Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Tyrone Power: Reading Was Always Fundamental

I thought this occasional feature devoted to glimpses of classic actors reading might be worth reviving.

Tyrone Power is apparently absorbed in a book between scenes in Mexico while on location for The Captain From Castile (1947-Henry King) above. I don't think it could be the 511 page Samuel Shellabarger novel that inspired this movie, since the slim volume held by Power looks more like a book of poetry--or so I like to think. Returned from his service in the Marines in the Pacific during the war, Power was restless in the swashbuckling niche that his studio, 20th Century Fox, had secured for the capable, dashing matinee idol, though his underlying talent was often secondary to his stardom. "You go to the same studio every morning", he explained to one reporter."You get the same kind of part. The costume will be different and the leading lady different, but you find it hard to get much more of a change than that."

The son and grandson of actors who had made the family name synonymous with a long tradition of trotting the boards and touring the hustings, the movie actor's great-grandfather and namesake, the Irish-born Tyrone Power (1795-1841), wrote his own memoirs of his travels as a touring actor through the former colonies and published it to great success on both sides of the Atlantic in the two-volume "Impressions of America: During the Years 1833, 1834, 1835".(London: R. Bently, 1836), which you can read here.

With this heritage, as he eased his way out of his contract with 20th Century Fox in the early '50s, the younger Tyrone began to dip his toe into the theatrical waters. Power, who began his career as a member of Katherine Cornell's troupe, played Mr. Roberts in London for six months in 1950. He then took the rather bold step of appearing in a reading of Stephen Vincent Benet's epic Civil War poem, John Brown's Body with Judith Anderson and Raymond Massey. They embarked on a tour in seventy-seven cities in ten weeks as well as appearing in the production on Broadway for a time in 1953, with the trio of actors playing 19 different characters on stage with a minimum of staging at each performance. Playing to packed houses, Tyrone Power reveled in the experience. Speaking of his audiences, he said, "Many of them haven't seen a Tyrone Power since my father toured the country. They'd never seen a movie of mine, particularly in college towns and academic circles. They come because they love Benet's poetry and, I'm happy to say, many of them come backstage and ask me the name of my next picture." Pleased with the popular and critical success he had--many reviewers felt that Power's measured Midwestern manner and voice made him exceptionally effective--the actor felt relieved that he had found some acceptance off screen. Claiming that "[when you have] the supreme confidence of an [actor] and particularly an Irish actor I was not altogether surprised." Hesitating in his attempt to explain his pleased surprise as well as his underlying anxiety, he added "...but then again maybe I had my misgivings."

In addition to this inspiring experience, between movies, the actor also appeard in Christopher Fry's The Dark Is Light Enough (with Katherine Cornell as a co-star) and Thornton Wilder's Back to Methuselah later in the decade. Encouragement and insight into the task before him came to the sometimes tentative but surprisingly willing star from his director as Power tried to be an actor as well as a star. This was summed up by a conversation between the director Charles Laughton and Power, as related to a reporter in 1953:

"Let me explain about the monster," Mr. Power said. "When Charles Laughton, who directed us, talked with me about the way in which we should begin each performance, he said that we had to do something at the outset to get rid of the monster. 'When you come out on the stage,' he said, 'you will be the fellow who is going to recite some stirring lines and portray some interesting characters in Benet's very much admired literary work. But you will also be the monster made up of all the characters you have played on the screen. Many people will come to see that monster. You must go out there and dispose of him with a little speech which demonstrates that you can talk and breathe and move, and then you must draw the people along to an interest in the story we are going to tell.'"
Though most people would envy him his fame, wealth and polished demeanor, there was a touching earnestness in this actor's longing to do, as he said, "something worthwhile like plays and films that have something to say" instead of "all these knights in shining armor parts" that wearied him in Hollywood. Reportedly, the startlingly handsome Power "[sometimes wished] I had a really bad car accident so my face would get smashed up and I'd look like Eddie Constantine," the tough little ex-pat actor whose mug earned him stardom in French movies in the postwar period. Sadly, Tyrone Power never quite shook the hold of "the monster" on his public, though one hopes that he knew some satisfaction from doing a job well on screen as well as on stage. Perhaps if he'd lived just a bit longer, audiences might have made peace with his aging face, and those character roles he longed for might have been his on screen as well as on the stage.

Asked why he went to all the trouble to appear in plays, tour, and keep long hours at low pay, Tyrone Power simply said, "The answer to why I am here is exactly the same as the young girl gave when queried about why she married: 'Someone asked me.'"

Sources: Gould, Helen, "New Drama Quartet out with 'John Brown's Body'", The Herald Tribune, November 1, 1953. "The Happy Ham", Time Magazine, March 31, 1952. "Traveling Poem", Time Magazine, Dec. 22, 1952.


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