Hollywood decided back in the Fifties that sexiness in an actress should somehow be balanced in the public eye with nonthreatening girl-next-door accessibility. Hedy Lamarr was great, but how ’bout that Jane Powell?
She was a top star at MGM for twenty years. She sang and danced opposite Fred Astaire. She was indeed an image of the girl next door, one who just happened to possess a supple soprano voice worthy of grand opera.
Born Suzanne Lorraine Burse in the Pacific Northwest in 1929, Powell arrived in Hollywood at age 15 after multiple radio appearances, and found herself typecast as a child movie star opposite Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, W.C. Fields and Bonita Granville in 1944’s Song of the Open Road.
At MGM, Powell was promptly enrolled at the studio’s dedicated schoolhouse where youthful performers were tutored in between set visits.
Margaret O’Brien, MGM’s answer to Fox’s Shirley Temple in the Forties, recalls her schooling in the famous white stucco bungalow with a red-tiled roof called the “Little Red Schoolhouse.” Among the school’s graduates besides Powell were Jackie Cooper, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Freddie Bartholomew, Roddy McDowell, and Elizabeth Taylor.
Powell’s early career at MGM comprised appealing turns in musicals and light romances, but by the end of the Forties things clicked into a much higher gear.
Powell famously appeared with Astaire in 1951’s memorable musical, Royal Wedding.
Directed by Stanley Donen, the chief characters are drawn from Fred and Adele Astaire, whose longtime brother-sister dance act originally made a splash in New York before migrating to London in he early 1920’s where it made an even bigger splash. (Fred’s Hollywood career commenced after his professional separation from sister Adele.)
In Royal Wedding, Fred pulls off his usual terpsichorean pyrotechnics including dancing with a hat rack and on the walls and ceiling of his hotel room. What is a bit of a surprise is how well Powell keeps pace with the master.
Her most enduring musical is 1954’s Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, another Donen masterpiece which confirmed Powell’s status as a bona fide STAR. Dore Shary, the executive who succeeded mogul Louis B. Mayer as MGM head during a five year period beginning in 1951, had his ideas about stardom.
Schary felt that it was what he called a “motor” that begets the magical effects stars emanate. He felt some stars had what one might call Cadillac motors, while others, less great perhaps, were merely Fords.” (Note: Schary pronounced this long before General Motors required a government bailout.)
Declared Schary: “This motor is not make-up or clothes or hair. It is not stature, size, kindness, or even talent. Three smaller than lifesize ladies, June Allyson, Debbie Reynolds and Jane Powell, have ‘motors’.”
Motorized or not, Powell belied her girl-next-door image offscreen. She had a busy romantic life, grinding through four husbands in 32 years. Her fifth marriage, to former child actor Dickie Moore in 1988, stuck. (Classic movie fans should note that Moore was terrific in 1947’s Out of the Past as the muted “kid”.)
Powell has made multiple tv appearances following the end of her movie career in the late Fifties. She was and is a STAR.