Tuesday, July 23

MGMs Sopranos II

We'll recall Kathryn Grayson was the subject of MGMs Sopranos I.  After the career of MGMs great soprano, Jeanette McDonald, slowed down, the studio was anxious to get moving with some more lasses with golden pipes.  Grayson came first and just a few years later came our next songstress, Jane Powell. 

Grayson, while a young woman, was a woman at the start of her career... full-bodied, kissable, sensual.  Powell started out as an ingenue, a teenager at 15.  Most of her films included at least one parent and it was the job of that parent to be the watchdog over the perky daughter who could get into the damnedest jams when she wasn't singing.

Raised in Portland, OR, she began training as a dancer at age 2.  (While one usually thinks of her as a singer, a coloratura soprano to be specific, she certainly could also dance.  How else could she have become one of Fred Astaire's movie partners?)  She had straight brown hair which her mother soon had curled to resemble, as much as possible, the year older Shirley Temple.

She was also quite young when it was discovered that she could also sing.  In fact, her voice was quite astonishing for such a youngster.  She would soon be singing on radio, going on war bond tours and singing in public as much as she could.  On a vacation to Southern California, Powell sang on actress Janet Gaynor's radio show.  It was a competition which she won and as a result she secured an audition with Louis B. Mayer at MGM.  He was duly impressed and as he did with Kathryn Grayson before her, he hired Powell on the spot, without the standard screen test.

She was came to Hollywood at the right time and certainly came to the right studio.  Musicals were huge in the mid-1940s and would continue to be for another 10 years or so.  She became an integral part of the MGM family (and that is how Mayer thought of it... his family) and due to her young age, she would be looked after and groomed.

I never regarded Powell as a great beauty in those days.  She seemed a rather gawky teenager to me, although winsome and effervescent, but oh my could she sing.  As she grew a bit older, she was changed into a blonde, the studio's only blonde soprano, and she photographed more glamorously and stayed busy making musicals until the time came when they were no longer in.  I might add here that once she acquired some years, I think she turned into quite a beauty.

Her real name was Suzanne Burce and after she signed on with MGM, they immediately loaned her out to another studio for a film called Song of the Open Road.  In it her character's name was Jane Powell and it was decided it was a perfect fit for her, so Jane Powell she became.  (This would also happen to actor Byron Barr when he played Gig Young in The Gay Sisters and to character actor Justuce McQueen when his character in Battle Cry was named L. Q. Jones.)

Her movie career would only last through 19 films and a great many of them were just plain silly although they were mighty popular with a public that was content to have colorful MGM musicals take their troubles away.  What Jane Powell and a box of popcorn could do for the blahs.  She toiled in such trifles as Nancy Goes to Rio, Luxury Liner, Holiday in Mexico and Rich, Young and Pretty

Technically, A Date with Judy and Three Daring Daughters were as lightweight as the others but they got some extra attention.  Both were released in 1948.  In the former, she is an energetic teenager, on the verge of a hormonal bust-out, when she suspects her father is having an affair.  Crusty old Wallace Beery was a delight as her old man (a delight on the screen but apparently not on the set) and Elizabeth Taylor (three years younger than Powell) as her friend who shows Powell the ropes, as only she could.  And Carmen Miranda whoops it up and Robert Stack showed what eye candy he could be.  These are the reasons A Date with Judy was a bit better than some of the other stuff Powell did.  It is one of three films for which she is best remembered.

The two sopranos, JP and JM

What made Three Daring Daughters enjoyable was the presence of the mighty Jeanette MacDonald playing Powell's mother.  The pairing was a highlight for Powell, too, because she idolized the older star and grew up watching all MacDonald's MGM operettas with usual partner Nelson Eddy.  The two ladies formed a bond, which shows on the screen.  The plot involved a comedy of errors and complications that stem from the fact that the mama has secretly married and those daring daughters are out to unravel the deceit. 

In 1950 she made Two Weeks with Love, which again, should be lumped in with most of her slap-happy, sappy films, but something about it clicked for me.  It's one of just three Powell films that I own.  Maybe it was the snappy dialogue, spouted mainly by the great character actor, Louis Calhern.  Perhaps it was the energetic mugging by Debbie Reynolds and Carleton Carpenter (Aba Daba Honeymoon).  And it certainly could have been the lovely song My Hero during the imaginative dream sequence involving the entire cast done at the end of the film.  The sprightly plot dealt with the unexpected goings-on of a family on vacation at a Catskills resort where everyone inexplicably breaks into song and dance.  Who knows what it was?  It captured my attention.

Reynolds, by the way, made three films with Powell.  Athena and Hit the Deck are the other two.  She and Reynolds worked well together, complemented each other's acting and even share the same birthday.

Powell's other 1950 film is one for which she is also well-remembered, Royal Wedding.  As the sister of Fred Astaire (her love interest was Peter Lawford) she was half of a song and dance team in London at the time of Elizabeth's inauguration.  Powell was third choice after June Allyson (who got pregnant) and Judy Garland (who got ill).  I personally think it's one of Astaire's least successful films although I think Powell may have given the best performance of her career.  She was a bit bawdy and rough and tumble and loud as the testy sister, most unlike the wholesome and safe roles she usually played.

