MGM replaced Mickey and Judy with a perky blonde in the late 1940s, and showcased her in a dozen films.
She took her stage name from the first character she played onscreen — at the age of 15.
And after dancing and singing with the best of them she was a full fledged MGM star.
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, Jane 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.
This was her movie debut, and since she played a character by the name of Jane Powell, — a child star saddled with an overbearing stage mother — studio solons figured a name change from the ho-hum Suzanne Burce was in order. Thus the teenager emerged with her marquee identity.
Powell’s early career at MGM as a teenager was full of promise from the start. It comprised appealing turns in a half dozen musicals and light romances — including the 1948 Elizabeth Taylor comedy, A Date With Judy. By the end of the Forties, specifically 1949 when she turned 20, 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by Stanley Donen, the chief characters are drawn from Fred and Adele Astaire, whose longtime brother-sister dance act originally made a splash in New York before migrating to London in he early 1920’s where it made an even bigger splash.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. She was 25 at the time.
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.
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, who died five years ago, was terrific in 1947’s Out of the Past as the muted “kid”.)
Powell, who was born on April Fools Day, is still with us at the age of 91.