Tyrone Power: King of the Disaster Movies

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He was pummeled with cereal, caught in a fire, then crickets invaded, the earth shook underneath him, and the rains came. Through it all, Tyrone Power stayed impossibly handsome and survived to make another film.

In the late ’30s, Tyrone Power was the undisputed King of the Disaster Movies, as well as being chosen by distributors as King of the Movies from 1938-1941. There was a good reason why, when Power was around, natural catastrophes occurred on 20th Century Fox film sets. Disaster movies were big-budget films, and Fox always put a big budget behind its biggest leading man.

In Old Chicago (1937)

Darryl F. Zanuck originally wanted Clark Gable and Jean Harlow to star in his epic film, In Old Chicago. You know Zanuck. If Tyrone Power was King of the Disaster Movies, Darryl Zanuck was King of the Copycats. Columbia made It Happened One Night; Fox made Love is News. Warners made The Adventures of Robin Hood; Fox made The Mark of Zorro. So surely no one in Hollywood was surprised when Zanuck announced his answer to MGM’s San Francisco earthquake — the Chicago fire, starring the fictional O’Leary family and their cow.

Zanuck’s dream cast was not to be. Loan-out plans fell through with the death of Jean Harlow, so Zanuck cast two stars he had under contract, Tyrone Power and Alice Faye, as well as Don Ameche, who had been a mainstay at Fox for several years. Tyrone was new to the studio but had impressed the top brass and the public in Lloyds of London, in which he received fourth billing

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At the time of its release, In Old Chicago was one of the most expensive films ever made, thanks to the twenty-minute fire sequence, which cost $150,000 (the equivalent of $2,496,953.57 today) and burned for three days on the Fox back lot.

Tyrone had blood and dirt on his face at the end but still managed to look adorable as he and his Ma (Alice Brady, who won a Best Supporting Oscar for her performance) watched the smoke.

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Suez (1939)

For Tyrone Power, Suez was a mixed experience. He met the woman with whom he fell crazily in love, Annabella, but he was attacked by cereal.

For Annabella, the movie was a mixed experience, too. She met and married Tyrone, but Mr. Zanuck wasn’t pleased and decided not to make her a star in America after all. Actually, he tried to get her to go back to Europe, but she said no. Can you blame her? So she was attacked by cereal as well as by Zanuck.

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Suez, the story of the building of the Suez Canal by Ferdinand de Lesseps, is notorious for being one of the most historically inaccurate films ever made. In fact, the de Lesseps family sued 20th Century Fox for taking too many liberties with the facts. (They lost.) The movie takes place over 15 years, and at the end, Tyrone Power has one gray hair at his temples. He once said that Zanuck would rather have died than let him age.

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Director Allan Dwan had this to say about the sandstorm: “I got about a hundred of those huge airplane prop fans we used to make a wind and lined them up, but I had to discard them because the sand would cut the skin off the cast. Instead we used ground cereal that we threw in front of the blades. The people had to move through that all day long, and I’m telling you, that was an ordeal. Everybody got beaten up good — particularly Tyrone Power Power and Annabella.”

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Despite the completely fictional account of the building of the Canal and the false story of de Lesseps, the film placed #19 in the top box office films for 1938. #1? Another Power film, Alexander’s Ragtime Band.

Brigham Young (1940)

One might think that Tyrone Power played the title role in Brigham Young (1940), but Young was portrayed by Dean Jagger. Who was Power? John Smith? Guess again. He was a guy named Jonathan Kent, a mere Mormon. Why was he in it? For box office, baby.

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Power costarred in this film with beautiful Linda Darnell, who played a woman not part of the Mormon faith. The movie took a while to film and, by all accounts, was not fun.

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At the end of the film, the crickets show up, and that scene was real. The cast had to fight them in what was a horrible experience, many complaining it wasn’t worth the money they were being paid. I am pretty sure that, though this counts as a Tyrone Power disaster film, Mr. P. was not on hand swatting at crickets before the seagulls appeared. Although missing his charming presence, the scene is brilliantly done and poignant.

The Rains Came

In the year considered the best ever for films, 1939, Tyrone Power starred with Tyrone Power, Myrna Loy, George Brent, and Maria Ouspenskaya in The Rains Came, directed by Clarence Brown. The film was the #4 top-grossing movie of 1939 and won the Academy Award for Best Special Effects for its incredible earthquake/flood sequence. It was nominated for four other Academy Awards.

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In those days, alas, Indians did not play Indians, so Power was cast as a British-educated Indian doctor. He looks great with his turban…but when he turns it off and does a monologue in close-up, be still my beating heart.

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The film started with a budget of $2,500,000, but an additional $100,000 was added. The sets cost $500,000 – astronomical for those days. The flood and earthquake scenes, some of the most magnificent ever on celluloid, cost $500,000 and took over a month to film. However, I don’t think Tyrone Power got wet, even when a 50,000-gallon tank of water was used for the flood.

All that aside, The Rains Came is a beautifully-done film with wonderful performances, despite some miscasting. I have always found the end especially haunting. Lots of people agree: In the year of Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, The Rains Came was the fourth largest gross of 1939. Number 2? Jesse James, starring Tyrone Power. Popular much?