Small Town Girl with Farley Granger and Three Sailors and a Girl with Gene Nelson came and went without much notice.  Well, um, er, the latter really didn't escape without notice but not because it was some fabulous film.  While both were still married to others, Powell and Nelson embarked on a serious love affair.  Her marriage was technically on the rocks, but she had not moved out and on with her life.  The press jumped on it and neither looked very favorable.  The girl nextdoor took some hits.  Unfortunately (I think) they also broke up before they could seal the deal.  It might have been interesting to see how these two song-and-dance giants would have evolved personally and professionally.

Powell and Howard Keel

In 1954 she made the third film for which she is well-remembered, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers with Howard Keel.  (Keel, by the way, is the only lead movie singer to co-star with all three of MGMs sopranos.  After her movie career ended, she would work with Keel again on the stage.)  Like Royal Wedding, I think this is another film that is somewhat over-rated, although the famous acrobatic, outdoor dance involving six of the brothers (Keel didn't dance) and their rivals and their prospective brides is a standout.  What is perhaps most interesting, in terms of Powell's career, is SBFSB is the first time she looked like a grownup.

She and Vic Damone were a dazzling pair in a short but beautifully-filmed segment of the Sigmund Romberg bio, Deep in My Heart, where they sang Will You Remember?, made popular years earlier by none other than Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald.

The duo were together again in Hit the Deck, a rambunctious Navy musical co-starring Reynolds, Tony Martin, Walter Pidgeon, Ann Miller and Russ Tamblyn.  I own it, too.  It was just kinda fun.

She left MGM around this time, afloat for the first time in her professional career.  The movies were changing and so was Hollywood and MGM... both of which had experienced better times.  Television certainly played a major role as did the public's tastes.  It had been 10 or so years since the end of WWII and antiseptic musicals were no longer the safety net needed for Americans.  They had other ideas.  Like the talkies spelled fini for many silent screen stars, the death (or at least the long hospitalization) for movie musicals pretty much meant the end of some movie singers' careers in the mid-1950s.

Unless they could do something else.  If Powell could have done good dramatic acting, perhaps her career would have changed face and she would have endured as a star.  And she tried.  She only made three more movies.  They were dreadful, dreadfuller and dreadfullest.  The less said about the dramatic (make that overly-dramatic) The Female Animal the better.  For a good knee-slapper, get this:  Powell played the daughter of Hedy Lamarr!  Oh, come on!  Not only were they an impossible combination (Hedy at 16 must have adopted Jane) but they were an impossible combustion, too.  They didn't get on so well.

The Girl Most Likely (not to be confused with a film opening this week with the same title) costarred Cliff Robertson, Keith Andes and Tommy Noonan as three horndogs trying to be the guy most likely.  Most likely this helped kill her career despite being similar in plot to 3 Sailors and a Girl and other Powell successes. 

And then came Enchanted Island.  This could have killed any girl's career.  It was very, very, very loosely based on a James A. Michener opus called Typee and Powell, in a long black wig, was an island girl.  Oh God, I just can't discuss this one anymore... I'll break out in some island disease or something.  It would be the last film the lady would make.

She famously said that she didn't quit the movies, they quit her.  But she didn't quit working.  The first thing she did was a television production of Meet Me in St. Louis, costarring Tab Hunter, Jeanne Crain, Walter Pidgeon and Myrna Loy.  Wow, what a cast.  I have always wanted to see it and never have.  But I will, so help me, God, I will.  I'll never go hungry again, I won't lose Tara and I will see this teleplay.

Powell also did a fair amount of television and also stage (including Broadway in Irene) and nightclub work.  And she still occasionally works.

In 1988 she wrote a totally delightful autobiography, appropriately called The Girl Next Door... and How She Grew (William Morrow).  Frankly, once her movie career ended, I suspect she did grow.  A lot.  Wouldn't most of us?  She had been under the careful guidance of her mother for years and then got enveloped in the MGM womb.  The leaflet of her bio says this... a girl who never had a normal life, who, paying a price for all the glamour, never had a real friend, a true confidante or a deeply loving relationship until she was in her middle fifties.  She had some missteps but she learned.

Some missteps may have been four marriages and four divorces.  No longer the obeying ingenue, she would end four marriages because of serious complications.  (Read the book for details.)  Her two most well-known husbands, the first two, were Geary Steffin, a former ice skater and partner of Sonia Henie, and Patrick Nerney, who had previously been married to actress Mona Freeman.  Powell had children with them.  I suspect all of her husbands married up and not all could keep up.  Never a good thing.

Mr and Mrs Dickie Moore

In 1988 she married former child star Dickie Moore.  And they are still married.  She had never known him during their Hollywood days but when he set out to write a book on former child stars, he got an appointment with Powell.  It's likely she found that deeply loving relationship.

For some reason, I have always had memorable relationships with  actresses named Jane.  And this lady sureinthehell could sing.

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