Tyrone Power Centennial

5 May

Tyrone Power would have turned 100 today, May 5, 2014. He was the quintessential studio-created movie star and worked primarily for 20th Century Fox for nearly his entire film career, starting at the studio in 1936 and making his last film for them in 1957. He was a star from his third Fox movie, LLOYD’S OF LONDON (1936), on. His last two films were THE SUN ALSO RISES (1957), done for Fox, and WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957), for UA. He was working on another film, SOLOMON AND SHEBA, when he died of a heart attack on November 15, 1958 after a grueling swordfight scene on location in Spain. He was 44 years old.

Power had the kind of looks loved by the camera and, hence, by millions of movie fans, both female and male. Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, who had a yen for historical dramas, realized early on that Power’s dark looks and timeless handsome features could fit any number of historical settings and ethnicities and put him in historical dramas as often as he could. He played Englishmen, Frenchmen, Swedes, Indians, Spaniards, Italians, and Dutch South Africans. He played bandleaders, gangsters, soldiers, pirates, doctors, outlaws, wanderers, musicians, spies and con men. Power was something of a light leading man in the first five years of his career, in musicals and romantic comedies like THIN ICE (with ice skating star Sonja Henie), ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND (with Alice Faye), and SECOND HONEYMOON (with Loretta Young)…

…with occasional forays into swashbuckling, like THE MARK OF ZORRO and THE BLACK SWAN.

But he did a number of darker, more dramatic roles in those years (SUEZ, JESSE JAMES, THE RAINS CAME, JOHNNY APOLLO), to varying degrees of success, and, after serving in the Marines in World War II, tried to be more than a pretty face after the war, taking on more challenging roles, like THE RAZOR’S EDGE and NIGHTMARE ALLEY, and tackling a greater variety of historical settings, from Renaissance Italy (PRINCE OF FOXES) and the Far East (THE BLACK ROSE) to India during the Raj (KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES and Mexico during the conquest by the Spanish (CAPTAIN FROM CASTILE). He was never considered a great actor, nor was he ever nominated for an Academy Award, but he was a popular and charismatic presence onscreen and still attracts continued affection from film buffs some 56 years after his death.

While his latter-day reputation depends a great deal on dramas like THE RAZOR’S EDGE (1946), based on the Somerset Maugham novel, and the film noir classic, NIGHTMARE ALLEY, in which he takes on the uncharacteristic role of a carnival huckster, I tend to prefer his work in historical dramas. He had an ability to look great in every costume he wore and he blended into whatever setting he was dropped into and whatever ethnicity he was called upon to play. There was a sincere quality about him and an intensity of focus that allowed him to work closely with every female star he was paired with, whether strong leading ladies like Susan Hayward, Maureen O’Hara, Ava Gardner, Myrna Loy, Gene Tierney or Marlene Dietrich, or then-relative newcomers like Linda Darnell, Jean Peters, Wanda Hendrix, Terry Moore, or Piper Laurie. Unlike many top boxoffice male stars, he could work well in an ensemble cast, even when placed next to more colorful co-stars or inveterate scene-chewers like Laird Cregar, George Sanders, Clifton Webb, and Orson Welles. He never played the star card, but always served the needs of the story. He wasn’t a loner hero. He was always with somebody and working in tandem with others. He thrived when interacting with others. And when he was most challenged, as in THE RAZOR’S EDGE and NIGHTMARE ALLEY, and giving what I consider movie star performances that never went as deep as the characters demanded, I still always believed Power. (For the record, I haven’t seen either film in over 20 years. Perhaps they’re ripe for reevaluation.)

I watched THE RAINS CAME (1939) again for this piece. This is a drama, with a natural disaster subplot, about India in 1938, and a sort-of-love-triangle that forms among an Indian doctor, a dissolute English artist, and a married woman of title who’s an ex-lover of the artist.

