Ann Miller Profile
* Films air on 8/22
Stardom was hard work for Miller, but then, she was never one to shy away from a challenge. She was a dancer, and she once quoted the master on the subject: "Dancing, as Fred Astaire said, is next to ditch-digging. You sweat and you slave and the audience doesn't think you have a brain in your head."
If hard work came naturally to Miller, it was because she started early. Little Lucille Ann Collier of Chireno, Texas, began dancing lessons at three. The daughter of a criminal lawyer who would represent the likes of Baby Face Nelson and Bonnie and Clyde started dancing to strengthen her legs after an attack of rickets. Dancing soon became her bread and butter after her mother tired of daddy's cheating and packed Lucille off to Los Angeles at the age of nine. Before long, Miller was tap dancing anywhere she could earn money to support her mother whose hearing problems made steady employment difficult. Tall for her age, she passed herself off as a young adult so she could work legally. Miller was doing a specialty act at the Club Bal Tabarin in San Francisco and as luck would have it Lucille Ball was in the audience with RKO talent scout Benny Rubin. Ball was impressed and made sure Rubin knew it. Miller had already done uncredited bits, including one in RKO's Anne of Green Gables (1934). Rubin got her a screen test, which led to her first studio contract, at RKO.
There she made her debut as herself in New Faces of 1937 (1937), followed by two tap numbers in the musical The Life of the Party (1937). She got more exposure with a small supporting role as one of the Broadway hopefuls in Stage Door (1937), an ensemble comedy astutely directed by Gregory La Cava. She also got a prime showcase when RKO loaned her to Columbia to play Jean Arthur's dance-crazy sister in You Can't Take It with You (1938), the Oscar®-winner for Best Picture. She even got a chance to work with the Marx Bros., albeit in the lesser Room Service (1938), a film rarely ranked among their best.
None of this was enough for the studio heads at RKO, who already had Ginger Rogers for musicals and a fleet of young actresses like Joan Fontaine and Wendy Barrie for routine assignments. They decided Miller wasn't worth the $200 a week they were paying her and let her go. She decided to try her luck on Broadway, where she stopped the show each night in George White's Scandals of 1939. Producer-director George Abbott was particularly impressed with her work, and when RKO hired him to direct the film version of the Rodgers and Hart hit Too Many Girls (1940), he took Miller with him. Back at RKO for the college musical with a Western setting, Miller was now making $3,000 a week. Her co-stars included Lucille Ball, Frances Langford and Desi Arnaz (it was the film on which Lucy and Desi first met). Abbott wanted her to go back to Broadway with him, but she decided to hang out in Hollywood instead.
After a few free-lance jobs, including Melody Ranch (1940), in which she gave Gene Autry his first on-screen kiss, Miller signed with Columbia. There she starred in a series of low-budget musicals that often combined her tap routines with guest stars from the worlds of radio and the big bands. World War II audiences loved them, making her one of Columbia's most profitable stars. At first, she played second fiddle to Penny Singleton and Glenn Ford in Go West, Young Lady (1941), but with Priorities on Parade (1942), she moved up to top billing. She first worked with Frank Sinatra in Reveille with Beverly (1943), which also featured Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Louis Armstrong and Jo Stafford turned up for Jam Session (1944), while Kay Kyser helped her deliver the Carolina Blues (1944). She had more plot than usual in Eve Knew Her Apples (1945), a re-make of It Happened One Night (1934) in which she introduced the jazz standard "I'll Remember April."
Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn was ready to move her into the big time with a Technicolor musical he hoped would make her a threat to the studio's top star, Rita Hayworth. Instead, Miller married millionaire Reese Milner and announced her retirement. Cohn sued her for breach of contract and won a $150,000 settlement. When the marriage fell apart after Miller lost a child, Cohn wouldn't take her back, but MGM needed a hot dancer to save the Frank Sinatra disaster The Kissing Bandit (1948). Nothing could really save the picture, but her flamenco trio with Cyd Charisse and Ricardo Montalban was good enough to win her a contract.
Good timing, talent and persistence had landed Miller at Hollywood's top studio for musicals. MGM used her primarily as a specialty act, giving her wise-cracking supporting roles and trotting her out for only a few numbers. She was never a threat to the kinds of leading ladies producers Arthur Freed and Joe Pasternak favored, but at least they kept her busy. . Miller explained her failure to move into starring roles as a question of character: "I never played politics. I never was a party girl, and I never slept with any of the producers." She was good friends with studio head Louis B. Mayer, but by the late '40s his power was being eroded by the younger Dore Schary.
Miller's first official contract assignment was filling in for Charisse, who had broken her leg, as the dancing partner who dumps Fred Astaire to go solo in Easter Parade (1948). She not only got to do a romantic pas de deux with Astaire, but a hot tap number of her own set to the song "Shakin' the Blues Away." The latter would set the tone for most of her solos. She followed with the trend-setting On the Town (1949), the first musical with numbers shot on location. She didn't get either male lead -- Frank Sinatra was paired with Betty Garrett, while Vera-Ellen got the dance duets with Gene Kelly -- but she got another sizzling dance number -"Prehistoric Man" - while also functioning smoothly as part of the ensemble.
Miller's favorite role at MGM was the second lead in Kiss Me Kate (1953). Although Kathryn Grayson was the leading lady, Miller got some of the musical's best numbers, including "Too Darn Hot" and "Why Can't You Behave." She also was part of the ensemble introducing the film's one new song, "From This Moment On," which she danced with Tommy Rall, Bob Fosse, Bobby Van, Carol Haney and Jeanne Coyne.
By the mid-'50s, the big studio musical was becoming a thing of the past. After guest starring in the Sigmund Romberg biography Deep in My Heart (1954) and playing another wise-cracking chorus girl in Hit the Deck (1955), the best MGM could offer her were comic roles in The Opposite Sex (1956), a musical version of The Women (1939) in which she took the Paulette Goddard role but didn't get to do any numbers, and The Great American Pastime (1956).
Miller left MGM to marry another millionaire, oil magnate William Moss. When that ended, she took her third husband (and third millionaire), Arthur Cameron, only to have the marriage annulled. With no film offers, she mounted a successful nightclub act and landed in one of the all-time great TV commercials -- a Busby Berkeley-style routine to sell Great American Soups.
Miller stayed active with stage appearances, taking over the lead in Mame on Broadway and doing stock around the country. She also developed a strong interest in psychic phenomena and claimed to be the reincarnation of the Egyptian Queen Hathshepsut, which she said accounts for her failed relationships. When MGM released its first compilation of movie musical scenes, That's Entertainment (1974), she signed on to do a publicity tour, which brought her new generations of fans.
In 1979 she returned to Broadway opposite another former MGM star, Mickey Rooney, in the musical tribute to burlesque, Sugar Babies. The production, which brought her a Tony nomination, would dominate her life for nine years. During that time, she was the columnist's delight, always good for a quote about show business, her wigs or her tap shoes (which she always named Moe and Joe).
After years of refusing film offers because she hated the nudity and violence that had become almost a cliché in contemporary pictures, she went to work with one of the screen's most controversial directors, David Lynch, with a double role in Mulholland Dr. (2001), a film featuring both nudity and graphic violence. Of course, that wasn't what she had signed on for originally. The project was planned as a TV series for ABC, with Miller playing the eccentric landlady at a Hollywood apartment complex. When the network passed on the pilot, Lynch found funding for additional scenes and turned it into a feature. Miller's part became a double role. Her surprise appearance as a Hollywood hostess at the end gave fans a last look at their favorite and an inkling of what she could have done had she had time for more non-musical roles.
by Frank Miller