Diminutive Jane Powell reflects on big career

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Actress Jane Powell celebrated her 85th birthday on April 1. Best remembered for two popular MGM musicals in the ‘50s, Ms. Powell appeared in around 20 feature films between 1944-1958, although in later years she played more dramatic roles on TV and in theater to great acclaim.

On the big screen, she was a reliable actress who could also sing and dance with the best. In “A Date with Judy” (1948) she held her own against the brilliant Elizabeth Taylor; she matched Fred Astaire step for step in “Royal Wedding” (1951); and she crooned alongside Debbie Reynolds in “Hit the Deck” (1955).

Standing just five feet tall and a slender 100 pounds most of her adult life, Powell was born Suzanne Burce, in Portland, Ore., where she performed on radio and in local theater.

“I started professional singing training when I was 10, and dancing when I was 2,” she said from her home in Wilton, Conn. Young Suzanne expressed little interest in an entertainment career, but her mother had other ideas.

While vacationing with the family in Hollywood in 1943, she won a talent contest and signed a contract with Universal Studios the next day. She was just 14. “I didn’t particularly want to do it,” she says, but her parents “had this planned.”

Within months, she was preparing for her first film “Song of the Open Road” in which she played, quite prophetically, a child film star named “Jane Powell.”  The character’s name appealed to the studio heads, and little Suzanne was re-christened Jane.

Today, her most known films are the two hit musicals, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” with Howard Keel and “Royal Wedding,” which features two famous solos by Fred Astaire: dancing on a ceiling and with a coat rack.

And in a charming six-minute vaudevillian-type skit, Powell and Astaire go head to head, matching witty banter, singing and dancing to a song with the longest title in any MGM musical: “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been A Liar All My Life?”

The routine perfectly showcased Powell’s on-screen energy, enthusiasm, and comedic talent.

Of Astaire, Powell says he was the consummate performer. “After you worked with Fred, you just didn’t want to work with anyone else.”

However, life for stars in the ‘40s and ‘50s could be tough. The major studios dominated the film industry and their actors had little say about role selection and were readily typecast. They could be “rented out” to other companies at the studio’s whim.

“The studios groomed young actors to be stars,” said Powell. “When I wasn’t working, I was studying in the MGM Studio School with the other kids like Margaret O’Brien, Roddy McDowall, and Dean Stockwell.”

As a result, Powell says she missed out on what many teenagers took for granted. “It was hard to make friends socially, we were all working so hard. I never had any ‘girls’ nights’ or sleepovers.”

Despite being pushed into a Hollywood career and pressures from the entertainment world, the stress of work never showed in Powell’s performances which were always upbeat and energetic.

But as the ‘50s drew to a close, so did the era of lavish Hollywood musicals. “They were expensive to make and the studio system dissolved,” said Powell. “Audiences became more sophisticated and wanted more of a story plot.”

Nevertheless, the MGM classics remain popular today with older audiences who like to reminisce, as well as younger viewers who are fascinated by the early Hollywood era.

“People still love to watch the old musicals,” said Powell.

Here’s a link to the Fred and Jane routine mentioned in the story, should you want to view it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Xxi7cGZq7Y

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 400 magazines and newspapers. Web site:www.getnickt.com

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