Dick Powell accomplished a lot in his show business career. The boy with the lovely tenor voice and way with a popular song became a band singer and master of ceremonies. His engaging stage presence and vocal ability led to a contract with Warner Brothers in 1932 and a role in the fast-paced Lee Tracy comedy Blessed Event. Dick sang four songs in the movie, two by Harry Warren. Composer Warren would figure prominently in Powell’s movie career at Warners, composing songs introduced by the singer in such films as 1933’s 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Footlight Parade. Future standards in the Great American Songbook include Warren and Dubin’s “I Only Have Eyes for You” from Dames and “I’ll String Along with You” from Twenty Million Sweethearts (both 1934). Dick’s popularity in such mid-’30s films as Flirtation Walk, Broadway Gondolier, Colleen, On the Avenue, and The Singing Marine–often paired on screen with Canadian-born hoofer Ruby Keeler or second wife (1936-1944) Joan Blondell–kept the actor in the rut of a brash, but likeable young go-getter.
In 1940 Powell made the move to Paramount Pictures and, despite excellent movies such as Preston Sturges’ Christmas in July (1940) and Rene Clair’s It Happened Tomorrow (1944), the fare was much the same. In an effort to bring his image more in line with his age and his abilities Powell campaigned for the role of Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, which ultimately went to Fred MacMurray. Fulfilling a contract obligation to place their newly hired star in a drama, RKO cast the musical star in 1944’s Murder, My Sweet, an adaption of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe story Farewell, My Lovely. Critics and audiences were impressed with the new image projected by Dick in the role of a hard-boiled detective. They shouldn’t have been taken by surprise. Those musicals he made at Warners weren’t operettas. They had songs, but they still had the zingers and tough-minded characters associated with a Warners product, and Powell was adept at the style. More excellent film noir followed in the 1940s and ’50s, including Cornered (1945), Johnny O’Clock (1947), Pitfall (1948) and Cry Danger (1951). Other personal favorites of this era are Mrs. Mike (1949), The Tall Target (1951) and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). In 1951’s You Never Can Tell Powell showed that, after all that time on the mean streets, he never lost his comedy chops, as he plays a reincarnated police dog solving his own murder. It’s a dandy!
Dick began directing with the 1953 suspense film Split Second. He directed third wife (1945-1963) June Allyson in a 1956 remake of It Happened One Night called You Can’t Run Away from It. It is most likely the directing assignment on John Wayne’s ’56 costume saga The Conqueror, which brought cast and crew to a former nuclear testing sight in Utah, that caused the cancer which would take his life in 1963, as well of those of many involved in the film.
From master of ceremonies to popular crooner to perpetual juvenile lead to gritty dramatic star to director to influential independent television producer: In 1955 Powell, along with David Niven, Charles Boyer and Joel McCrea, founded Four Star Productions (McCrea bowed out of the corporation early on, to be replaced by actress/director Ida Lupino). Dick was the savvy business leader and hard-working head of the group. Four Star Playhouse was an anthology series which ran on CBS from 1952-1956, featuring each of Four Star’s…four stars in rotating stories. Over the course of the series’ run they received 14 Emmy nominations and two Directors Guild of America awards.
Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre was produced by Four Star Productions and ran on CBS from 1956-1961. The 1950s was the heyday of anthology series and of westerns on the small screen, and here we had the best of both worlds. The series was created by western writer Luke Short and the earliest installements are purported to be based on Zane Grey stories. The episodes, however, are pure mid-century American television, with the Grey name promising the adventure of the Old West.
Each week our host to the half-hour episodes was the familiar and welcome face of Dick Powell. His old emcee skills made him right at home in front of the television camera, giving us pithy, amusing and sometimes corny introductions to the story to come. Stories were written by Short, Sam Peckinpah, Bruce Geller, Fred Frieberger and Aaron Spelling and directed by John English, Christian Nyby, Budd Boetticher, David Lowell Rich and Don Taylor, among others.