(L-R: Tyrone Power, Myrna Loy, George Brent)

The doctor, Major Rama Safti (Power), is a noble and dedicated public servant and is treated like a son by the local Maharajah (H.B. Warner) and Maharani (Maria Ouspenskaya), while both Tom Ransome, the artist (George Brent), and Lady Edwina Esketh (Myrna Loy) have come to the end of the line of a steady descent into dissolution and reckless affairs. Lady Esketh falls in love with the doctor, while Ransome becomes attached to an American missionary’s daughter (Brenda Joyce) who sees in him her ticket to a larger world of passion and adventure. When catastrophe strikes, in the forms of an earthquake, flood, and plague, and the region of Ranchipur becomes a disaster area about midway through the film, all the characters are called on to pitch in and help the newly homeless and plague victims. For Ransome and Edwina, the disaster forces them to give up their own selfish drives and work for others and find some measure of redemption, even if it might mean death. The Maharani wants Rama to succeed the now-dead Maharajah but only if he gives up the Englishwoman, who threatens to distract him from his new duties. Eventually, quite tragically, the decision is made for him.

(Maria Ouspenskaya, Tyrone Power)

What strikes me most about this film is the extraordinary respect it shows its characters and setting. Never once do the English and American characters show any condescension toward the Indians. The most powerful figure in the film, and clearly the toughest, is the aged Maharani, beautifully played by the Russian actress Maria Ouspenskaya (best known as the old Gypsy woman who ministers to Lon Chaney Jr. in THE WOLF MAN). Power looks resplendent in Indian garb and while he gets emotional later in the film he never loses his dignity and bearing. The two English protagonists, Ransome and Edwina, have the juicier parts and get the most lines, but Power’s Rama is the anchor that keeps them from behaving too badly or irresponsibly. The role of Edwina is a little different from the roles Loy is more famous for from the Thin Man films and BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, but she pulls it off magnificently and grabs our hearts from her first entrance. (Loy never got the showier roles that went to Stanwyck, Crawford, Davis, et al, but she was clearly just as fine an actress.) She eventually declares to Ransome that Rama is the first man she’s ever truly fallen in love with and we believe her. While the film ever so subtly adopts the moral coloring of Hollywood films of the time—i.e. the loose woman must get punished—it never condemns her character or takes any cheap shots. The sacrifice she makes is genuinely heartfelt and we never feel she’s being punished for any “crimes.” We admire her and grieve for her but never pity her.

One can argue that the film misses a bet by not casting any actual Indian actors in any of the major roles, and I can’t say that such a criticism would be wrong, but when one contrasts THE RAINS CAME with any number of other Hollywood films with similar Third World settings, including three made that same year, the film comes off as a lot more admirable than it might normally be given credit for. Just look at the cartoon version of Colonial India in that year’s GUNGA DIN:

Or the way the Filipino rebels who opposed American occupation in 1906 are treated as fanatics in THE REAL GLORY:

Worse is LADY OF THE TROPICS, which posits a romance between an American traveler (Robert Taylor) and a Eurasian woman (Hedy Lamarr) he meets in French IndoChina. Because she’s half-Asian, she’s seen as tainted somehow, as if she can’t be trusted to maintain a committed relationship. A priest makes a speech about how the Asian half of her is like a bird in flight. The arrogant American wants what he wants and even invades her traditional wedding to a native man and “rescues” her from him, as seen in this  still:

A later Power film that echoes THE RAINS CAME is KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES in which Power plays a half-English, half-Indian soldier working for the British in a campaign against rebels led by a former childhood friend of his. Power and an Englishwoman (Terry Moore) fall in love and when he has second thoughts, she invokes the memory of the courage his mother and father showed.

An Indian song used in THE RAINS CAME in a scene where Power translates the song’s words of love is performed also in KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES and has a similar thematic use.

