Tyrone Power: A Lot More Than Just a Pretty Face!

Tyrone Power 1914-1958

A fourth-generation member of a distinguished Irish-English stage family, this charming performer parlayed his arresting good looks and athletic presence into a two-decade stretch as one of Hollywood’s most bankable leading men. Born in Cincinnati in 1914 to Tyrone Power, Sr. and Shakespearean actress Patia Riaume, Tyrone Power spent most of his earliest years in California, but returned to his hometown at age six after his parents’ divorce.

He developed his own taste for the stage during high school; after Tyrone’s graduation in 1931, he reconciled with his father and joined him on tour for tutelage and his first acting opportunities. It wasn’t long after that, however, that the elder Power collapsed on a Hollywood set and later died of heart failure in his son’s arms.Tyrone remained in L.A., making the rounds of casting offices. After that yielded nothing but  a bit appearance in 1932’s Tom Brown of Culver (Power’s screen debut came at 11 in the silent film School for Wives), he headed to New York in hopes of getting some seasoning on the stage. Katherine Cornell gave him successively larger responsibilities in many of her theatrical productions and deemed him ready when a Fox talent agent came calling in 1936.

Power ‘s first turn for Fox was as a debonair European count in the 1936 romance Girls’ Dormitory. With his third screen assignment, the studio successfully rolled the dice with the charismatic youngster, giving him the fourth-billed lead role in the Napoleonic Era costumer Lloyd’s of London, which followed the rise of the famed insurance company. After a pact to secure Clark Gable’s services for the  Great Fire of 1871 opus In Old Chicago, fell apart, Fox turned to Power. The end result of his screen presence with co-stars Alice Faye and Don Ameche cemented his stardom. In Old Chicago was one of five films in which he starred in 1937. The studio kept their star in light comedies, and three films appearing opposite Hollywood favorite leading lady Loretta Young–Love Is News, Café Metropole and Second Honeymoon continued the actor’s success.

Alexander’s Ragtime Band starring Tyrone Power

Also in 1937, Power provided the love interest for Fox’s skating sweetheart Sonia Henie in Thin Ice, followed by his reteaming with Faye and Ameche in 1938’s wildly popular Tin Pan Alley musical, Alexander’s Ragtime Band. In ’38 and ’39, Tyrone proceeded to turn out numerous vehicles for Fox, each as diverse as they were popular. He was loaned to MGM to play opposite Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette and was back at his own studio, and with Loretta Young again, for another historical adventure, Suez, in which he met and married his French co-star Annabella. 1939 found him cast as the doomed title outlaw in the western drama Jesse James, and in the lush adventure The Rains Came he played an Indian-born aristocrat-turned-doctor trying to fend off married Englishwoman Myrna Loy’s advances.

The 1940s brought Power to the forefront of Hollywood’s A-list of everymen, appearing in everything from musicals like Rose of Washington Square with Faye and Second Fiddle with Henie to the  Technicolor frontier sagas Brigham Young and the WWII drama A Yank in the R.A.F. He acted alongside Joan Fontaine in This Above All and paired with Dana Andrews in Crash Dive to defeat the Nazis in the North Atlantic. A remake of a silent Rudolph Valentino tale, 1941’s Blood and Sand had matador Tyrone facing death in the bull ring and torn between his love for Linda Darnell and Rita Hayworth; His swashbuckling roles are legendary, as the foppish Don Diego Vega in The Mark of Zorro (1940) and as the Caribbean buccaneer in The Black Swan (1942). Power played the title role in the South Seas spectacular Son of Fury, co-starring Gene Tierney, that same year.

The string of successes only halted for his 1942 enlistment in the U.S. Marine Corps, and he served as a cargo pilot in the Pacific for the duration of WWII. He returned to Hollywood, appearing noticeably weathered and hungry for more substantive performing challenges. The early returns were promising, as witnessed by his search for the meaning of life in Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge (1946), which reteamed him with Tierney, and his brilliant performance as a carnival charlatan in the noirish 1947 thriller Nightmare Alley.

Fox, however, began steering him back to blood-and-thunder fare, and Power finished the forties with Captain from Castile, an epic adventure about Hernando Cortez’s invasion of Mexico; and his travels to China in The Black Rose with co-star Orson Welles; then on the opposing side of Cesare Borgia (Welles) in Prince of Foxes. He longed for more dramatic roles and said, “I’m sick of all these knights in shining armor parts, I want to do something worthwhile like plays and films that have something to say,” but Fox couldn’t resist enlisting Power in sure-fire comedy roles such as That Wonderful Urge (1948) with Tierney and, later that year, the immensely popular The Luck of the Irish with Anne Baxter.

With the onset of the ’50s, Power starred in the psychological oater Rawhide, where he and Susan Hayward are held captive by outlaws; as a WWII Navy ensign stranded in the Pacific jungle in American Guerrilla in the Philippines; and in the love-story fantasy, I’ll Never Forget You (1951). In 1952, he found himself deep inside the world of espionage in Diplomatic Courier, followed by the action adventure Pony Soldier. In 1953, he tried to uphold honest card playing as The Mississippi Gambler; and, also in ’53, he fought a corrupt local rulers in colonial India in King of the Khyber Rifles.

At this time in his career, Power began devoting more of his energies to the London stage, including his 23-week run at the London Coliseum as Mister Roberts, which he did with Fox’s blessing until his commitment to the studio was up. With the 1955 release of Untamed, again with Hayward, he was finally a full freelancer, and the next few years saw much satisfying work, including Columbia Pictures’ biographical epic The Long Gray Line, John Ford’s tribute to West Point.

The Eddy Duchin Story Starring Tyrone Power

The Eddy Duchin Story Starring Tyrone Power

His contribution as the quintessential society band leader in The Eddy Duchin Story made the movie a huge crowd-pleaser. In Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Tyrone was much older than the character he was playing, which may have been why he started to show signs of wear. He was convincing in the role of a surviving crew member of a sinking ship who must decide who lives and who dies in Abandon Ship! And although he was not Oscar-nominated for his performance in Billy Wilder’s superb Witness for the Prosecution, many critics felt he should have been bestowed with that honor. Oddly enough, Ty didn’t want to take the role of Marlene Dietrich’s husband, telling Wilder he was not satisfied with his career in general and didn’t think he would ever make another movie. The director halted production because he wanted a big star like Power and, without him, Wilder didn’t see any point in continuing at that time. After the film’s producers enticed Power to come back, the project continued.

His run would have one of the saddest ends in industry history. Power’s last work was for a televised public service announcement telling audiences how to spot warning signs of a heart attack. It was filmed on the set of his latest movie, and he encouraged viewers to be checked out by a physician. However, in a twist of fate, overexertion during the filming of a swordfight scene with George Sanders for 1959’s Solomon and Sheba resulted in Power sustaining a fatal heart attack at age 44. Yul Brynner was cast for the retakes on the largely in-the-can project, and Power can be seen in the completed film’s long shots.

Power was buried at Hollywood Forever Cemetery (then known as Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery) in Southern California. Those who visit the actor’s grave will find his monument, carved in the form of a marble bench, engraved with the words, “Good night, sweet prince.”

And now enjoy Tyrone Power in the theatrical trailer for 1955’s The Long Gray Line:

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