“There he was, dark-looking with black hair and eyebrows, and no man had a right to be that handsome.” So aviator Bob Buck remembered first meeting Tyrone Power. Buck, enlisted by his boss Howard Hughes, the owner of TWA, to pilot Power on a tour of South America, Africa and Europe, would spend three months with the actor and a small retinue on a trip that was set to begin in September 1947. The group would travel in Power’s plane, The Geek, named after a character in his latest film, Nightmare Alley. At the time, at age 33, Tyrone Power was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, an adored “matinee idol,” but his straightforward, unassuming manner instantly disarmed the skeptical Buck.
|Tyrone Power, father and son|
It was at age 17 when he was just out of high school that the younger Tyrone Power was able to spend some months with his father. Encouraged by his parents, he had begun acting early in life and that summer of 1931 his father took him to Chicago where he was appearing in a production of The Merchant of Venice. Young Tyrone was given a small part in the play. The two later returned to Hollywood where the elder Power began work on a film. Several weeks into production he suffered a massive heart attack at the Hollywood Athletic Club and there he died in the arms of his son.
|Tyrone Power on stage in St. Joan, 1936|
She was right. Power’s brief appearance in his first film for Fox, Girls' Dormitory (1936) prompted a deluge of fan letters. Legend has it that powerful Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper stayed to watch a second showing of the film just to check the credits for the name of the handsome young actor she’d spied in a brief role toward the end of the film.
It was with his third outing for Fox in 1936 that Tyrone Power became a star. Child actor Freddie Bartholomew, who played protagonist Jonathan Blake as a youth, was top-billed in Lloyd's of London. Fourth-billed Tyrone Power, who had far more screen time than anyone in the film, portrayed Blake as an adult. Only 22 at the time, but handsome, charismatic and self-possessed, Power walked away with the film. He would share top billing on his next assignment, In Old Chicago (1937), with Alice Faye and Don Ameche. Following the film’s great popular success, Fox would re-team him with Faye and Ameche in Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938). Later in 1938, on loan to MGM, he appeared opposite Norma Shearer in the costume melodrama Marie Antoinette. Tyrone Power was now a firmly established leading man.
1939 would prove to be a watershed year for the 25 year old actor. He would portray the outlaw Jesse James in one of only two Technicolor pictures Fox produced that year, and he would star in the studio’s spectacular The Rains Came. Nominated for six Academy Awards, it would win, in that year of the Gone with the Wind sweep, only one, for Best Effects, Special Effects. Power’s leading lady Myrna Loy remembered him as one of the nicest human beings she’d ever known. She would recall much later, “I’m sorry to report that we weren’t lovers, but close to it. I loved him, but he was married to that damn Frenchwoman.” That Frenchwoman was Annabella, the actress Power met a year earlier on Suez (1938) and married in 1939. Also in 1939, in an annual nationwide newspaper poll, Tyrone Power was voted “King of Hollywood.”
Power next appeared as what has to have been one of the most attractive criminals in Hollywood history in Johnny Apollo (1940) opposite Dorothy Lamour. His first swashbuckler would follow, The Mark of Zorro (1940). Among his best known films, it features one of his most memorable performances. Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone had reputations as two of the best fencers in film and they would dramatically cross swords in The Mark of Zorro:
Dec. 2012 update: sadly, this (colorized) YouTube clip was recently blocked
Before joining the U.S. Marines and departing for World War II, Power would star in one of his favorites, the vivid Technicolor Blood and Sand (1941). Directed by Rouben Mamoulian, it is the story of a brilliant bullfighter undone by temptation and jealousy. Power was apparently entranced by co-star Rita Hayworth, one of his two leading ladies (the other was Linda Darnell), and his stand-in reportedly noticed that the actor could not take his eyes from her throughout filming.
Also prior to entering the service, Power completed A Yank in the R.A.F. (1941), a war-time romance that paired him with Fox’s other superstar, Betty Grable. He also appeared in The Black Swan (1942), a Technicolor swashbuckler in which Maureen O’Hara, as an aristocratic young beauty, plays hard-to-get with Power’s character, a dashing reformed pirate.
|Tyrone Power, U.S. Marine Corps|
Power returned to the screen in the Edmund Goulding-directed production of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge in 1946. Myrna Loy later remarked on the spiritual quality she saw in Power’s eyes. As Larry Darrell, a war veteran on a quest for enlightenment and meaning in The Razor’s Edge, she believed he was perfectly cast, “That was Ty,” she said.
|Nightmare Alley (1947)|
|1946: Lana Turner and Tyrone Power in Mexico|
Once The Geek made its way to Europe, the group spent some time in Rome. It was there that Power encountered Linda Christian, a young starlet he would marry the following year. They would have two daughters before divorcing in the mid-‘50s.
|The Dark is Light Enough on Broadway, 1955|
In 1951 Power went on the London stage for a six month engagement of a Joshua Logan-directed production of Mr. Roberts. It was a sold-out run and Variety characterized his performance in the title role as a “warm, colorful and meaningful interpretation.” He toured the U.S. very successfully in John Brown’s Body and took it to Broadway in 1953 with Raymond Massey and Judith Anderson. He returned to Broadway in 1955 with The Dark is Light Enough, starring with Katharine Cornell (a young Christopher Plummer would win a Theatre World Award for his supporting performance in the play). Power’s final Broadway appearance came in Back to Methuselah in 1958 with Faye Emerson.
His last finished film would be Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution (1957) with Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich. In it, Power, cast against type as an accused killer, delivers one of his most acclaimed performances. Billy Wilder reported that co-star Marlene Dietrich developed an enormous crush on Power during filming and remarked, “Everybody had a crush on Ty…it was impossible to be impervious to that kind of charm.”
In 1958, 44-year-old Tyrone Power married 26-year-old Debbie Minardos. They traveled to Spain in September where he was to film the King Vidor epic Solomon and Sheba. On November 15, Power collapsed on the set during an arduous swordfight scene with George Sanders and suffered a massive heart attack; he died on the way to the hospital. It had been ice-cold on the set that day and he was a heavy smoker. Power’s wife gave birth to their son, Tyrone Power IV, in January 1959.
“His voice was beautiful to listen to, deep, clear and strong,” Bob Buck wrote; his dark, long-lashed eyes radiated warmth and a soulful quality. He performed with sensitivity and conviction and he brought to the screen a certain nobility and tempered reserve. He was Fox’s top leading man for more than 15 years and though his late career had its ups and downs, his last films were some of his greatest successes. He has been called “illegally handsome” and perhaps his looks, coupled with a powerful onscreen charisma, blinded both studio and audience to his actual talent and capacity to be something more than a leading man.
Today, August 25, Turner Classic Movies honors Tyrone Power with a full 24 hours of his films as part of its annual Summer Under the Stars celebration in August. Click here for the schedule of films. Click here for more on Michael and Jill’s Summer Under the Stars blogathon.
North Star Over My Shoulder: A Flying Life by Bob Buck, Simon & Schuster (2002)
Being and Becoming by Myrna Loy and James Kotsilibas-Davis, Alfred A. Knopf (1987)
On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder by Ed Sikov, Hyperion (1998)
Lana: the Memories, the Myths, the Movies by Cheryl Crane, Running Press (2008)