Although he was pushing 30 when he made his film debut for Warner Bros., Powell seemed perpetually boyish and unspoiled by the harsh realities of Depression Era adulthood. In a series of peppy movie musicals beginning with 42ND STREET (1933), the Arkansas native was the face of New Deal optimism – the sunny side alternative to the Warner tough guys who roamed the Lot with a cynical sneer and a smoking gun (before the Motion Picture Production Code disarmed them in a manner apparently unimaginable to today’s politicians).
I particularly love the delightfully trippy, “backstage” musicals Powell made with legendary choreographer Busby Berkeley during this period. In a span of 24 months between March of 1933 and March of 1935, Warner Bros. released six Powell/Berkeley collaborations, four featuring tap dancer Ruby Keeler – the real life Mrs. Al Jolson – as leading lady. While many of these films have become iconic, their redundant storytelling structures and supporting cast members make them difficult to keep straight in my movie-addled brain. If I have that problem today, I can only imagine how Powell must have felt. So it may have been a relief when Jack Warner lent his popular leading man to Darryl F. Zanuck’s Twentieth Century Pictures for a very different type of musical comedy: THANKS A MILLION.
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