The most interesting thing about Tyrone Power is that his name is really Tyrone Power. In a Hollywood where Archie Leach became Cary Grant and Marion Morrison became John Wayne, being born with the name Tyrone Power seems like something of a cheat. Or maybe his parents knew something? I do love the idea of a baby with the name Tyrone Power. It doesn’t sound like a baby name. “This is our baby, Fist Thrustman.”
Anyway, acting was in the Power family blood. His dad, born in England, was also an actor named Tyrone Power, as was his great-grandfather. So, just to be clear, Tyrone Power’s dad, Tyrone Power Sr., was also Tyrone Power Jr. So, for clarity’s sake, let’s call Tyrone Power’s dad, “Tyrone Power Sr. Jr.”
As the story goes, Tyrone Sr. Jr., died of a heart attack while preparing to go on stage for a performance of a play called The Miracle Man. Of course, if he had come back from the dead to perform the play, he would really be the miracle man, but he wasn’t that good.
Following his father’s death, Tyrone Power Jr., now just Tyrone Power, decided to become an actor. He went to Hollywood, eventually catching the attention of a director named Henry King. King was preparing a film called Lloyd’s Of London. Even though the lead role was already cast (with Don Ameche), King felt that Power, a complete unknown at the time, had… it? Charisma? Screen presence? Star power? Whatever we have come to define as "it," King felt Power had it. (Christ, these names) King went the legendary head of 20th Century Fox, Daryl F. Zanuck - who should have been renamed Force Controlman - and fought hard for Power to be given the role.
Somebody up there was smiling down, and Power got the part. And it did, in fact, make him a star. By 1939, he was the second biggest box office draw in the country behind Mickey Rooney. Power was an actor’s actor and could work in any genre, comedy, drama or musicals. In 1940, he starred in The Mark Of Zorro, which was a smash. In the eyes of Darryl Zanuck, that was it. Tyrone Power was Mr. Swashbuckler. The Mark Of Zorro was quickly followed up with the pirate adventure The Black Swan (not the Natalie Portman ballet horror movie).
He served in World War 2 as a Marine Corps pilot, then returned to Hollywood. By now he had clout and began to look for roles that were more challenging. His first film back from World War 2 was an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razors Edge, the meditative tale of a man traumatized by war who goes off in search of the meaning of life. The film was a hit and received a nomination for the Best Picture Oscar (The Best Years Of Our Lives took it home).
Daryl Zanuck was eager to get his star back behind a sword, but Power had other plans. He had picked up a copy of the just-published Nightmare Alley by William Lindsey Gresham (see the previous installment, He’ll Geek pt. 1), about a drifter named Stanton Carlisle who goes from carnival roustabout to phony mentalist act to big league con-man and then back down again. And then down some more.
Daryl Zanuck was quite reluctant to allow his star to appear in such an unsympathetic role, but at that time in Power’s career, he was past being told what to do. The original ending of the film left Tyrone Power’s Stanton Carlisle in the geek pit, destined, as in the novel, to bite the heads off chickens until he drinks himself to death. Zanuck put a big fat “no way,” on that, and tacked on a pretty sweaty ending in which Carlisle’s girlfriend Molly returns to save him from his fate.
Tyrone Power returned from the war wanting to dedicate himself to his craft and challenge himself as an artist. He sought out the story for Nightmare Alley and fought hard to get it made. Despite strong reservations, 20th Century Fox made the film.
And it bombed.
Despite being released in the heyday of film noir, and despite it being considered, today, a classic, at the time of its release, audiences were just not into it. The New York Times said the film, “traverses distasteful dramatic ground and only rarely does it achieve any substance as entertainment.”
But like so many films that are considered classics now, it was merely ahead of its time. The original Nightmare Alley is now considered one of the indispensible classics of film noir. And, while the bet did not pay off at the time, that’s what happens... at the carnival.
Next up, A mild-mannered industrial filmmaker from Kansas takes a drive through Utah and the result is an arthouse creepfest that inspired, David Lynch, George Romero and so many others. It’s Herk Harvey’s Carnival Of Souls!