by Keith Monroe
Up, up, up goes Dick Powell’s stock, followed closely by Dick Powell’s plane—followed by loud wails from Junie Allyson
Harry Cohn, the all-powerful boss of Columbia pictures, turned maroon. “What?” he roared. “You mean you’re flying planes on Sundays?”
Dick Powell’s face hardened into the blank, tough-guy expression his movie audiences know so well. “Right,” he said in a flat voice. “I am flying on Sundays.”
“You gotta quit! I won’t have you taking chances while you’re working in a Columbia picture!”
“Then you’ll have to get yourself another boy,” murmured Powell nonchalantly. “Because I am going to keep on flying.”
The movie magnate choked and sputtered. Finally he barked, “Well, dammit all, will you fly me over to Palm Springs next week end?”
Powell’s calm defiance of the Columbia chieftain wasn’t quite so reckless as it looked. He was in the midst of making To the Ends of the Earth, and both he and Cohn knew he couldn’t be suspended while the picture was in production. He had no other commitments at Columbia afterward, so there was nothing Cohn could do.
The incident was characteristic. Dick Powell has a habit of doing reckless things in a safe way. He has been a motorcycle racer, a speedboat pilot, a poloist, an ocean-race sailor and above all an airplane pilot since 1927. But he has never been hurt.
Flying is Powell’s favorite sport—and he flies high, fast and far. He soloed twenty years ago, in a Jenny. Jennies were prehistoric egg-beaters able to make about 55 or 60 miles an hour with a tail wind, and some of their instruments sometimes worked. Powell had exactly two hours of instruction, in a Jenny, before he soloed.
This story of soloing after two hours’ instruction was always received with polite, dismayed smiles by Powell’s friends; they had never believed him to be a liar, but there seemed no other explanation.
One day recently, however, he flew into Pittsburgh with several friends and was vehemently greeted in the airport cafe by an elderly waitress. “You!” she cried. “I’ll never forget you as long as I live! You’re the man who should be dead. You took a Jenny up alone after only two hours!”
Still at the field, likewise, was the man who had “taught” him to fly in those two hours. The instructor remembered it vividly and he and Powell relived the experience there on the Pittsburgh field. “You told me I should go around the field again if my landing didn’t feel just right when I began it,” Powell chuckled. “I took the advice seriously. The wheels jounced a little as I touched the runway, so I gave her the gun and went around again. The second time I hit flat as a flounder and bounced halfway over the Alleghenies. The third time, I landed. 1 had to—it was getting dark. Crash trucks and ambulances and crowds of spectators had gathered to watch me crack up. But I set the Jennie down without even loosening a screw. After that I went off to take a lot more lessons and learn to fly.”
Ever since that first hectic solo Powell has been one of the movie colony’s most rabid enthusiasts for air travel. He bought an Ercoupe as soon as the war ended bought a Navion last year. He is checked out in B-23’s, and has flown every make and model of peacetime or military plane he could talk his way into. Now he is thinking of buying a Mustang, the lightning-fast fighter that proved so deadly during the war. “Dunno, though,” he muses. “June would probably disown me if I started flying a Mustang. She’s not exactly nuts about aviation, you know.”
June Allyson was an eye-witness to the narrowest escape her husband ever had. It was at the Bendix Air Races, where he has always been an honorary starter. After the races he took a friend up in the Navion to demonstrate the plane to him. “I put the ship through all its paces,” Powell recalls. “Finally I disconnected the horn that always blats when you cut the throttle, to remind you to put your landing gear down. Some time or other, you know, every pilot has started to land without lowering his wheels; that’s why private planes now have all kinds of horns and gadgets to warn you. But the horn made such a racket every time I put the plane through some fancy maneuver that I yanked the fuse.
“Well, after a while I was ready to land. I called the tower again and again for about a half hour, trying to get a goahead. But it was some National Guardsman, and he was deep in conversation with some friend in a C-54 about nothing at all; he never even heard me. Finally, when I was about out of gas, I got sore and decided to land anyway, the runway being clear and no other planes in the sky. The tower guy still didn’t even notice me until I was almost down. Then I heard him say on the radio, ‘Hey, get a load of this landingl This is gonna be better than the Air Races!’
“I looked behind to see what plane he meant. No plane. I could see people running, though, and a crash truck starting toward the runway. By this time I was skimming over the ground, easing lower and lower and waiting for my wheels to touch. The plane seemed to be unusually low, but still it didn’t touch.
Meanwhile, on the ground, June and her secretary were watching. June, who knows nothing about flying, looked on calmly. But the secretary was vaguely troubled; there seemed something odd in the plane’s appearance. “Where are the wheels?” she asked June.
Powell, of course, had forgotten to put down his landing gear. At the very last instant, he realized what was wrong and jerked the plane’s nose upward, just as the tip of the whirring propellor grazed the earth. He got it up safely and made a landing later. When he inspected the plane afterward he found that an inch or two on the end of the prop blades had been ground off as smoothly as by an emery wheel.
That was the closest Powell ever came to disaster. Generally he is as efficient as a steel trap. The same quick brain that keeps him safe in a plane has helped him soar higher and higher in his movie career. This ex-crooner just keeps on rising in Hollywood. He is now an independent producer and is making Pitfall, a taut melodrama for which he has the wise old veteran Sam Bischoff as coproducer and a whole galaxy of RKO experts as staff. Powell has made many of his best pictures at RKO and still is under contract there for two pictures a year; many of the studio’s people were glad to help with his producing venture.
People seem to like to help Powell. He was able to buy Mrs. Mike, a best-seller which every major studio wanted, for much less than the majors offered. He has prospered in all kinds of business ventures—he is a major stockholder in a deep-freeze concern, tl a president of a small oil-drilling company and president of a nation-wide chain of sales agencies for flying schools, called National Flight System. As the enthusiastic head of this latter enterprise, he averages two days weekly in its headquarters in Hollywood and flies all over the country for conferences with its local managers. Airmen like him because he talks their language; he is no dilettante, but a time-tested oldstyle cloud-buster who knows the flying business as well as he knows the movie business.
As Powell keeps on rising in every field he has tackled—no wonder Hollywood is calling him, with literal truth, a high flyer.