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The Girl Next Door: Jane Powell (1929-2021)

Any list of actresses from the classic, golden-era age of Hollywood who fit the term "sultry" would be a long one. But the list of actresses who could be described as cheerful pretty much comes down to just Jane Powell, who died on September 16, 2021 at age 92. While other actresses played up their vampish, mysterious qualities, playing temptresses and heartbreakers, Jane Powell was somehow able to make cheerful characters relatable, not sugary, and irresistibly appealing. She starred in two of the all-time classic movie musicals and a number of lesser, still entertaining films, singing like a lark and bringing all the optimism and spirit of the girl we wish lived next door. 

She said she played the same character in all her movies "just different clothes and hair," and was a bit rueful that all the men who wrote fan letters to her saw her as a little sister, no suggestion of romance. "Being older to me was very important but [the studio] never let me grow up," she said. She played that character in real life, as well, feeling that she always had to be positive and cooperative in her personal and professional relationships. In her 1988 memoir, The Girl Next Door and How She Grew, she talked about feeling disconnected from her career, wishing for the life of the friends she had left behind when she went to Hollywood, when she read their letters about going to dances and dating. "I envied them so much," she said in a SAG-AFTRA interview, "though if the shoe was on the other foot, I know they would envy me." 

Tiny (just over five feet) and with a pure coloratura soprano voice, Powell made her movie debut at age 15. She was already an assured professional who had been performing for a decade with two radio shows on the CBS network by the time she was 12. The network arranged for her to appear on a talent show hosted by Janet Gaynor called "Stars Over Hollywood," and the next day she met with David O. Selznick. The day after that she was signed by MGM. 

MGM loaned her out for her first film, "Song of the Open Road" (1944). Powell had the lead as an exhausted child star who runs away and finds a better life picking crops with other teenagers to replace adults who have been called away to support the war. The most important impact the film had on her career was a new name. She was born as Suzanne Lorraine Burce, but was given her "Song of the Open Road" character name for the rest of her career: Jane Powell. She never liked the name, complaining that there were already a lot of Powells in Hollywood, but she got a call from the studio telling her that was who she was from then on and that was it.

Her next few roles were also as a singing teenager, mid-budget films with silly plots and supporting performances by major comedy stars like W.C. Fields, Edgar Bergen, and Carmen Miranda, and appearances by musicians like José Iturbi, and bandleader Xavier Cugat. To publicize "Song of the Open Road," she played the girlfriend of ventriloquist dummy Charlie McCarthy for months on the radio. Her favorite performer was Jeanette MacDonald and she was thrilled to co-star and duet with her in "Three Daring Daughters." 

In 1948, she had the title role in "A Date With Judy," based on the popular radio series. Powell played the title character, a high school senior in rehearsals for a performance at the big dance, and she introduced the standard, "Most Unusual Day." But most of the attention was on her impossibly beautiful co-star, 16-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, who got a lot of publicity for her first screen kiss (with Robert Stack). Powell and Taylor became friends and were bridesmaids at each other's weddings. Well, at the first wedding for each. She said, "After that we had to stop or it would become a full-time career." 

Powell's first significant film was "Royal Wedding" in 1951. She was the third choice; June Allyson had to drop out when she got pregnant and then Judy Garland had to drop out when she became ill. Powell found herself for the first time with a top musical co-star, Fred Astaire, and a top musical director, Stanley Donen. The film generated extra interest by giving US audiences their first chance to see real footage from the wedding of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, and featuring a co-star with a famous name, Sarah Churchill, daughter of Winston. In other words, the plot didn't really matter. The set-up was inspired by Astaire's pre-Hollywood dance act with his sister Adele. Astaire and Powell played sibling song-and-dance performers appearing in London as the royal wedding was about to take place. The most memorable musical numbers in the film are Astaire's solos, making a hat rack look as graceful as a ballerina and dancing on the walls and ceiling. But Powell was terrific in "I Left My Hat in Haiti" (unfortunately, in brownface) and in the improbably titled, "How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I've Been a Liar All My Life," a comic vaudeville-style number that gave her a chance to show off her comic timing, New Yawk accent, and dance skills. 

Her best-remembered film is "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," again directed by Donen and with the unforgettable dance numbers choreographed by Michael Kidd, including the barn-raising scene always included among the all-time greats. Howard Keel played the oldest of the seven brothers, who impetuously marries Milly (Powell) without telling her that he expects her to do the housekeeping for six other men. She did not do much dancing, but sang "When You're in Love" and "Wonderful Wonderful Day." Her own favorite of her films was "Two Weeks With Love" because she loved the very feminine Helen Rose costumes and many of her favorite co-stars were in the cast.   

Powell was at MGM in the last years of the studio system and the last years of the old-school movie musical. She went to the MGM "little red schoolhouse" with Debbie Reynolds, Margaret O'Brien, Elizabeth Taylor, and Roddy McDowell. She said she always felt isolated and disconnected from her success in part because it was more about pleasing her parents and the studio than about what she wanted. It was not until her fifth husband pointed it out that she realized how unusual it was that she had the lead in every one of her films. 

"The studio always said, 'Stay as sweet as you are and never change,'" she said in the SAG-AFTRA interview. She did what she was told and "never thought beyond my nose." Even if she had, she could not have predicted that the market for old-fashioned movie musicals was ending. "And if you were in musicals, they very rarely let you do anything else," she said. She continued to work, mostly television, including "Growing Pains" as the mother of Alan Thicke's character, and musical theater, starring in "My Fair Lady" and "The Sound of Music" and in two musicals with her "Seven Brides" co-star Howard Keel. She was a guest host on Turner Classic Movies and a special guest on one of the channel's cruises. Her final role was in an episode of "Law and Order: SVU."

After four marriages she met the love of her life in a real-life meet cute. One-time child star Dickie Moore interviewed her for his book about child actors, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (but don't have sex or take the car). They fell in love and the girl next door finally had a happily ever after ending—just like in the movies.

Nell Minow

Nell Minow reviews movies and DVDs each week as The Movie Mom online and on radio stations across the US. She is the author of The Movie Mom's Guide to Family Movies and 101 Must-See Movie Moments.

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