Wednesday, May 20, 2015

1941: Hollywood’s Brightest Star, the R.A.F., and the Playhouse

by Pat Blaufuss
Public Relations Manager

Tyrone Power, a mega-movie star during the 1930s to the 1950s, came to the Playhouse in 1941 to do a production of Ferenc Molnár’s Liliom.  Power was a film actor who loved to get back on the stage whenever he could.  As his movie career prevented him from undertaking  extended runs, he looked to shorter summer stock opportunities because, Power said, “ It’s relaxing and it gives you a new perspective.  Everyone has fun doing his work in stock.  Here there’s nothing of the huge, inhuman machine atmosphere that dominates Hollywood.”

Power had just completed a film for Twentieth Century Fox called A Yank in the R.A.F., about an American pilot who joins the Royal Air Force (R.A.F.) during a period when the U.S. was still neutral on World War II.  It was also a time when American-built training aircraft were flown to just outside Canada, where they were towed across the border (to avoid violating the Neutrality Acts) for use by Britain.

American pilot Tim Baker, played by Power, ferries a bomber from Canada to Britain.  In London, he runs into his on-again, off-again girlfriend Carol Brown, portrayed by Betty Grable, who works in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force by day and stars in a club by night.  To pursue her, he decides to stay in England and enlists in the Royal Air Force.

According to An American Theater: The Story of Westport Country Playhouse by Richard Somerset-Ward:

“The weekend before the Monday opening [of Liliom at the Playhouse], Power had received a cable from Twentieth Century Fox.  They wanted him to pull out of the play and fly back to Hollywood at once for urgent reshoots on the film he had recently made with Betty Grable, A Yank in the R.A.F.  It seemed that he had no option---his contract with [Darryl] Zanuck made it clear that the studio owned him body and soul. 

Tyrone Power and his wife Annabella,
his co-star in Liliom, take a lunch break
during rehearsals.
“Nevertheless, [Lawrence] Langner [Playhouse founder and artistic director] consulted the theatre’s lawyer in Bridgeport, Ken Bradley (husband of Ina Bradley, who would become one of the most important forces in the Playhouse’s affairs for the next fifty years).  Bradley came up with a 300-year-old Connecticut Blue Law, which enabled the local authorities to prevent a man leaving the state if he tried to do so before fulfilling a contract.  Langner asked the local sheriff to come to the Playhouse to make sure Power (who had no intention of leaving) stayed exactly where he was."

“Mr. Zanuck was thereupon informed by telephone that the forces of law and order in the great State of Connecticut stood ready to enforce the law.  Zanuck caved."

“In the end, of course, a compromise was crafted, but one that distinctly favored Westport.  It was agreed that Liliom would be performed on the Monday and Tuesday, then Power would fly to Hollywood and back, causing performances for the remainder of the week to be cancelled---but he would return in time to reopen the production at the beginning of the next week and would then perform uninterrupted for two weeks.  Despite the inconvenience to its box office and patrons who had booked tickets for later in the first week, the Playhouse gained two extra performances of a show that was sold out from start to finish.”

In 1941, the film A Yank in the R.A.F. was the 4th most popular movie at the U.S. box office.

In 1942, Tyrone Power enlisted in the Marine Corps.  For his service in the Pacific War, he received multiple awards, including the WW II Victory Medal. 

In 1945, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel opened on Broadway, a musical adaptation of the play Liliom

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