“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.” –Dick Powell
Dick Powell was easily one of the most versatile talents of his day. Seamlessly making the transition from charming musical lead to an actor executing edgier film noir roles, Powell found success in multiple film genres. Indeed, Powell has the distinction of being the first actor to portray Detective Philip Marlowe on screen, in addition to being a beloved crooner among many film musical aficionados. Behind the camera, Powell also explored the challenges of working as a producer, director, and studio head.
Richard Ewing Powell was born in Mountain View, Arkansas, on November 14th, 1904, to Ewing Powell and Sallie Rowena Thompson. His father was head of the International Harvester Company and his mother taught Powell and his older brother, Howard, how to play the piano. Powell’s younger brother, Luther, was born in 1906. Howard learned piano quickly, which frustrated Powell and led him to take on learning how to play several other instruments instead.
In 1914, the family moved to Little Rock, where Powell sang in church choirs and local orchestras. Powell also started his own band and attended Little Rock College. Powell began his entertainment career as a singer with the Royal Peacock Band and toured the Midwest.
Powell secretly married his first wife, a wealthy Mildred Maund in 1927. However, because of her wish to be a traditional housewife and disapproval of Powell’s dreams of working in show business, the couple divorced in 1933. Maund and Powell divorced and Powell joined the Indianapolis-based Charlie Davis Orchestra, even though the position required him to learn how to play the banjo. Here, he recorded records with Davis and on his own for the Vocalion label in the 1920s. He also met many different film stars while performing with the orchestra.
Powell later moved to Pittsburgh, working as a Master of Ceremonies at the Enright Theater and Stanley Theater. He hosted his own radio show called the Pow Wow Club and quickly gathered a following of fans. Additionally, he was the Master of Ceremonies at the Enright Theater and Stanley Theater.
By 1930, Warner Brothers purchased Brunswick Records, which owned the Vocalion label. The studio was impressed by Powell’s crooning and personality and soon offered him a film contract. Powell would make his on-screen debut as a singing bandleader in Blessed Event (1932). Following this debut, he was lent to Fox as a supporting actor in Too Busy to Work (1932). Upon the completion of the film, Powell was cast in The King’s Vacation (1933).
In 1933, Powell was paired with Ruby Keeler for the first time as a love interest in 42nd Street (1933). The film was a major success, as was their chemistry on film. The pair would go on to appear in six more films together, including Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Footlight Parade (1933), Dames (1934), Flirtation Walk (1934), Shipmates Forever (1935), and Colleen (1936). While Powell had a starring role in College Coach (1933), he largely worked in ensemble films, including Convention City (1933) and Twenty Million Sweethearts (1934).
Powell enjoyed many star vehicle films, such as Happiness Ahead (1934) alongside Josephine Hutchinson and Page Miss Glory (1935) with Marion Davies. Additionally, he starred in Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935) and Broadway Gondolier (1935) with second wife-to-be, Joan Blondell. The two would appear in a total of 12 films together. Powell adopted Blondell’s son from a previous marriage, Norman Powell. The couple would also have one child together named Ellen Powell before divorcing in 1944.
Powell was briefly offered a new acting challenge as Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) before returning to his usual musical roles. Though Powell was a thriving musical star, he quickly grew tired of the redundancy in roles.
In hopes of reinventing himself and appearing in genres different from the musical, Powell left Warner Brothers and moved on to work at Paramount. While his first role at Paramount was another musical with Blondell, I Want a Divorce (1940), he was soon offered a role in a non-musical screwball comedy called Christmas in July (1940). Powell followed this appearance with other comedic roles, such as In the Navy (1941) with Abbott and Costello and a fantasy comedy called It Happened Tomorrow (1944). Afterwards, he completed Meet the People (1944) at MGM with Lucille Ball but the film was a box office failure.
Upon the disappointment of his most recent film, Powell believed he was too old to play romantic leads. As a result, he lobbied to play the lead role in Double Indemnity (1944) but lost the part to Fred MacMurray. However, Powell felt that MacMurray was similarly cast in typically likeable roles and saw MacMurray’s success in pursuing more more serious and dramatic roles as an inspiration.
Powell’s career experienced a drastic shift when he was cast in Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1944), the first of a series of noir films that followed the adventures of Private Detective Philip Marlowe. The film was a massive success, allowing Powell to carry out the role of Marlowe for the first time on film, radio, and television. Dmytryk and Powell would collaborate once again with Cornered (1945), which helped shape film noir style. Continuing the cultivation of his “tough guy” image, Powell appeared in Johnny O’Clock (1947), To the Ends of the Earth (1947), and Pitfall (1948).
During this period, Powell married actress June Allyson. Together, they had a son named Richard Powell, Jr., and an adopted daughter named Pamela Powell. Allyson and Powell would remain married until Powell’s passing.
Powell appeared in several Western films while also playing the lead role in NBC radio theater’s Richard Diamond, Private Detective from 1949-1953. He took a break from this role to appear in The Reformer and the Redhead (1950) alongside Allyson. After this lighter film, he appeared with Allyson once more in Right Cross (1950), followed by other dramas such as Cry Danger (1951) and The Tall Target (1951).
Powell returned to comedic roles with You Never Can Tell (1951). After a role in the melodrama, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), his final film appearance would be in the romantic comedy, Susan Slept Here (1954) alongside Debbie Reynolds. Though he never sang in his later roles, Susan Slept Here does include him in a dance number.
Turning to directorial work, Powell’s feature debut came with Split Second (1953) for RKO. He also directed Jack Lemmon opposite Allyson in You Can’t Run Away from It (1956), a remake of It Happened One Night (1934).
In the 1950s, Powell helped found Four Star Television with Charles Boyer, David Niven, and Ida Lupino. He appeared in a wide range of shows for the company. Furthermore, he hosted and sometimes starred in his Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theater on CBS, followed by The Dick Powell Show for NBC.
Tragically, Powell directed The Conqueror (1956) starring John Wayne. The outside scenes were filmed in St. George, Utah, which was downwind from U.S. above-ground atomic tests. Of the 220 cast and crew members, 91 developed a form of cancer by 1981. Including Powell and Wayne, 46 of these individuals died from cancer prior to 1981. Powell himself died of lung cancer at age 58 on January 2, 1963. After Powell’s death, the Dick Powell Show continued through to the end of its second season as The Dick Powell Theater with guest hosts.
Today, there are few places from Powell’s day that have remained standing. His alma mater, Little Rock College, closed due to the Great Depression. In Pittsburgh, the Enright Theater no longer exists; however, Pittsburgh’s Stanley Theater remains functioning as a concert hall called the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts. It is located at 237 7th Street in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
For several years, his hometown had a very meager bulletin board on the site of his birthplace. A hand-painted sign marked the location. Inside the bulletin board casing, visitors would find a lonely display of faded pictures printed on computer paper that had aged over time. As of April 2018, the site of his home and tribute to him were razed. The property is now a vacant lot at 220 E Main St., in Mountain View, Arkansas.
Powell has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Film, TV, and Radio in Los Angeles, California.
While Powell’s hometown tribute to him did not capture the versatility of the contributions he made, it is my hope that he will one day receive a more fitting tribute. At present, we are lucky to be able to enjoy the wide breadth of works he left behind for audiences to enjoy.