fine film- nothing holds a candle to the nuanced genius writing, story, humor, pathos, acting and depth of Sunset.

Posted By Dan : September 26, 2016 4:27 am

Love both Powells – but I’d have to take Wiliam too- however- You Never Can Tell has long been a favorite of mine- wish it would air on TCM – it never does – its so good-

Posted By Astral Pixie : October 26, 2019 5:59 am

Thanks for the article.
What no mention of Dick Powell in “Christmas in July”. Love that movie, and he is terrific in it.
That said, William Powell is one of my favorites. Just recently re-watched “The Libeled Lady”.

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