Caftan Woman

Caftan Woman

Friday, March 21, 2014

Big Stars on the Small Screen blogathon: Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater (1956 - 1961)


Dick Powell
1904 - 1963

Big Stars on the Big Screen is the name of a blogathon running March 20th and 21st sponsored by Aurora on her sterling television devoted blog How Sweet It WasThis link will take you to a wondrous land where bloggers of renown release their inner fanboy/girl.  Maybe some of the shows featured are your favourites as well.

Dick Powell accomplished a lot in his show business career.  The boy with the lovely tenor voice and way with a popular song became a band singer and master of ceremonies.  His engaging stage presence and vocal ability led to a contract with Warner Brothers Studios in 1932 and a role in the fast-paced Lee Tracy comedy Blessed Event.  Dick sang four songs in the movie, two by Harry Warren.  Composer Warren would figure prominently in Dick Powell's movie career at Warners, composing songs introduced by the singer in such films as Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade and 42nd Street.  Future standards in the Great American Songbook include Warren and Dubin's I Only Have Eyes for You from Dames and I'll String Along With You from Twenty Million Sweethearts.  Dick Powell's popularity in such films as The Sing Marine, Broadway Gondolier, Flirtation Walk, Colleen and On the Avenue, often paired on screen with Canadian born hoofer Ruby Keeler or wife (1936-1944) Joan Blondell, kept the actor in the rut of a brash, but likeable young go-getter.

"I'm not a kid anymore but I'm still playing boy scouts."

Dick Powell, Claire Trevor
Murder, My Sweet

In 1940 Dick Powell made the move to Paramount Pictures and despite excellent movies such as Preston Sturges' Christmas in July and Rene Clair's It Happened Tomorrow, the fare was much the same.  In an effort to bring his image more in line with his age and his abilities Powell campaigned for the role of Walter Neff in Double Indemnity which went to Fred MacMurray.  Fulfilling a contract obligation to place their newly hired star in a drama, RKO cast the musical star in Murder, My Sweet, an adaption of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe story Farewell, My Lovely.  Critics and audiences were impressed with the new image projected by Dick Powell in the role of a hard-boiled detective.  They shouldn't have been taken by surprise.  Those musicals he made at Warners weren't operettas.  They had songs, but they still had the zingers and tough-minded characters associated with a Warners product, and Dick Powell was adept at the style.  More excellent film-noir followed in the 1940s including Cornered, Pitfall, Johnny O'Clock and Cry Danger.  Other personal favourites of this era are Mrs. Mike, The Bad and the Beautiful and The Tall Target.  In You Never Can Tell Powell showed that after all that time on the mean streets, he never lost his comedy chops as he plays a reincarnated police dog solving his own murder.  It's a dandy!

"The best thing about switching from being an actor to being a director is that you don't have to shave or hold your stomach in anymore."

Dick Powell began directing with the 1953 film Split Second.  He directed his wife (1945-1963) June Allyson in a remake of It Happened One Night called You Can't Run Away from It.  It is most likely the directing assignment on The Conquerer which brought cast and crew to a former nuclear testing sight in Utah caused that cancer which would take his life, and those of many involved in the film.

One of the logos for the production company, Four Star

From master of ceremonies to popular crooner to perpetual juvenile lead to gritty dramatic star to director to influential independent television producer.  In 1955 Dick Powell, along with David Niven, Charles Boyer and Joel McCrea founded Four Star Productions, with McCrea bowing out of the corporation early to be replaced by actress/director Ida Lupino.  Dick Powell was the savvy business leader and hard-working head of the group.  Four Star Playhouse was an anthology series which ran on CBS from 1952 to 1956 featuring each of Four Star's four stars in rotating stories.  Over the course of the series run they received 14 Emmy nominations and 2 Directors Guild of America awards.

"From out of the west, Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater"

Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater was produced by Four Star Productions and ran on CBS from 1956 - 1961.  The 1950s was the heyday of anthology series and of westerns, and here we had the best of both worlds.  The series was created by western writer Luke Short and the earliest stories are purported to be based on Zane Grey stories, however the episodes are pure mid-century American television with the Grey name promising the adventure of the old west.

Each week our host to the half hour episodes was the familiar and welcome face of Dick Powell.  His old m.c. skills made him right at home in front of the television camera giving us pithy, amusing and sometimes corny introductions to the story to come.  Stories written by Short, Sam Peckinpah, Bruce Geller, Fred Frieberger, Aaron Spelling and directed by John English, Christian Nyby, Budd Boetticher, David Lowell Rich and Don Taylor, etc.

