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With a light-up-a-room smile, mesmerizing hazel eyes, and a trademark perky demeanor, Jane Powell incarnated the last gasp of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's era of feel-good musicals and the wholesome performers who inhabited these Technicolor extravaganzas. Powell emerged from a troubled childhood to find a spot in MGM's stable of child stars, doing a string of plucky love-struck teen roles in B-musicals of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Wielding a powerful soprano voice, she would secure a place in the pantheon of classic musicals in the lead of the 1954 film adaptation of "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." Though her movie glory days lasted only a decade, she transitioned into television and eventually took her penchant for classic musicals on regional theatrical tours. Grossly insecure, she would cycle through a series of marriages and struggle with severe depression, belying her longtime public image. Yet she would remain active in stage and television productions late into her life. For a generation, however, Powell would forever embody the archetype of the all-American girl-next-door, remaining a symbol of the proverbial shinier, simpler good ole' days.She was born Suzanne Lorraine Burce on April 1,...
With a light-up-a-room smile, mesmerizing hazel eyes, and a trademark perky demeanor, Jane Powell incarnated the last gasp of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's era of feel-good musicals and the wholesome performers who inhabited these Technicolor extravaganzas. Powell emerged from a troubled childhood to find a spot in MGM's stable of child stars, doing a string of plucky love-struck teen roles in B-musicals of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Wielding a powerful soprano voice, she would secure a place in the pantheon of classic musicals in the lead of the 1954 film adaptation of "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." Though her movie glory days lasted only a decade, she transitioned into television and eventually took her penchant for classic musicals on regional theatrical tours. Grossly insecure, she would cycle through a series of marriages and struggle with severe depression, belying her longtime public image. Yet she would remain active in stage and television productions late into her life. For a generation, however, Powell would forever embody the archetype of the all-American girl-next-door, remaining a symbol of the proverbial shinier, simpler good ole' days.
She was born Suzanne Lorraine Burce on April 1, 1929, in Portland, OR, to Paul and Eileen Burce, an unhappy couple who saw in their precocious girl a chance to escape their modest means, seeing her as child-star heir apparent to Shirley Temple. They saved up to pay for dance lessons for Suzanne when she was only three, which three years later drew the attentions of a talent scout who convinced the family to move to Oakland, CA, ostensibly to be a mid-market stopover before conquering Hollywood. A promised project never materialized, the agent took a powder, and the Burces moved back to Portland - all of which was another setback exacerbating Eileen's alcohol abuse. The actress later confessed in her 1988 autobiography that she felt exploited by her mother and learned to repress her negative feelings for fear of aggravating Eileen, even to the point that after she was molested by other youthful residents in the family's apartment complex, the youngster said nothing so as not to upset her mother. Meanwhile, Suzanne added singing lessons to her regimen, earned appearances on local radio shows, and by age 11, had her own radio show on Portland radio station KOIN. When the U.S. entered World War II, she was selected Oregon's "Victory Girl," appearing across the state at war-bond drives.
In 1943, Suzanne won a spot on a radio talent show in Los Angeles. It led to a succession of radio appearances in the entertainment capital, including one on the popular Edgar Bergen/Charlie McCarthy show, piquing the interest of Shirley Temple's then-studio, MGM, which signed her to a contract. The Burces moved to L.A., where she attended the studio's Little Red Schoolhouse, renowned for teaching its famed stable of child stars like Temple, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, but she won little work and initially felt isolated and depressed. Her first two films, in fact, would be loan-outs to United Artists. "Song of the Open Road" (1944) introduced the newly christened Jane Powell, playing a young teen star named Jane Powell who, fed up with her goody-two-shoes public image, makes a musical sojourn to the real world. She followed that with "Delightfully Dangerous" (1945), a standard girl-hoping-to-make-it-big flick. It was not until 1946 that MGM put her in an in-house production, "Holiday in Mexico," an airy musical whose story basically served as padding between songs by Powell and her castmates. The film became a staging point for her; her onscreen romantic interest, a young Roddy McDowall, became a lifelong friend; producer Joe Pasternak became the shepherd of many of her projects; and the movie's formula - show folk in fluffy, interchangeable plots enabling song-and-dance in scenic locations - would become the Powell stock-in-trade.
