After high school, he left home for New York and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts at the age of 18. In 1912, Powell graduated from the AADA, and worked in some vaudeville and stock companies. After several successful experiences on the Broadway stage, he began his Hollywood career in 1922, playing a small role as an evil henchman of Professor Moriarty in a production of Sherlock Holmes with John Barrymore. His most memorable role in silent movies was as a bitter film director opposite Emil Jannings' Academy Award-winning performance as a fallen general in The Last Command (1928). This success, along with Powell's pleasant speaking voice, led to his first starring role as amateur detective Philo Vance in the "talkie" The Canary Murder Case (1929).