(Tyrone Power and Myrna Loy listen as Lal Chand Mehra performs his own composition, “Hindoo Song of Love,” in THE RAINS CAME)

My favorite Power films tend to be his postwar historical dramas, starting with CAPTAIN FROM CASTILE (1947), pictured above, about the conquest of Mexico by Cortez (Cesar Romero) and filmed largely on location in Mexico. Then there was PRINCE OF FOXES (1949), set in Renaissance Italy and filmed on location and co-starring Orson Welles as Cesare Borgia. And then THE BLACK ROSE (1950), about a Saxon adventurer who travels to China during the Mongol conquest and meets a Mongol general, played by Orson Welles, filmed on location in England and North Africa. CASTILE and ROSE were shot in Technicolor, while FOXES was in black-and-white. All were based on best-selling historical novels. CASTILE and FOXES were directed, like KHYBER RIFLES, by Henry King, who directed Power in a total of ten films, starting with Power’s first historical drama and first starring role, LLOYD’S OF LONDON (1936).

In his postwar historical dramas, Power is much more of a brooding, questioning protagonist, not like the spry, determined, surefooted swashbuckling hero of his pre-war films. There’s a darker, edgier quality to him and it made the films a little more resonant, especially since so many of them were shot on location, far away from the studio soundstages. I haven’t seen any of these films in a long time and I wish I’d been able to do so again before this piece. I did see his South African epic, UNTAMED (1955), last year and wrote about it here on October 18, 2013.

Of Power’s pre-war films, I like JESSE JAMES (1939) a lot, less as a historical portrait of a notorious outlaw than as a Technicolor A-western with lots of spectacular action, much of it filmed on location in Missouri. It certainly whitewashes the Missouri bandit who continued to fight the Civil War, particularly as it played out in Missouri, long after the war ended. It was Power’s first Technicolor film and he cuts quite a forceful figure as a Robin Hood-type mythical figure who wages war against the railroad which has disrupted his farming community.

Power was loaned out to MGM for MARIE ANTOINETTE (1938) and he’s quite good as the Swedish Count, Axel Von Fersen, with whom the title character, the future queen of France, played by Norma Shearer, has an intense, though chaste, love affair. Fersen ultimately returns to France to try to help her escape in the wake of the Revolution, an attempt which, as we all know, failed. Power plays a supporting role in an expertly crafted big-budget epic that I consider one of the best historical dramas from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

I’ve never seen THE EDDY DUCHIN STORY (1956) in its entirety, but I tuned into it one night on cable years ago, late into its running time, and came upon a dramatic scene between Duchin (Power) and his young son being played out in a playground on location in Central Park. Duchin is dying and he has to tell the boy and it’s one of the most moving dramatic scenes I’ve seen Power do. I daresay that had Power lived he might have gone on to surprise us even more.

There are still lots of Power films I haven’t seen, most notably John Ford’s THE LONG GRAY LINE (1955), about West Point; the oceanic survival drama ABANDON SHIP (1957); the Cold War spy drama, DIPLOMATIC COURIER (1952); and the Henry Hathaway-directed western, RAWHIDE (1951), co-starring Susan Hayward. Nor have I seen many of his earlier 1930s movies, like SECOND HONEYMOON, LOVE IS NEWS, ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND or ROSE OF WASHINGTON SQUARE. For the time being though, I’d most like to revisit CAPTAIN FROM CASTILE, PRINCE OF FOXES, THE BLACK ROSE, and one I’m not sure I ever saw in its entirety, AMERICAN GUERRILLA IN THE PHILIPPINES (1950), directed on location in the Philippines by Fritz Lang and also based on a best-selling book. It’s Power’s only postwar film about WWII. I’d also like to revisit another Henry King-directed literary adaptation, THE SUN ALSO RISES (1957), which co-stars Power’s swashbuckling rival from Warner Bros., Errol Flynn, and Ava Gardner. I remember liking it chiefly for the starpower. I really should read the book, as well as some of the other novels mentioned in this piece. Like this one:


This edition was a movie tie-in for the 1955 remake, THE RAINS OF RANCHIPUR, with Richard Burton and Lana Turner, shot in color and Cinemascope. It re-uses the b&w earthquake and flood footage from the original film, but subjects it to tinting (and cropping). Forgive me if I prefer the original.


One Response to “Tyrone Power Centennial”

  1. Robert Regan May 6, 2014 at 6:42 PM #

    Well done, Brian. I wish you could have met Judy Power’s Uncle John. He looked exactly like Tyrone’s father! That proved to me that the connection to the star was not a mere family legend.

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