There were few fellows in the movie business of the 1930s, 40s and 50s who were quite as handsome as Tyrone Power (1914-1958), whose birthday is today. His attractiveness, particularly in the first five years of his career, was a youthful kind of beauty that added to his friendly charm. He was a star from his first leading role in the historical drama Lloyd’s of London (1936) until the day he suffered a fatal heart attack on the set of Solomon and Sheba – November 15, 1958. (Afterward, the Solomon character was recast for Yul Brynner.) Although Power is remembered as a pretty boy who was a box office giant, I think it is sometimes forgotten that he was a fine actor, one of the most underrated of his day. (His contemporary Errol Flynn, who was both a pretty boy and a bad boy, and who died not long after Power, is sometimes regarded in the same way: gorgeous but not remembered as an actor capable of nuance and sensitivity. Neither man ever received an Academy Award nomination.) On this centennial anniversary, let us celebrate the memory of Tyrone Power by looking at five of his most intriguing performances.
Lloyd’s of London (1936, dir. Henry King) – As I mentioned earlier, this costume drama brought Power a popularity at the box office that would last him for over twenty years. Playing the grown-up version of Freddie Bartholomew (who got top billing), Power showed terrific ardor in both his character’s work on behalf of his country and in his love for the young lady played by Madeleine Carroll.
Café Metropole (1937, dir. Edward H. Griffith) – In the early years of his stardom, Tyrone Power was often teamed with Loretta Young for light romantic comedies. (They made five films together between 1936 and 1938.) In Café Metropole, Power is delightful as he woos Young while in the guise of a Russian count. The ridiculous masquerade allows Power to display his talent for comic timing.
The Rains Came (1939, dir. Clarence Brown) – The casting of Ty Power as an Indian man was not politically correct (though, of course, very little was politically correct about Hollywood in those days), but Power plays the character with dignity. Instead of speaking in an exaggerated imitation of the Indian accent, as actors were sometimes asked to do with accents from other cultures, he speaks rather eloquently. Power handles the film’s elements of romance and tragedy deftly.
Nightmare Alley (1947, dir. Edmund Goulding) – This one-of-a-kind film noir was Power’s personal favorite of all his roles, and for good reason: it allowed him to break out of his comfort zones of ordinary romantic comedies, ordinary romantic dramas, period pieces and swashbucklers. The story in Nightmare Alley is complex, but what it boils down to is that Power plays a crummy guy who makes a living out of swindling people. Whether sweating it out for low wages at a seedy circus or performing as a charlatan psychic in a Manhattan nightclub, Power is thoroughly unlikeable. His character’s worldview is totally unpleasant, different from any other portrayal I can remember him inhabiting before then. The transformation is impressive to say the least.
Witness for the Prosecution (1957, dir. Billy Wilder) – In the last film released during Power’s all-too-brief lifetime, he plays a man on trial for murder in England. Working with my favorite director of all time, the incomparable master Mr. Wilder, Power proved once and for all that he was a truly great dramatic actor. It’s a courtroom drama but it is never dull, filled with so many twists and turns that the ending will leave you reeling. It is a shame that Tyrone Power did not live to see the day when he might have been better appreciated for his artistry and not simply for his looks, but at least has a lasting a legacy of two decades’ worth of memorable films.