Talk about big stars on the small screen; Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre had them all! Barbara Stanwyck guested four times (Four Star would later produce her popular 1960s series The Big Valley). One of her episodes, Trail to Nowhere, was penned by Aaron Spelling as a (ahem) nod to Double Indemnity. In interviews, the producer/writer credited his boss at Four Star with his success. Originally an actor, Spelling was encouraged by Powell to develop his writing skills and then to move into production. When Spelling came up with the episode that could only be played by Barbara Stanwyck, Powell said “Well, go get her.” In hindsight Spelling knew that his boss had cleared the path for him to Stanwyck’s door, but the confidence it gave him was immeasurable. In her 1982 autobiography June Allyson wrote about her late husband’s untiring efforts to mentor and help younger people in show business. Powell was unstinting in his support of the burgeoning talent, both on- and off-screen.
Joan Crawford guested twice on the program. Ida Lupino and James Whitmore are featured in a taut first-season episode entitled Fearful Courage. This would be the first of five appearances for Whitmore in a challenging variety of roles. You might tune in and see, to your surprise and delight, Edward G. Robinson, Ralph Bellamy, John Payne, Van Johnson, Lew Ayres, Chester Morris, Brian Donlevy, Raymond Massey, Sammy Davis, Jr., or even Chuck Connors playing a rifle-toting fellow named Lucas McCain (more about him below). If it is talented ladies you wish to watch, look no further as Julie Adams, Audrey Totter, Martha Hyer, Marsha Hunt, Beverly Garland, Rita Moreno, Constance Ford, Hedy Lamarr, Beulah Bondi, Mary Astor and Carolyn Jones found interesting frontier women to bring to life. I guarantee you that if you tune into Zane Grey Theatre, not only will you be entertained by an interesting story, but each episode will feature a favorite or familiar actor.
The first episode of Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre is You Only Run Once, one of four episode guest starring Robert Ryan (On Dangerous Ground, Bad Day at Black Rock) and Cloris Leachman (The Last Picture Show, Young Frankenstein). Circumstantial evidence and jealousy lead Ryan’s rancher to run afoul of vigilantes led by a bitter John Hoyt. With the likes of Parley Baer, Leo Gordon, Douglas Fowley and Whit Bissell in the cast, the script is quite involving and emotions are brittle. Also from season one, a favorite of mine is Stage for Tucson. A talented ensemble led by Eddie Albert finds travelers facing a crisis at a stage stop. DeForest Kelley, John Ericson, Ian MacDonald, Bing Russell and a fiesty Mona Freeman give entertaining performances that remind us why this is classic television.
Of course, our host took the time to appear in a episode or two during the run of the series. Courage Is a Gun has a wonderful script about a hot-headed young gunfighter played by Robert Vaughn who is hired by saloon keeper James Westerfield to take out the sheriff, played by Dick. How does the sheriff’s love, the town doctor played by Beverly Garland, come in to play in this tense situation?
Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre was awarded a Writer’s Guild of America award in 1961 for Anthology Drama, 30 Minutes in Length (oher nominees that year were Alcoa Theatre, The DuPont Show with June Allyson, The Twilight Zone and Goodyear Theatre). What’s more, several popular western dramas got their start as installments of this show. Among them were The Rifleman with Chuck Connors and Johnny Crawford; The Westerner starring Brian Keith; and Trackdown with Robert Culp, which itself spun-off Steve McQueen’s breakthrough hit Wanted: Dead or Alive. Other ’50s programs produced under the Four Star banner included Richard Diamond, Private Detective (starring David Janssen and adapted from the radio series which featured Powell) and The Detectives, with Robert Taylor. The 1960s saw The Rogues with David Niven, Charles Boyer, Gladys Cooper and Robert Coote; Gene Barry in Burke’s Law; and Anne Francis as Honey West.
In 1961, after the end of Zane Grey Theatre, Powell moved on to another star-studded anthology series in which he would host and appear, The Dick Powell Theatre. This series won a Golden Globe for Best TV Program and was nominated for nine Emmy Awards, winning one for guest Peter Falk. The program was also honored with nominations and wins from the American Cinema Editors, the Directors Guild of America and the Writers Guild of America. Dick Powell’s television legacy is one of great distinction as one of the first and most successful independent producers in the industry.
Patricia Nolan-Hall is based in Toronto, where, in the guise of superhero blogger Caftan Woman, she fights a never-ending battle to teach the children about John Ford, Harry Warren and the movies before neo-noir. You can read more about her crusade at Caftan Woman.