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by Katharine Hartley
Modern Screen
November 1938

SEE THAT man over there?” said Dick, nodding across the room. “He has a new baby, too. At the hospital he had the room across from ours.”

The room across from ours! Well, in a way, that foolish-sounding statement was true, for when one Joan Blondell Powell gave birth to one Ellen Powell, weighing eight pounds six ounces, on June 30th, Papa Powell just about moved into the hospital, too.

It was eight o’clock in the morning when Dick bundled Joan into the car, and set off on that long awaited trip to the Cedars of Lebanon. A few minutes before he had phoned the studio to say that he wouldn’t be coming to work.

“It’s here!” he had announced ecstatically and prematurely, and that was what threw the studio into so much confusion. The word spread that the baby had been born at eight, and yet no one could discover during the next few hours exactly what it had been, a boy or a girl. The baby didn’t arrive until after four in the afternoon, but Dick was too jittery between the hours of eight and four to even be reached on the phone.

“I had only one disappointment about the whole thing,” he admitted at lunch, smiling ruefully. “For months I had been planning that automobile trip to the hospital with Joan. I had it all worked out in my mind. I would break every speed law, ignore every stop sign, go through every red light on the way.

Then when I heard a siren screeching, I would give it even more gas. Finally, of course, the law would catch up with me, then I would say my little piece, ‘Sorry, old pal, but the lady has to get to the hospital!’

“Then, just like I had always seen it in the movies, a glow of sympathy would come into the copper’s eyes. More sirens and more speed, only this time the cop would be ahead of us, an escort all the way there! You see,” explained Dick, “I’ve known what it is to get a ticket in my time! I’ve tried all the excuses I could ever think of, but I always got the ticket anyway. For once I was going to have the pleasure of a real excuse, and for once a cop was going to grin and not yell at me.

“Now that fellow over there,” again Dick indicated the other new papa in the room, “he really did have that kind of luck. On his way to the hospital that same morning they did try to pinch him. But nobody even looked at us twice! I went through a stop sign and almost brushed a state patrolman off his motorcycle seat, but he wa parked there talking to another patrolman and they were too engrossed to even notice that it was a car instead of the wind that went by. We didn’t even get a tumble!” Again Dick regarded the other papa, envy in his eyes. “But he’s a nice fellow, very nice. We smoked each other’s cigars.”

Shortly after the baby was born Joan was put on a strict diet, with a special diet nurse in attendance, and at the same time Dick received one of his bi-annual notes from Mr. Warner—a note which always says simply, “Dick, take it off—” and Dick knows all too well the meaning of that. It means that he’s put on an extra pound or two and had better get rid of it. On this occasion he made it an excuse to be with Joan at the hospital for three diet meals a day. “It’s hard to diet alone,” he told the nurse, “but if I diet with Joan, it’ll be easier for her. So how about it? Can’t I join her at meals?” And the nurse, swayed by the Powell grin, had to let him have his way.

All new papas are a little nutty, of course, but Dick was one of the most jittery about-to-be-papas that we’ve had around Hollywood in a long time. Several weeks before the baby arrived Dick was at work in “Head Over Heels” and had to be on location several miles from a telephone part of the time. That meant he would be out of touch with Joan, but Dick devised a scheme to remedy that.

FEW people realize that Dick is a true handy-man at heart. Just last month he took the ailing Powell washing machine apart and put it together again, and the month before he built a fence. But, unlike Tom Sawyer, he white-washed it himself. Also on his sailing boat, the Eroica (which is a Beethoven Symphony, in case you are curious about the name), he has a short wave radio transmitting set and is licensed by the radio commission as an operator.

It was Dick’s experience in this connection which gave him the idea for keeping in touch with Joan, even while he was on location: to install one of those new two-way short wave marine telephone sets, with which he could pick up anything within a radius of a hundred miles of the harbor radio station. All Joan would have had to do then was to telephone the station and they would broadcast a message to Dick. Without this safety precaution to ease Dick’s mind, he might not have been able to finish the picture with so much calm and ease.

However, now that that is all over, father is doing well. He naturally receives congratulations on every side, and when asked how the baby is, he answers enthusiastically, “Prettiest thing in town!” They named her Ellen just because they liked the name. It was simple and not gaudy, and not theatrical—just like the parents themselves. Had Ellen been a boy she would have been David Blondell Powell. But Ellen is Ellen and they are glad of it, since they already have Joan’s boy, Norman. Normie is three-and-a-half now, and quite the first light of Dick and Joan’s lives, and will remain so, since there is to be no nose-throwing-out-of-joint in the Powell household.

“Normie is strictly a boy’s boy,” Dick said. “One month he is a cowboy, with all the contraptions and all the whoops. The next he’s a fireman, with wailing siren and a fireman’s helmet slipping down over his eyes. This morning when I left he had gone Mexican. The next thing I know he’ll be an actor. Now we’re very glad to have a girl.

“You know, Joan simply adores children, not only her own, but everyone else’s too. During the last few months before Ellen was born she spent every day on the beach, with Normie. They went to the beach club, but Joan never spends any time with the grown-ups there. You’ll always see her off down the beach somewhere, with about sixteen kids grouped around her. She builds sand castles with them, digs tunnels, tells them stories, somehow manages to keep them amused, and herself too. She and Normie always took their lunch with them. Sand in the sandwiches makes no difference to them!”

Dick has always been mad about sailboats, so while Joan stays in the sand, Dick sets sail on the sea. It’s a very real compliment to them, that they can and do leave each other to their own particular likes—when it comes to pastimes and sports. They are so thoroughly devoted to each other that they actually enjoy seeing the other do what appeals most, whether they are together in the doing or not.

Dick bought his very first boat several years ago. Then he traded it in on the larger Eroica, and last spring he had dreams of capturing the cup in the “around the island” race, off Catalina, sponsored by the California Yacht Club.

“The first race I had ever been in, and it would be the time of the greatest storm on the West Coast in twenty years! Just my bad luck. I was one of twelve racers who started out, and only two boats even finished at all. The wind and rain started, that same wind and rain that brought on last spring’s terrible flood, and my skipper and I soon saw that we were being driven into the Isthmus, and if we didn’t turn around and start back we’d be dashed against the shore. We had to use the motor and it took us eight and a half hours to go back eighteen miles—so you can know how bad it was. But I’m not going to give up. The next race, you can be sure, barring an act of God, I’ll at least be in on the finish!”

Few people think of Dick in this light—as a man seeking adventure, a man who keeps fighting for his goal. He has always seemed so smiling and good natured, so easy come, easy go. But behind the placidness of the Dick exterior there is the battling spirit.

AND not the least of his battles he has waged has been the one in his career—his wish to be allowed a chance as an actor, in a non-singing role. For years Dick has sensed that a motion picture career built on song had weak links in its chain, and recently he rebelled and refused to do the next singing part which the studio had lined up for him, the one in “Garden of the Moon,” which John Payne did eventually in his place. He sat tight at home, and then finally returned for “Head Over Heels,” in which he sings only one song.

Dick said to me with humor and honesty,”If there is one thing I hate it’s being known as a boy who is always ready to break into song, and I think audiences after too much of it, will begin to hate it too. That’s the thing I want to look out for. I love to sing, as every singer does. But I want to act, without singing, now and then. The only non-singing pictures I ever did was when I first came to the screen. I did one with George Arliss, and another with Will Rogers. But people have already forgotten about those.”

Dick has another unfulfilled wish too. “Joan and I would like more than anything to make a picture together. I think, naturally—” with another grin, “that she’s one of the best actresses in pictures, and I want to work with her, but there’s that old bugaboo to be overcome: that married couples are not romantic in pictures. I can’t see that point of view, but producers seem to feel that audiences wouldn’t be excited about man and wife appearing together. And yet what is more romantic than marriage? But maybe I am too oldfashioned about marriage.”

Those words coming from Dick are a bit astounding since a few years ago he was a complete cynic as far as love and marriage were concerned. Having had one early first try which was unsuccessful, he had let it blight his outlook. Then, too shortly after “Flirtation Walk,” when Dick’s stock and his salary went up and up, and he found that girls were delighted to appear witbas”:n; here, there and everywhere, he waHowii-t with the very serious question of w’liiuier he was being liked for his company, or for the accompanying flash of photographers’ lamps which trailed him wherever he went.

Dick Powell certainly is not one to thrive on artificiality, and it was this aspect of Hollywood romances which worried him. He wanted marriage, if he was to have it at all, for a home and contentment, and not to make of it a double barrelled bid for publicity.

THAT’S what Joan and Dick have now, a perfect home, an ideal family life. And it’s the most that these two want of life. Their careers are still important to them, but their careers are not a drain and a strain in their lives. Dick is quite frank in saying that if Joan had to stop acting she would probably miss it more than he would, for she was born and brought up a trouper. As for him, if his career were finished he could turn to something else without one backward look because the desire to be in the public eye is one which has never hit him.

The one thing that Dick Powell knows he will have ts face, if ever that time comes, is an adjustment in his living expenditures. The Powells do not live extravagantly now (the boat is really the one luxury Dick allows himself), but they do live in pleasant comfort, such as another less lucrative business might not allow. But when Dick reaches’his forties and fifties, you will never find him flinching and flushing when he overhears someone say. “That’s Dick Powell. Remember him when he strolled down Flirtation Walk and had twenty million sweethearts?”

If you could meet the Powells at home on one of their drop-in Sunday afternoons, you would know yourself that the aura which radiates from them is one of utter happiness. Their home itself is an invitation to cheer. Windows open to the sunlight, doors thrown wide, big easy chairs and divans everywhere on which to lounge and relax. They practically live in the study, and there, on the tremendous round coffee table around which everyone gathers, is a perfect indication of their hospitality, a cigarette box two feet long, filled with cigarettes, open so you get the message at once, “Help yourself.”

The whole house is like that, everything for convenience and ease, everything with a spirit of generosity, of wanting to be shared. Ask Dick who comes there on Sundays and he says, “Anyone who likes to laugh.
We have lots of just silly fun—games, stories, conversation about anything and everything but shop.”

Sometimes Dick does not even join in.

While the merriment goes on he may be off in the corner fixing an electric light plug, or rigging up an extension for some lamp, for Dick and Joan are never host and hostess in the organizing sense.