Jane Powell - Wednesdays in June
A bright spot of MGM musicals of the 1940s and '50s, Jane Powell was known for her vibrant coloratura voice, blonde good looks and all-American-girl image. Our Star of the Month for June also had a sparkling personality and dancing ability that allowed her to keep pace with such nimble costars as Fred Astaire and Gene Nelson.
Most of Powell's movies were considered charming but minor, although they did very well at the box office. Her best and most inventive musical, the backwoods romp Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), was a major hit both commercially and critically. It received five Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture, and won for Best Scoring of a Musical.
Her film with Astaire, Royal Wedding (1951) was also successful at the box office. Its memorable moments include Astaire's "dancing on the ceiling" routine and Powell's ballad, "Too Late Now," which received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song.
Powell had a reputation among her colleagues for being a thoroughgoing professional, yet sweet-tempered and fun to be around on a film set. Costar Howard Keel wrote that working with her was "like finding an Oreo cookie in your lunch box."
Powell was born Suzanne Lorraine Burce on April 1, 1929 in Portland, Oregon. The only child of an ambitious stage mother, she was taking dance lessons by age two and was given a hair permanent to heighten a resemblance to little Shirley Temple. By five, Suzanne was performing on radio. At age 12, during the World War II era, she was chosen to be the "Oregon Victory Girl" and traveled the state selling victory bonds. In that capacity she starred in two weekly radio shows.
In the summer of 1943, Suzanne's parents took her on a vacation to Hollywood where she entered a talent competition on a radio show hosted by Janet Gaynor. Her two-and-a-half-octave range gave her an easy victory in the contest. This led to auditions for MGM's Louis B. Mayer and producer David O. Selznick.
She was quickly signed to a seven-year contract at MGM and promptly loaned to United Artists for her first movie, Song of the Open Road (1944). Her character's name in that film was Jane Powell, and it was decided that would become her professional name as well.
Powell's most frequent and influential producer at MGM was Joe Pasternak, who had made a major star of another pretty young soprano, Deanna Durbin, at Universal Pictures. Moving to MGM in the early 1940s, Pasternak tried - with mixed results - to duplicate that success with Kathryn Grayson and then Powell.
Powell's first movie for MGM was Pasternak's Holiday in Mexico (1946), in which she plays the daughter of a U.S. Ambassador (Walter Pidgeon) who falls for a much older man (José Iturbi). Powell's songs, which included "Italian Street Song" and "Ave Maria," drew major attention and a new young star was born.
The pattern was set, and in quick succession Powell made other frothy Technicolor musicals in which she became involved in innocent romances and had an established star as a parent. In Three Daring Daughters (1948), it was Jeanette MacDonald; in A Date with Judy (1948), Wallace Beery; in Luxury Liner (1948), George Brent; and in Nancy Goes To Rio (1950), Ann Sothern.
Two Weeks with Love (1950), set at the beginning of the 20th century, was slightly more sophisticated, with Powell and Debbie Reynolds cast as sisters who find romance (with Ricardo Montalbán and Carleton Carpenter, respectively) at a resort in the Catskills.
Powell inherited her role in Royal Wedding (1951) when June Allyson and then Judy Garland had to forego the part; the film capitalized on the wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Philip Mountbatten. Astaire and Powell play a brother and sister song-and-dance team, recalling Astaire's act with Adele Astaire.
Rich, Young and Pretty (1951), is set in Paris and returns to a plotline involving Powell's parents as played by the American Wendell Corey and the French Danielle Darrieux. Small Town Girl (1953), a musical remake of a Janet Gaynor vehicle, has Powell as the titular character who falls for a playboy (Farley Granger). Ann Miller and Bobby Van get the best musical numbers in this one.
For Three Sailors and a Girl (1953) Powell went to Warner Bros. - a fateful move since she began a well-publicized affair with costar Gene Nelson. Since both were married, a scandal erupted that threatened to tarnish Powell's virtuous "girl-next-door" reputation. Back at MGM she redeemed herself with the rousing Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) in which she showed a new maturity as the initial bride, with Howard Keel as her strapping groom.
Powell's final musical vehicles at MGM were two with Debbie Reynolds and Vic Damone: Athena (1954) and Hit the Deck (1955), both produced by Pasternak. She had a guest appearance in the all-star Deep in My Heart (1954), a bio of composer Sigmund Romberg. Interest in the musical genre was waning, and Powell--along with many other MGM stars--departed the studio in the mid-1950s. She officially left in November 1955, when she was only 26.
Powell tried her hand at melodrama in Universal's The Female Animal (1958, TCM premiere), playing against type as a drunken party girl who is the adopted daughter of Hedy Lamarr. At RKO, Powell made a lively and entertaining musical, The Girl Most Likely (1958), with Cliff Robertson and Kaye Ballard.
Powell's final feature film (except for a bit in 1985's Marie) was Enchanted Island (1958), an adaptation of a Herman Melville story in which she plays a blue-eyed Polynesian! The film, costarring Dana Andrews, was made at RKO but released through Warner Bros. after RKO went bankrupt. By now, Powell seemed to have lost her place in films. "I didn't quit the movies," she said. "They quit me."
Like many other former movie stars, she turned her attention to television and the stage, working regularly through 2000. On television, she guest-starred on numerous variety and dramatic shows as well as in musical specials, made-for-TV movies, comedy series and even soap operas. In 2011, she filled in on TCM as a "guest host" while her friend Robert Osborne was on medical leave.
Her stage roles included leads in such touring productions as The Unsinkable Molly Brown, The Boy Friend, Brigadoon, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Oklahoma! and Carousel. With Howard Keel, Powell performed in a stage version of their Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, along with I Do! I Do! and South Pacific. She made her Broadway debut in Irene, taking over the title role from Debbie Reynolds.
Powell was married five times, with three children from her first two marriages. Her husbands were Geary Steffen (1949-53), Patrick Nerney (1954-63), James Fitzgerald (1965-75), David Parlour (1978-81) and Dickie Moore (1988-2015, his death). At the time of her fourth divorce she declared, "No more marriages, no more babies, no more puppies!"
But a few years later she changed her mind about marriage and wed former child star Moore, with whom she enjoyed an apparently happy union until his death. Now 90, she lives in Wilton, CT. At one point, she made it clear that she preferred the quiet life to stardom:
"It's a full-time job being a star. It's all-absorbing - and human relationships suffer from it. I'm past the point of champing at the bit, desiring this or that. I think now I've found my own happy ending without the help of a script."
by Roger Fristoe