Monday, May 5, 2014

Tyrone Power's 100th Birthday

When many people think of stars of swashbuckler movies, chances are good that they will think of Errol Flynn. For me, however, it is Tyrone Power who always comes to mind. He played Zorro in The Mark of Zorro (1940). He starred in what I consider the greatest pirate movie ever made, The Black Swan (1942). He was Pedro de Vargas in Captain from Castile (1947). Errol Flynn may be better known, but for me Tyrone Power was the epitome of the swashbuckling star. Of course, Mr. Power starred in more than just swashbuckler films. He appeared in dramas such as The Razor's Edge (1946), Suez (1938), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), and The Long Grey Line (1955). He even starred in several comedies, such as That Wonderful Urge (1948) and Café Metropole (1937). Mr. Power also appeared several times on Broadway in such productions as Saint Joan and John Brown's Body. Tyrone Power, the consummate swashbuckling star and an actor of considerable range, was born 100 years ago today.

Tyrone Power was born Tyrone Edmund Power on 4 May 1914 in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was part of an acting dynasty that went back over a century. His great grandfather was Irish comedian, actor, and stage manager William Grattan Tyrone Power (known professionally as "Tyrone Power", 1795–1841).  His father was silent film star Frederick Tyrone Edmond Power (also known professionally as "Tyrone Power", 2 May 1869 – 23 December 1931). It was because of his father's fame that Tyrone Power was billed as "Tyrone Power Jr. in his earliest films. Through his great grandfather Tyrone Power was related to legendary stage director Tyrone Guthrie as well.

Given that Tyrone Power came from a family of actors, it was quite natural that he would go into acting himself. His film debut actually came while he was still a child, with a small part in the 1925 drama School for Wives. He had very small, uncredited roles in such films  as Tom Brown of Culver (1932), Flirtation Walk (1934), and Northern Frontier (1935). In 1935 he also appeared on Broadway in Flowers of the Forest. In the 1936 film Girls' Dormitory Tyrone Power appeared as Count Vallais. Although eighth in the billing, the role was much more substantial than any he had received before (which often amounted to little more than being a glorified extra). It was later in 1936 that Tyrone Power received his first lead role. Although fourth billed, Mr. Power was for all extents and purposes the star of Lloyd's of London. The film would prove pivotal in his career. Lloyd's of London established Tyrone Power as a star. It was a beginning of a career that would see a great deal of success.

While today Tyrone Power is best known for his roles in swashbuckler movies, he had been a major star for a few years before he appeared in his first swashbuckling role. It was in 1940 that Mr. Power starred in the role of Don Diego Vega and his alter ego Zorro in The Mark of Zorro, a remake of the phenomenally popular 1920 silent film of the same name starring Douglas Fairbanks. Like the 1920 film, The Mark of Zorro (1940) proved to be a success, so much so that it changed the direction of Tyrone Power's career. Tyrone Power became one of the best known stars of swashbucklers, perhaps surpassed only by Errol Flynn.

Tyrone Power proved ideal as a star of swashbuckler films, and not simply because he was handsome, dashing, and charming. Mr. Power actually was quite skilful with a sword. Master fencer and his co-star in The Mark of Zorro Basil Rathbone said of him, "Power was the most agile man with a sword I’ve ever faced before a camera. Tyrone could have fenced Errol Flynn into a cocked hat." Beyond Tyrone Power's skill with a blade, however, there was the simple fact that he was an extremely talented and versatile actor. Such was Tyrone Power's acting talent that he could give his characters a depth that very few of the other stars of swashbuckler movies ever could. Benjamin Blake in Son of Fury (1942), Jamie Waring in The Black Swan, Pedro de Vargas in Captain from Castile (1947), Andrea Orsini in Prince of Foxes (1949), and Walter of Gurnie in The Black Rose (1950) seem all the more heroic quite simply because Tyrone Power made them seem like real, four dimensional people. If The Black Swan is one of the greatest pirate movies ever made (the greatest in my opinion), it's largely because of Mr. Power's portrayal of Jamie.

 Of course, while Tyrone Power may be best known for his swashbuckler films, some of his most notable achievements in acting would be in dramas. In fact, his greatest performance could well be in the 1946 film adaptation of  of W. Somerset Maugham's novel The Razor's Edge. As World War I veteran Larry Darrell, Tyrone Power gave a nuanced yet highly powerful performance of a man trying to make sense out of life. That he was not even nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor has to be one of the great snubs in Academy Awards history. Tyrone Power also gave an impressive performance in his final role, that of accused murderer Leonard Vole in Witness for the Prosecution (1957). Tyrone Power gave outstanding performances in most of the dramas in which he starred, including Suez, Crash Dive (1943), This Above All (1942), and Nightmare Alley (1947), among others.

Although he is not particularly well known for them today, Tyrone Power also starred in a number of comedies. What is more, he had a true gift for the genre. Three of his earliest starring roles were in comedies opposite Loretta Young: Love is News, Café Metropole, and Second Honeymoon all from 1937. What is more, Tyrone Power continued to appear in comedies throughout much of his career, including Day-Time Wife (1939--opposite future Mark of Zorro co-star Linda Darnell), The Luck of the Irish (1948), and That Wonderful Urge (1948). Mr. Power's comedies often gave him the chance to play roles quite unlike those he played in other films. Indeed, in Day-Time Wife he comes off rather convincingly as a bit of a jerk!

Like many leading men of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties Tyrone Power made more than his fare share of Westerns. Indeed, he was the star of one of the classics of the genre, playing the title character in Jesse James (1939). While the film is entirely historically inaccurate, Mr. Power does a good job of playing Jesse James, delivering a very nuanced and highly convincing performance. He also did well in Rawhide (1951), a Western with a nearly film noir sensibility (not surprising given it was a very loose remake of the 1935 gangster film Show Them No Mercy). Among Mr. Power's other Westerns were Pony Soldier (1952), and The Mississippi Gambler (1953).

Although best known for his swashbuckler films, Tyrone Power appeared in very nearly every genre Hollywood had to offer. He even starred in a film that can be considered outright fantasy (or perhaps even science fiction). The House in the Square was based on the 1926 play Berkeley Square, which was previously adapted in 1933 as the film Berkeley Square starring Leslie Howard. In The House in the Square (1951) Tyrone Power plays Peter Standish, a scientist who finds himself transported back to the year 1874. Tyrone Power plays Standish, who is very much a fish out of water, very well, giving a very subtle performance.

Tyrone Power was an accomplished actor with considerable talent. Indeed, it is because of that talent that he is so well remembered for his swashbuckler films. Mr. Power's athleticism and his skill with a sword make his swashbuckler movies a must see for any fan of the genre. At the same time, however, Tyrone Power had such talent that he could give his characters in his swashbuckler films a depth not always seen in the genre. One rooted for Zorro or Jamie Waring not simply because they were heroes, but because they seemed like real people with whom one could sympathise. While he is best known for his swashbuckler films, however, it is important to remember that Tyrone Power made many different sorts of films. As demonstrated by The Razor's Edge and Witness for the Prosecution, he had a real gift for drama. Tyrone Power also demonstrated he had a gift for comedy in such films as Café Metropole, Day-Time Wife, and That Wonderful Urge. Ultimately Tyrone Power was an actor of considerable talent who could not only play heroic figures, but characters who were not the least bit sympathetic. It would be very hard to find another actor who could play Zorro, Larry Darrell, and Leonard Vole and do each of the roles justice. Tyrone Power could, which is why he still remains one of the best known stars of his era.

No comments: