Twenty-five years after his death, Dick Powell’s films and records have had a remarkable renaissance with the contemporary interest in film musicals of the 1930s, particularly the extravagantly choreographed work of director Busby Berkeley. Powell’s dry humour and straightforward presentation made an ideal contrast to the visual hyperbole of Berkeley’s regiments of legs; tapping their way across the screen while waterfalls erupted, skyscrapers danced and girls were magically turned into electric violins. While all around him vanished into fantasy, Dick Powell managed to keep the sketchy plots going and in the process introduced some of the great standard tunes of the thrities.
The songs heard here were all recorded in the two years 1935-1937; with three exceptions from films starring Dick Powell. 1935’s ‘Shipmates Forever’, where he plays the midshipman son of an Admiral who is horrified to learn his son prefers crooning to cruising – is really a re-hash of the previous year’s ‘Flirtation Walk’ when Dick was a West Point cadet. Both co-starred Ruby Keeler and both featured songs by Al Dubin and Harry Warren – only the uniform had been changed. The film had a rousing semi-patriotic number in Don’t Give Up The Ship, delivered with great zest and verve.
‘Hearts Divided’ (1936) is a musical version of a silent film, ‘Glorious Betsy’. Set in late 18th century France, Dick Powell plays Napoleon’s younger brother. Two Hearts Divided is a charming love song sung by Dick to his American sweetheart. As the U.S.A. and France were allies at the time, just why the lovers should be divided seems somewhat obscure.
‘Stage Struck’ (1936) was a happy experience for Dick Powell. He was back working with Busby Berkeley, and just before the film was released married his co-star, Joan Blondell, much to the delight of their fans, who flocked to cinemas to see the real life lovers on the screen. The film is standard Warner Brothers/Buzz Berkeley back-stage hokum with Joan Blondell in Ruby Keeler’s former role of the talentless but eager young kid who takes over from the start. The songs by Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen carried the musical side of the production, and Dick’s recording of In Your Own Quiet Way sold very well on disc. ‘Gold Diggers of 1937’ (actually made in 1936) was just as over the top and lavish as its predecessors. The film was loosely based on a New York stage play, ‘Sweet Mystery of Life’, but by the time music, dancers and Busby Berkeley had been let loose on it, it was transformed into a Warner Brothers classic. The newly wed Mr and Mrs Powell were the stars, and the score written by two songwriting duos: from the Berkeley regulars, Dubin and Warren, came All’s Fair In Love And War and With Plenty Of Money And You, while the new team of Harburg and Arlen supplied Let’s Put Our Heads Together and Speaking Of The Weather. All four of Dick Powell’s songs from the film are heard on this album.
For his next picture Dick Powell was loaned out to Twentieth Century Fox. ‘On The Avenue’ (1937) is one of his best movies. Unlike Warners, who tended to put most of their money into one or two set piece musical numbers, leaving the non-musical parts to look like a ‘B’ film, Fox budgeted more evenly, resulting in their productions seeming more streamlined and glossy than those of their competitors. ‘On The Avenue’ was no exception. To start with, it had a splendid score by Irving Berlin, and for the first time Dick had a singing partner every bit as good as himself. Alice Fay had been steadily groomed by Fox, from small parts in routine musicals to playing Shirley Temple’s adoptive mother. ‘On The Avenue’ was her biggest film so far and she revelled in it. As one would expect, several of the songs have become standards, and we hear Dick Powell with I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm, This Year’s Kisses and You’re Laughing At Me. Sadly, the film is seldom revived – maybe because director Roy del Ruth has not had the same cult following as some of his contemporaries.
Back at Warner, Dick was straight into a forgettable pot-boiler, ‘The Singing Marine’. Yet again he was back in uniform, playing a shy marine whose pals send him off to a radio talent contest, which he wins, becomes big-headed, loses his girl and his friends, and then suspending all belief decides to go back to the Marines. Without two production sequences directed by Berkeley and the stalwart Dubin and Warren, the film would have been a disaster. As it is, the songs save the film. Dick Powell had an immediate hit with ‘Cause My Baby Says It’s So and You Can’t Run Away From Love Tonight and a perennial success with The Song Of The Marines which was taken up by the U.S. Marine Corps as its official song.
To the average cinema-goer outside the U.S.A., ‘Varsity Show’ (1937) is largely incomprehensible. It requires a knowledge of the American university set-up of fraternities, co-eds and campus only learned by being there. The Berkeley finale lauding universities, colleges and military academies is quite sinister in its regimented marching students, memorable though, for eight songs by Johnny Mercer and Dick Whiting, from which we hear You’ve Got Something There and Moonlight On The Campus. Dick Powell’s last film of 1937 had a much more universal appeal in its subject – the glamour of the movies. ‘Hollywood Hotel’ was based on Dick’s off-screen activities. In tandem with his film work he starred in a weekly coast-to-coast radio show of the same tiitle, with Frances Langford and gossip columnist Louella Parsons. Both appear in the film together with the sisters Lola and Rosemary Lane and the entire Benny Goodman Orchestra.
For Busby Berkeley and Dick Powell, ‘Hollywood Hotel’ was their last grandiose spectacular together. Berkeley soon went over to M.G.M. where he had continuing success with a totally different type of musical with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Dick Powell’s musical films trailed off rapidly after 1938, leaving him in the doldrums for several years until he made a complete change of screen personality as the film persona of Raymond Chandler’s private eye, Philip Marlowe, in ‘Murder, My Sweet’. Subsequently he developed into a mature serious actor and later still into a TV tycoon as president of Four Star Playhouse. He recorded little in his later years, until shortly before his death in January 1963, he took part in a nostalgic look back to the Twenties in an album called ‘The Wonderful Teens’ where he narrated the storyline and sang the title song.
Dick Powell had that peculiar and unique style that fifty years after these records were made, he can delight and excite a generation of listeners who never sat in the one-and-nines at the Gaumont or Odeon.
© 1988 KEVIN DALY