Classic Hollywood

Tyrone Power had it all, but he wanted more

By 1939, Tyrone Power was the second biggest male box office star after Mickey Rooney

Tyrone Power was just 22 when he became the toast of Hollywood after his breakout performance in the 1936 historical epic "Lloyd's of London."

Power possessed preternaturally good looks and charm to spare; women wanted to marry him, and men wanted to be his good friend. Within six months of the premiere of "Lloyd's of London," the matinee idol had put his hands and feet in the concrete at Grauman's Chinese Theatre.

By 1939, he was the second-biggest male box office star after Mickey Rooney. Two of his films — the classic western "Jesse James" and the melodrama "The Rains Came" — were among the top four box office hits of the year.

But stardom wasn't enough for Power, who hailed from a theatrical family. Limited in his choice of roles by the studio system, Power longed to be a serious actor and battled to get a shot at meatier roles.

"He really cared about what he did," said his son, Tyrone Jr. ("Cocoon"), who was born after his father's untimely death on Nov. 15, 1958, at age 44 of a heart attack on the set of "Solomon and Sheba."

"He said many times, he became a movie star long before he became an actor. So he sort of hit the jackpot at a very early age and instead of just riding the roller coaster, he kept trying to get better and better and better and really put a lot of work into it. I really respect him for that."

Taryn Power was just 5 when her father died. Her mother, actress Linda Christian, and her father, divorced in 1956. "I have just one memory being on his back in the swimming pool and smelling Coppertone," said Power, who considers her father's performance in Billy Wilder's 1957 classic "Witness for the Prosecution" to be among her favorites.

But she certainly witnessed his enduring popularity, especially when she, her mother and her older sister, Romina, author of "Searching for My Father, Tyrone Power," moved to Italy in 1960. "In Italy, he was kind of king of kings," she said. "There was not one time where we wouldn't leave the airport or arrive where there wouldn't be paparazzi."

The Power family will be participating in celebrations this week in Los Angeles marking the 100th anniversary of the actor's birth. On Nov. 14, the Hollywood Museum is presenting the exhibition "Tyrone Power: Man, Myth & Movie Idol," curated in collaboration with Tyrone Power Jr. It continues through the end of the year.

The exhibition has special meaning to Donelle Dadigan, founder and president of the Hollywood Museum, who grew up watching Power on television along with her mother, a die-hard Power fan. "I remember time used to stop when 'Blood and Sand' would come on TV," Dadigan recalled.

The exhibition features nearly 400 items exploring the actor's life, career, three marriages and three children that have been lent by Maria Ciaccia, founder of Movie Memories, and other private collectors as well as the Power family and friends. Included in the exhibition are costumes from such films as 1948's "The Luck of  the Irish" and 1941's "Blood and Sand," lobby cards, posters, press kits, press books, sheet music and bound scripts.

Movie Memories, a foundation dedicated to building new audiences for classic films, is presenting two of the actor's hit films at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre this week. Screening Nov. 14 is the 1938 musical "Alexander's Ragtime Band," and on tap for Nov. 15 is the 1947 swashbuckler "Captain From Castile."

The annual memorial service at the actor's grave at Hollywood Forever will be held earlier in the day on Nov. 15.

Writer-film historian Ciaccia said that despite his popularity, Power was vastly underrated as an actor. "That's because of his looks and the fact that a lot of the critics were men — some of them were jealous," she said.

And it was difficult for him to get the opportunity to show his range while under contract to 20th Century Fox, but he tried. Power served in the Marines during World War II, and when he returned to movies afterward, he was determined to get away from swashbucklers and comedies.

His son noted that he had to "fight tooth and nail" to star in the gritty 1947 film noir "Nightmare Alley."

"The studio didn't want him to do it," said Power. "Of course, he had to promise, 'I'll do five more romantic comedies or whatever if you let me do this one picture.' That was his favorite performance."

Though now considered one of the top noir films of the era, Fox didn't publicize the picture. "They took it out of release," Ciaccia said. "They rushed out 'Captain From Castile' early."

susan.king@latimes.com

Twitter: @mymackie

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