Star of the Month: Jane Powell
Let’s start Summer 2019 with the lovely Ms Jane Powell!
Have you heard of her? Is Ms Powell already a favorite star of yours? Powell’s phenomenal singing voice almost guaranteed her a place in movie musical history. She is probably best known for her spot-on performance as Milly in the classic film, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954).
I have always thought Ms Powell is just ADORABLE, and I don’t know how someone could hear her sing and not appreciate her talent. But I haven’t had the chance to see many of her films!
Generally speaking, if I’m going to watch a musical, you can probably guess that it will be something starring Doris Day (!!!), or something with a lot of dancing by my favorite dancers of the era, such as (Doris Day), Rita Hayworth, Ginger Rogers, Eleanor Powell, Gene Kelly, Gene Nelson, Ann Miller, Leslie Caron, or even Betty Grable. (I grew up dancing, so I love the dancers of the era who really knew their stuff!)
The truth is, I can be pretty picky when it comes to musicals. I’m a selective fan—there’s got to be a good story line, as in Singin’ in the Rain (1952) or Cover Girl (1944), or some fantastic dancing (by/with/or Doris Day) to make up for the lack of storyline.
Luckily, many of Jane Powell’s films, mostly musicals, didn’t lack in the storyline department, or they had some of that amazing dancing I was telling you about to make up for storyline weaknesses. As I haven’t seen many of her films yet, (nope, not even Royal Wedding (1951)!!!), I am really, really looking forward to catching Ms. Powell’s movies over the next few weeks.
And to kick off this month celebrating Jane Powell, here are some interesting facts about her I didn’t know before reading her autobiography last month.
She Was a Child Star
Didn’t know! In fact, of her 19 feature films, Jane is under twenty years old in 6 of them, and under thirty in the remaining 13! Ms Powell was not a child star in the Shirley Temple sense, but more along the lines of, say, Elizabeth Taylor and Roddy McDowall: they were child stars, but not such huge names that they couldn’t successfully make the transition to adult roles.
She was the Family Breadwinner at Age 6
Yep, talk about pressure! In Jane’s own words,
“…I never wanted to be a movie star, but Mama and Daddy wanted me to be another Shirley Temple—parents did in those days—so dancing lessons and curly hair were on the agenda…I had my first permanent when I was two years old, and many more after that. I cried through the whole operation.”
Her parents’ aspirations for her career were so strong that, when Jane was merely six years old, her father quit his job with the Wonder Bread Company, and the family moved from Portland, Oregon, to Oakland, California. The reason? A talent scout had seen young Suzanne (Jane was born Suzanne Lorraine Burce) dancing, and convinced her parents that she could be a star if only they moved to Oakland, where this guy could give her the proper training…
Well, she wasn’t discovered, and she didn’t become a star. (At least not yet.) So the family moved back to Portland (her dad couldn’t get his old job back…it was the Great Depression), and Jane continued with the singing and dancing lessons. She also sang on the radio, even becoming the Oregon “Victory Girl.” But just after Jane turned fourteen, the family went back to California, this time to Hollywood and stardom.
She was Discovered on the Radio
On this fateful trip to Hollywood in 1943, Jane sang on Janet Gaynor’s radio show Hollywood Showcase: Stars Over Hollywood. It was a talent competition, and guess who won? Yep! Jane did, was discovered by Louis B. Mayer, and signed a seven-year contract with MGM. And don’t forget, that $225 a week she was now earning, which eventually went up to $5,000 a week before she turned eighteen, was supporting not just Jane, but her mom and dad, too.
She Grew Up on the MGM Backlot. And was Friends with Liz T.
Well, she grew up on the MGM backlot from age 14 on. Jane says in her autobiography that
“By the time I was seventeen or so, Hollywood was my way of life.”
Jane attended MGM’s legendary “Little Red School House”—the school for underage stars on the MGM backlot. The school was MGM’s way of getting as much work/filming as possible out of their young stars without violating the California education laws. Previous attendees included Judy Garland and Lana Turner. When Jane arrived on the scene, her classmates included a young Elizabeth Taylor and Roddy McDowall.
