Friday, December 6

Dancing Girls III

We conclude our Dancing Girls series with a tribute to two of the best tap dancing ladies to ever grace the silver screen, Eleanor Powell and Ann Miller.  They were both under contract to MGM and Powell's career had ended by the time Miller came the studio.  Miller has also said that it was Powell who inspired her own future career.  The truth is there was never a tap dancer in the history of the movies to match Eleanor Powell, but if anyone ever got close, it was without a doubt Ann Miller.

Eleanor Powell is largely forgotten today and would probably be confused by many with the better-known Eleanor Parker.  She only made 13 films, a few of which were little more than specialty numbers in some glossy musical extravaganzas.  She was a bit of reluctant movie star because she considered herself a dancer first and foremost.  When MGM first came calling, she even refused its offer.  Luckily, Leo kept roaring for her.

She was a dancer as a young child and was discovered by a vaudeville kiddie producer.  She would become famous appearing on Broadway for her rapid-fire toe tapping, mostly as a solo performer.  She grew into an attractive woman who seemed to be always smiling.  To all who knew her throughout her career, Ellie was considered to be one of the nicest, most down-to-earth people in Hollywood.  Even marriage to not-nearly-as-nice Glenn Ford didn't seem to change her disposition, although their marriage (her only one) did not last. 


She may be the only star I will ever write about whose career was pretty much in the 1930s.  It was not a favorite decade of mine but what bright spots there were were often due to this lovely, leggy lady.  She would work with some of MGM's top boys... Fred Astaire, Robert Taylor, Nelson Eddy, Robert Young and Jimmy Stewart.  She was sensational in the final title dancing number in Rosalie, enchanting in Born to Dance, great, sassy fun in Lady Be Good and she made a series of popular Broadway Melody of movies, with years attached... 1936, 1938, 1940.

She essentially retired from the movies after she married Ford, devoting herself mainly to religious causes. She was rediscovered in 1974 when MGM deservedly patted itself on the back with That's Entertainment.  While she mainly danced alone, featured in this film was a clip of her spin with Fred Astaire in Broadway Melody of 1940.  It has been said that she was his only partner who could out-dance him.  She certainly gave the master a tap for his money as they danced to Begin the Beguine.  I have included this fabulous number and hope you'll take a look at it for the first time or again.  When Frank Sinatra introduced the clip, he said... you know, you can wait around and hope but I'll tell ya, you'll never see the likes of this again

Ann Miller descended on MGM in the late 1940s, several years after Powell's departure and after more than a decade of mostly B-movie work at various studios (Reveille with Beverly?, What's Buzzin' Cousin?, Eve Knew Her Apples?) and she can thank none other than Lucille Ball for her discovery.  One early film she can rightly be proud of co-starred Ball, Hepburn and Rogers called Stage Door.

She was a damned good tapper and a speedy one, too.  She was a better actress than Eleanor Powell, she made more movies than Powell and she is more famous.  And yet she never really made it to Hollywood's top rung.  At MGM she was never the leading lady.  She was sometimes the other woman or the friend of the leading lady, such as Kathryn Grayson or Jane Powell.  She costarred with both Astaire and Kelly and yet was not partnered with them.

She was clearly someone who had gone Hollywood by virtue of how she continued to look til the day she died... big, lacquered, bouffant hairdo, makeup applied by a trowel, eyelashes that looked like those on a circus clown and always dressed as though she were going to the White House.  Even in her heyday, the 50s, she was a bit of a caricature when it came to presentation.

Her films toned down her appearances but she was usually playing a character who was a bit shrill and self-obsessed.  But the lady could dance and dance she did 11 mostly quite good MGM musicals including Easter Parade, On the Town, Small Town Girl, Kiss Me Kate, Deep In My Heart and Hit the Deck.  It would be difficult to pick out her best dance numbers because at the time I saw them, I thought each one was the best.  But two that continue to stand out are Too Darn Hot from Kate and the imaginative You Gotta Hear That Beat from Small Town Girl where Miller taps along a floor that has instruments and the hands that play them coming out of that floor.  It always blew me away.  Let's have a look:


I always thought there was a dramatic actress hiding inside her but I am not aware that it was ever unleashed until late in her life when she appeared briefly in the dreadful Mulholland Drive (2001).  Too bad because her film career effectively ended with the demise of the big musicals in the mid-50s.  She did go on to do television and some Broadway, including the long-running Sugar Babies with her old MGM pal Mickey Rooney.

Next posting:
Taylor-Made in the 50s

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