That very same template would manifest with a series of crowd-pleasers, including "Three Daring Daughters" (1948), "A Date with Judy" (1948), co-starring Elizabeth Taylor, "Luxury Liner" (1948), "Nancy Goes to Rio" (1950) and "Two Weeks With Love" (1950). Taylor would stand as Powell's bridesmaid upon her marriage to ice-skater Geary Steffen the next year. Many of the songs off her chirpy, colorful B-pictures migrated onto Powell albums issued by Columbia Records, such as 1949's A Date with Jane Powell. MGM moved her song-and-dance routine into the A-picture realm with "Royal Wedding" (1951) by pairing her with none other than Fred Astaire, with the two playing siblings in spite of Astaire being three decades her senior. Later in 1951, during the shooting of the seemingly literalist "Rich, Young and Pretty" (1951), she discovered she was pregnant by her first husband. She bore the first of her and Steffen's two children, Geary ("G.A.") Steffen III, with daughter Suzanne arriving the next year. She resumed playing to type as the disarming all-American ingénue in "Small Town Girl" (1953) and "Three Sailors and a Girl" (1953), during the making of which she began an affair with co-star Gene Nelson. They divorced their respective spouses, intending to wed, but Nelson backed out. Insecure about being alone, she married car dealer Patrick Nerney the following year, the union producing a daughter, Lindsey, two years later.
In 1954, Powell would snare her signature role as the Alpha-female in the phalanx of would-be wives in the Stanley Donen-directed Technicolor musical "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," opposite booming baritone and onscreen love interest Howard Keel. MGM returned her to more contemporary song-and-dance comedies in tandem with fellow sprite Debbie Reynolds in "Athena" (1954) and "Hit the Deck" (1955), yet when Louie B. Mayer, MGM's longtime champion of musical treacle, departed the studio, Powell foresaw the genre's imminent decline. She quit, she later discovered, not long before new studio chief Dore Schary had planned to cut her loose. The new free agent began turning up in guest appearances on television shows, such as "The Goodyear Theatre" (NBC, 1957-1960), "Alcoa Theatre" (NBC, 1957-1960) and "What's My Line" (CBS, 1950-1967). She was drawn particularly to variety shows that could showcase her song-and-dance skills, such as Dinah Shore, Judy Garland, Red Skelton and Andy Williams' eponymous showcases, and two big-ticket made-for-TV remakes of "Ruggles of Red Gap" (1957) and "Meet Me in St. Louis" (1959). She returned to the movies with a triumvirate of 1958 releases - two rare non-musical dramatic outings, playing Hedy Lamarr's daughter in Lamarr's final film, "The Female Animal" and a Polynesian girl-next-door in the low-budget Melville adaptation "Enchanted Island," as well as a last light-hearted movie musical, "The Girl Most Likely."
Powell continued voluminous TV guest-work through the 1960s, in addition to taking roles in touring and regional versions of Broadway plays, among them such staples as "South Pacific," "The Sound of Music," "Oklahoma!" "My Fair Lady," "Carousel" - some of the productions reuniting her with Keel. By now her relationship with Nerney had floundered and they divorced in 1963. She married Jim Fitzgerald in 1965, who took over managing her career - poorly, by her later estimate. She did, however, make her Broadway debut in 1973 in "Irene," replacing Debbie Reynolds in the title role of the plucky, blue-collar Irish woman wooed into New York high-society circles. By the mid-1970s, her relationship with Fitzgerald also deteriorated, as would her relationship with children G.A. and Suzanne - all of which led to a nervous breakdown. In 1974, Fitzgerald reportedly intervened in an attempted suicide by Powell. Though she convalesced for a time in a hospital, she did not receive psychiatric treatment until years later. Powell and Fitzgerald divorced the next year. By the end of the 1970s, she settled into a schedule of telefilms and guest appearances on TV staples of the time such as "Fantasy Island" (ABC, 1978-1984), "The Love Boat" (ABC, 1977-1986), and "Murder, She Wrote" (CBS, 1984-1996), eventually taking on a recurring role as the grandmother on the popular family sitcom "Growing Pains" (ABC, 1985-1992).
After another marriage that ended in 1981, she gave an interview to fellow ex-child star Dickie Moore, who was working on a book and the two began a relationship. She moved to New York in 1982, cohabitated with Moore and married him in 1988, the same year she published her confessional autobiography The Girl Next Door and How She Grew. Still spry by the late-1980s, she teamed up with the Arthritis Foundation to appear in the exercise video "Fight Back with Fitness," specifically designed for senior citizens, In the early 1990s, she periodically stood in for actress Eileen Fulton in her long-running role on the soap "As The World Turns" (CBS, 1956-2010), and continued to add to her stage résumé with a stint in a New York production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella," an East Coast run in the Anne Meara-penned play "After-Play," and two 2000 productions, "Avow" and "70, Girls, 70." In 2003, she took a featured role in the Showtime made-for-TV movie "The Sandy Bottom Orchestra," and trod the boards again in Chicago and Washington, D.C. runs of Stephen Sondheim's musical "Bounce."
By Matthew Grimm
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