Talk about big stars on the small screen - Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater had them all!  Barbara Stanwyck guested four times and Four Star would produce her popular 1960s series The Big Valley.  One of her episodes called Trail to Nowhere was written by Aaron Spelling as a (ahem) nod to Double Indemnity.  In interviews the producer/writer credited his boss at Four Star, Dick Powell with success.  Originally an actor, Spelling was encouraged by Powell to develop his writing skills and then to move into production.  When Spelling came up with the episode that could only be played by Barbara Stanwyck, Powell said "Well, go get her."  In hindsight Spelling knew that his boss had cleared the path for him to Stanwyck's door, but the confidence it gave him was immeasurable.  In her 1982 autobiography June Allyson wrote about her late husband's untiring efforts to mentor and help younger people in show business.  Dick Powell was unstinting in his support of the burgeoning talent, both on and off screen.

Other programs produced under the Four Star banner include Wanted: Dead or Alive with Steve McQueen, The Westerner with Brian Keith, Trackdown with Robert Culp, Black Saddle with Peter Breck and Russell Johnson and Law of the Plainsman with Michael Ansara.  David Janssen starred in Richard Diamond, Private Detective, adapted from the radio series which starred Dick Powell.  The Detectives starred Robert Taylor.  Programs in the 1960s included The Rogues with David Niven, Charles Boyer, Gladys Cooper and Robert Coote, Gene Barry in Burke's Law and Anne Francis in Honey West.  

Joan Crawford guested twice on the program.  Ida Lupino and James Whitmore are featured in a taut first season episode entitled Fearful Courage.  This would be the first of five appearances for Whitmore in a challenging variety of roles.  You might tune in and see, to your surprise and delight, Edward G. Robinson, Ralph Bellamy, John Payne, Eddie Albert, Van Johnson, Lew Ayres, Chester Morris, Brian Donlevy, Raymond Massey, Sammy Davis, Jr. or Chuck Connors playing a fellow named Lucas McCain.  If it is talented ladies you wish to see, look no further as Julie Adams, Audrey Totter, Martha Hyer, Marsha Hunt, Beverly Garland, Rita Moreno, Constance Ford, Hedy Lamarr, Beulah Bondi, Mary Astor and Carolyn Jones found interesting frontier women to bring to life.  I guarantee you that if you tune into Zane Grey Theater, not only will you be entertained by an interesting story, but each episode will feature a favourite or familiar actor.

Cloris Leachman, Robert Ryan
You Only Run Once

The first episode of Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater is You Only Run Once, one of four episode guest starring Robert Ryan (On Dangerous Ground, Bad Day at Black Rock) and Cloris Leachman (The Last Picture Show, Young Frankenstein).  Circumstantial evidence and jealousy lead Ryan's rancher to run afoul of vigilantes led by a bitter John Hoyt.  With the likes of Parley Baer, Leo Gordon, Douglas Fowley and Whit Bissell in the cast, the script is quite involving and emotions are brittle.  

Also from season one, a favourite of mine is Stage for Tucson.  A talented ensemble led by Eddie Albert finds travelers facing a crisis at a stage stop.  Deforest Kelley, John Ericson, Ian MacDonald, Bing Russell and a fiesty Mona Freeman give entertaining performances that remind us why this is classic television.

Dick Powell
Adding to his workload on Zane Grey Theater

Of course, our host took the time to appear in a episode or two during the run of the series.  Courage is a Gun has a wonderful script about a hot-headed young gunfighter played by Robert Vaughn who is hired by saloon keeper James Westerfield to take out the sheriff played by Dick Powell.  How does the sheriff's love, the town doctor played by Beverly Garland, come in to play in this tense situation?

Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater was awarded a Writer's Guild of America award in 1961 for Anthology Drama, 30 Minutes in Length.  Other nominees that year were Alcoa Theatre, The Dupont Show with June Allyson, The Twilight Zone and Goodyear Theatre.

In 1961 Dick Powell, after the end of Zane Grey Theater, moved on to another star-studded anthology series in which he would host and appear, The Dick Powell Theatre.  The series won a Golden Globe for Best TV Program and was nominated for 9 Emmy awards, winning one for guest Peter Falk.  The program was also honoured with nominations and wins from the American Cinema Editors, the Directors Guild of America and the Writers Guild of America.  Dick Powell's television legacy is one of great distinction as one of the first and most successful independent producers in the industry.

24 comments:

  1. Four Star produced some great shows, certainly all mainstays of TV and familiar to our generation. The roster of names you listed is impressive, that alone tells of the quality. Great post.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I find the trajectory of Dick Powell's career from boy singer to influential producer to be fascinating. He certainly was a renaissance man.