Jane became friends with both Taylor and McDowall, mostly by default: MGM’s child stars never really got to know anybody outside of the studio gates. These kids were literally spending every waking minute at MGM! Isn’t that just so sad? In Jane’s own words,
“Elizabeth, who’s a couple of years younger, and I became friends….we were both doing the same thing, working. I’d go to lessons, she’d go to lessons…Later, when Elizabeth became my bridesmaid and I hers, people assumed we were very close, but in fact we just didn’t know anyone else to ask. How were we supposed to meet anyone else? We were both working all the time. It was hard to find enough bridesmaids for us.”
She Married Five Times
With Jane’s girl next-door persona, I was very surprise to learn this! Classy gal that she is, Jane doesn’t have a bad word to say about any of her husbands, and happily found her life partner with husband number five, former child star Dickie Moore, who sadly passed in 2015.
Jane, with her adorable sense of humor, poked fun at her and Elizabeth Taylor’s marital track records in her autobiography:
“She [Elizabeth] was a bridesmaid at my first wedding, and then I was a bridesmaid at hers. I’m certainly glad we stopped that bridesmaid stuff—it could have become a full-time career!”
(If you are under a certain age, you may not know that the legendary Elizabeth Taylor was married 8 times. That would make for a total of 13 marriages between Jane and Liz. Full-time bridesmaid career indeed!!!)
She Loves Fashion and Designed Many of Her Own Clothes
From the time she was a young girl, Jane loved clothes! You can imagine how much fun she must have had as a star during Hollywood’s Golden Era at the most glamorous studio, wearing beautiful clothes designed by the very best, including Helen Rose and Irene.
“I had many, many costume fittings, but I never minded: eventually the magic would appear…those wonderful seamstresses would somehow transform a sketch and bits of cloth into something phantasmagoric.”
Jane even assisted Helen Rose in designing her first wedding dress. She also designed all of her own maternity clothes for her three pregnancies! But because of her very petite frame—she is a mere 5’1”—designing her own clothes never felt unusual to Jane:
“I had to have all my clothes made anyway because I was so small. There was no such thing as junior clothes in those days. For years I’d had everything made—hats, gowns, petticoats, even underwear.”
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was Her Last Great Screen Role
“I certainly had no idea, when I was working on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, that the charmingly sensible pioneer girl Milly would be my last really wonderful role in a film.”
I was really surprised to learn that Jane’s film career was drawing to a close when she made Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). I mean, she is at her peak here! She is as cute as ever, her voice is as lovely as ever, and she is still so young—a mere 25 years old! How could her film career be on the downtick with all this going for it??!
As talented and charismatic as Jane was, times were changing. And therein lay the problem. The studio system—where stars were contracted to a studio for a specific amount of time, usually seven years—was drawing to a close. On top of that, public demand for lavish, big budget escapist musicals, the type of film Jane excelled in, was dwindling. She would still make another six films, but Milly was the last classic character Jane brought to life on screen. (But what a character to end with, right?!!)
Jane would have loved to have gone on making feature films, and as she so succinctly put it,
“I didn’t quit movies, they quit me.”
But don’t get too sad, that beautiful smile and voice were still put to good use: Jane enjoyed a very successful career in television and on the stage post-Hollywood career. She starred in touring productions of such classics as The Sound of Music, Oklahoma!, and My Fair Lady. Alongside Howard Keel, Jane even reprised her role of Milly in I Do! I Do!, a stage revival of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Jane was also a hit on Broadway, starring in Irene.
Celebrating Jane This Month! (And she's still with us!!!)
Her films may be what we best remember her for, but Jane Powell’s talent extended across so many entertainment mediums.
How lucky are we that Ms Powell is still with us today? She’s truly one of the last living legends of the Golden Age. And how lucky are we further still, to have access to so many of her films this month on TCM?!!
Did any of you catch the Jane Powell movies TCM showcased last night and this morning?
And don’t forget to check my calendar for her films that TCM will play next week!