RIP Jane Powell (1929-2021)

Who doesn’t love Jane Powell? Certainly, all her co-stars spoke of her fondly. They went out of their way to say how great a gal “Janie” was. She was close friends with people like Elizabeth Taylor, Roddy McDowall, Debbie Reynolds, all who she worked with. While the term “child star” can have tragic implications due to other actors of her time who experienced horrors from having to entertain at a very young age, Powell managed to remain above that stereotype and become a well-rounded, well-like person. Not only was she kind, but she also possessed a beautiful singing voice that made her star-power transfer to adulthood, something that was difficult for most adolescent stars to do. No tragedy was the story of Jane Powell, she seemed reminiscent of the free-spirited, high-hoped, and humorous girl that you see on the screen in her delightful movies (that I’ve seen many, many times again).

Because Jane Powell was a singer, she was able to get into the entertainment field at a young age, getting gigs on the radio and starting her film career in 1944 at fifteen. Jane Powell looked up to another soprano film star, Jeanette MacDonald. It looked like Powell was going to follow in the footsteps of MacDonald and Deanna Durbin when she was given a big build-up for Song of the Open Road (1944), her film debut. The film is really remembered the talents of Edgar Bergen and W.C. Fields contributing to the film, but Powell was the real star with her lead role as, of course, a child star. The film was in the vein of the roles Jane Withers and Gloria Jean had when they hit adolescence. Powell’s next film was the more stand-out Delightfully Dangerous (1945) where Powell once again plays a singing prodigy, but this time also tries to help her sister Constance Moore, who works in burlesque. There is a scene reminiscent of Deanna Durbin movies where the sixteen-year-old Powell (playing a thirteen-year-old) masquerades as a mature, older woman (quite convincingly).

Powell was able to step away from B musicals when MGM took a shine to her and immediately decided to build her up as their new singing star, an operatic version of Judy Garland or a younger version of Jeanette MacDonald. Powell’s first MGM film was the fun Holiday in Mexico (1946) where she is billed in the credits as “your young singing star”, which the film helped her become. Not only did Powell get to sing a mixture of operatic and modern tunes in the Joe Pasternak style, but she also got to handle comedy with co-stars Water Pidgeon, Jose Iturbi, and her life-long friend Roddy McDowall (as her love-interest). It was official, Powell belonged to the MGM musical. Powell, however, also was stuck playing innocent adolescents who were younger than the budding teenager was in real-life. She got to work with her idol Jeanette MacDonald in the cute Three Daring Daughters (1948), her friends Elizabeth Taylor and Scotty Beckett in the lightweight yet endearing A Date with Judy (1948), and George Brent and the scene stealing Lauritz Melchoir in the charming Luxury Liner (1948). All films were rewatchable and delightful, with Powell serenading audiences with such songs as “The Dickey Bird Song” and “It’s a Most Unusual Day”.

Jane Powell’s image matured a little bit for her next several films when she started hitting her ‘20s. She was still wide-eyed and innocent in Nancy Goes to Rio (1950) and Two Weeks with Love (1950), both standouts in her filmography, but she had some scenes with a twist. In the former, there are several scenes where sweet little Janie is mistaken as being pregnant and in the latter Jane gets to look quite alluring in a dream sequence where she wears nothing but a corset and a hat. Powell shined and dazzled in both and continued her streak of singing engaging songs, such as “Magic Is the Moonlight” and “My Hero”. After these vehicles, Powell was finally allowed to grow-up when she worked with Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding (1951). Powell played a part based off Fred’s real-life sister, Adele, and won the part after June Allyson became pregnant and Judy Garland’s tenure at MGM ended. While Powell was considerably younger than Astaire, the two worked well as a team in their numbers as brother and sister with Powell trying to juggle her many boyfriends before meeting dashing Lord Peter Lawford. I watched this film constantly (I mean CONSTANTLY) when I was growing up. When my young neighbor/friend saw me watching her sing “Open Your Eyes”, the three-year-old gushed, “Wow, she’s beautiful!”

It was official, Powell was finally allowed to be an adult on the screen. Powell was romanced by Vic Damone and reunited with her mother Danielle Darrieux in Rich, Young and Pretty (1951) and charmed considerably in the engaging Small Town Girl (1953). Powell also got to get away from MGM for a film and make a musical at Warner Bros. instead. Powell was teamed with Gordon MacRae and Gene Nelson for Three Sailors and a Girl (1953) in a type of role that usually went to Doris Day. She also made her best-remembered and best film in general with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), which not only was a hit with critics and audiences but was also a delightful experience for the cast. Co-star Howard Keel credited the fun on set and the friendship between the cast to Powell because she was such a nice person. Powell also got to play a different kind of role in Seven Brides as a feisty, head-strong frontier woman and Keel proved to be one of her best suited on-screen partners.

Even though the Hollywood musical was dwindling down in the mid-to-late ‘50s, Powell continued to make several memorable contributions to the genre. She was in the uniquely plotted musical Athena (1954), stole quite a bit of the show with her duet with Vic Damone in Deep in My Heart (1954), lit up the screen in one of our favorites of the time Hit the Deck (1955) (another film set that was reputedly enjoyable to be on), and reprised Ginger Rogers’s hilarious role in Tom, Dick and Harry (1941) for the musical The Girl Most Likely (1957). Powell also stepped away from her usual musical fare for two different excursions: the noir-ish The Female Animal (1958) where she and Hedy Lamarr both vie for George Nader and the unusual Enchanted Island (1958), an adventure film that was an odd fit for her, but she got to work with Dana Andrews, so some good came of it.

With the Hollywood musical dying in the ‘60s, Powell turned her attention more to TV. She made guest appearances on some television plays and made such TV movies as “Meet Me in St. Louis” where she played Esther and “The Jane Powell Show”. She also did some work on the stage, but her interest in making films waned. She said about it, “I didn’t quit movies. They quit me.” There was still, however, another important chapter left in Powell’s life. When former child star Dickie Moore finally got to meet Powell when he was interviewing her for his excellent book, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star (But Don’t Have Sex or Take the Car), the two hit it off and were married. After four failed trips down the aisle, Powell finally had a lasting marriage. Powell’s films will continue to entertain and delight musical fans for years to come and it’s quite common today for people to dismiss them as lightweight fluff, but when you’re upset and need a pick me up (like I certainly do right now), they are the best medicine there is. Not many dramatic actors can make the same claim.

~Bianca

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