      Delete
  2. It's too bad that anthology shows aren't as popular anymore. They'd be much easier to get into and one wouldn't have to worry about following story arcs.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Back in my day (said in grumpy old lady voice) when a show ended with "...to be continued next week", people felt gypped. In all likelihood you would be tuning in next week anyway, but it was the idea that you had to that made us shake our fists at the TV.

      Norman Powell, who worked as a production manager for his father's company, said in an interview that one of the reasons for the decline in anthology series is that the cost, especially in creating sets, became prohibitive. It certainly seems plausible that a standing set would be a comfort to the budget. On the other hand, it might also be a push for creativity.

      Delete
  3. Wow, I adore Dick Powell in all those great Busby Berkeley musicals, but I had no idea he came to be such a mover and shaker behind the scenes! And what an incredible cast list!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I can't help but think that it wasn't only the work, but Dick Powell's persuasiveness and friendship that helped get so many amazing guest stars on his shows.

      Delete
  4. I'm constantly surprised by Dick Powell's versatility. I knew he'd done some directing but I must admit, I was completely unaware of the Zane Grey Theater - it sounds like a wonderful programme. What a stellar line-up of stars! I'm a bit too young (!) to have enjoyed them first time round, but I really wish TV like this had been around when I was growing up...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm late to the "Zane Grey Theatre" party as well. I hadn't seen it until we had a specialty western channel in the early 2000s. My husband was channel surfing and shouted to me, "You better come see this. Edward G. Robinson in a TV western. Just your thing."

      There appear to be a few episodes of the show on YouTube. You won't be disappointed.

      Delete
  5. I've never heard of this series – it sounds AMAZING. Very impressive list of guest stars.

    I loved the quote about not having to hold your stomach in if you're the director.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Just like the movies, classic tv holds a lot of treasures for us to discover.

    Great quote, isn't it? Powell must have had a good sense of self and sense of humour.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Nice job on introducing many people to a great but lesser known show, one of the few western anthologies ever produced. Powell's clout ensured so many wonderful guest stars. Glad to see you comment on "Stage to Tucson," one of my favorites from season one (who thought Eddie Albert could play such a baddie?). Pity VCI only released the first season to DVD so far - but boy, what a season!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's so aggravating when an entire series doesn't make it to DVD. I remember episodes when they aired locally years ago that I would love to see again, but they aren't all jammed into that first season.

      Delete
  8. Marvelous pick for this blogathon, CW. Dick Powell was a true television visionary. I remember watching ZANE GREY THEATRE as a kid (in synidicated repeats!). The talent behind the camera is as impressive as that in front of it. Imagine scripts written by Sam Peckinpah, Bruce Geller (who would later create MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE), Aaron Spelling--that's pretty amazing!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Powell's vision and energy was a boon to the industry and TV fans. The impressive talent behind "Zane Grey Theatre" makes it still fresh and exciting viewing to this day. It was fun to contribute a look at the show to the blogathon.

      Delete
  9. Some of the episodes are available online, so I'll check them soon. Dick Powell made great transitions through life, showing all his talent in several roles and functions. Too bad he was dircting The Conqueror in the ill-fated radioactive desert...
    By the way, watch Hart to Hart! I'm sure you'll love it!
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'll remember to check out "Hart to Hart". It's funny, but for a girl who has watched an awful lot of TV in her day, there are still a lot of shows left for me to catch up on.

      Delete
    2. Great post as always, CW! Powell was so much more than the simpering juvenile of those 30s Warners musicals. He really used his talent and spanned the decades in all medium.

      Delete
    3. Dick Powell left quite a legacy. Look at all the fans he has in the 21st century!

      Delete
  10. My Grandpa was a fanatic when it came to westerns on TV -- those were about the only shows he watched! (Other than Groucho's quiz show!) I watched a lot of Zane Grey Theatre before I even knew who Dick Powell was. I was born in '52, so I probably remember the episodes after '58 or so. I always think of Grandpa when I think of those shows, and he would love your wonderful article. Great job!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That makes me happy, Becky. Your Grandpa, he was a "Chester" fan, wasn't he? I think we'd have gotten along. It's a good thing he liked westerns, sometimes when I look back at the network's schedule it's like looking at one big prairie.

      Delete
    2. Oh my gosh, that takes me back! Chester vs. Newley! That was fun ... yes, Grandpa was a Chester fan, but he grew to love Newley too. Actually, I myself became fond of Newley, although I would not have admitted that during our debate!

      Delete
    3. When you're a western fan, the fun never ends.

      Delete
  11. As a Dick Powell fan I loved this article! I have the VCI Season 1 set and haven't even dipped into it. Definitely need to do that. :)

    Best wishes,
    Laura

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Laura, the DVD is a real treat. The sad thing is that the other seasons have yet to see the light of day, and season 1 will leave you wanting more.

      Delete