(April 1, 1929 – Sept. 16, 2021)
By Don Stradley
The late Jane Powell, whose father spent 20 years working for Wonder Bread, was a bit of a little wonder herself, a ton of charisma packed into her tiny, five-foot frame. From her early days at the Agnes Peters Dancing School in Portland Oregon, to singing on radio at age 8, she embodied the kind of child stardom that was rampant in the post-Shirley Temple era. The tradition demanded an unbreakable cheeriness, and a sense of seeming lighter than air, and Powell mastered it. She had boundless energy, and part of her appeal was that she always seemed entirely realistic, down to earth, even while the most angelic sounds emerged from her. Though her parents certainly had a hand in shaping her career – launched by winning a talent contest on Janet Gaynor’s radio program, which led to a long-term contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer - this was no robotic child star pushed onto the stage; this was a glorious performer born to sing and dance.
But her innocent aura became the bane of Powell’s career. Because of her diminutive size, she was still getting offers to play teens even as she passed age 30. In 1960, well after her heyday, she earned a star on the Motion Picture Walk of Fame on Hollywood Blvd, and it was all due to her energy and likeability. She said at the time, “I want to play floozies…They just can’t get me out of that little girl mold.” At times her publicity agent at MGM would have her billed as “The New Jane Powell,” but that made her mad, too. She’d hoped television would offer new opportunities to break out of her youthful image, but ultimately Powell gravitated toward the stage where she starred in a litany of great American musicals.
Wide-eyed teens from small towns, naïve girls yearning for stardom, and feisty young brides were her strong suit, beginning with her very first movie, Song of the Open Road (1944), where she played “Jane Powell.” Her real name was Suzanne Lorraine Burce, but the studios had already adjusted that for her (along with fudging her birthdate to make her seem even younger) casting her as a child star wanting to branch out on her own. Performing alongside such big names as Edgar Bergen, W.C. Fields, Sammy Kaye and his Orchestra, and wooden-headed Charlie McCarthy, this was a delightful debut for a Powell. She was soon running buddies with other youthful stars of the day, including Elizabeth Taylor, Debbie Reynolds, Margaret O’Brien, Dean Stockwell, Roddy McDowall and his sister, Virginia. She would be married five times, the most recent and longest lasting to Dickie Moore, another child star who appeared in, among other things, several Our Gang comedies for Hal Roach. They met in 1988 when Moore was researching a book project about…child stars.
She lived quietly with Moore in Connecticut, and chronicled her own career in a memoir, and later a one-woman show, called The Girl Next Door and How She Grew. Her stage work included regional productions of South Pacific, The Sound of Music, Carousel, and My Fair Lady, and a hit Broadway revival of Irene, which opened at the Minskoff Theater in 1973 and played for 594 performances. But Powell’s legion of fans will remember her best for a string of colorful musical films from the post war era where she played the quintessential American sweetheart. The best ones were produced between 1944 and 1954, including Delightfully Dangerous, Holiday in Mexico, A Date with Judy, Luxury Liner, Nancy Goes to Rio, and her two certified classics for director Stanley Donen, Royal Wedding with Fred Astaire, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Her television work, which was steady throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, included several appearances on Love Boat, Fantasy Island, and Growing Pains. Her final TV appearance came in 2002 with a turn on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. A year later, at 72, she played Mama Mizner in Stephen Sondheim's musical, Bounce, at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
Though she stepped in briefly for TCM host Robert Osborne in 2011, Powell was level headed when it came to Hollywood’s past. She rarely gave interviews, and wasn’t one to fawn over the old days. “I'm not very sentimental when it comes to the past,” she once said. “I don't live there and I feel for people who do because it's never going to be the same as you remember it.” But for those who do enjoy a trip into the past, there are few ways better than to enjoy an old Jane Powell movie. Her soprano voice was otherworldly, her blue eyes radiated life and mischief, and in MGM’s gallery of stars, she was among the brightest.
The Film Detective remembers the life and talent of Jane Powell with a showing of ROYAL WEDDING, Sept. 25 at 12:35PM ET.