During Hollywood’s Golden Age, there were many stars who embodied the wholesome image of the girl you would want your son to bring home to meet. Doris Day, June Allyson, Debbie Reynolds, and Teresa Wright, were just some of those legendary actresses who projected that timeless innocence that many Americans yearned for. While the idea of Hollywood vigorously promoting certain starlets as the quintessential “girl next door” might seem silly now, in its heyday careers could be made or broken because of it. One such actress from the Golden Era who thrived because of this representation of wholesome American innocence and vitality was Old Hollywood legend, Jane Powell.
Fans will conjure up beautiful memories of going to the movie palaces in the 40s and 50s, and enjoying the glorious blonde soprano touch their hearts with song and dance. Powell would appear in celebrated musicals such as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), and as Fred Astaire’s co-star in Royal Wedding (1951). Looking at her career, one can appreciate how the studio system of that era was able to mold talented actresses like Powell and make them special to moviegoers everywhere.
The actress who we know as Jane Powell was actually born Suzanne Lorraine Burce in Portland, Oregon in 1929. Ms. Powell claimed to have received the name change from an MGM studio representative via a random phone call. As a lonely child, Powell grew up in the era when every mother in America was trying to turn their daughters into the next Shirley Temple or Deanna Durbin. Powell’s extraordinary gift was her soprano singing voice, which ended up propelling her to spend the majority of her childhood doing performances in school and in talent shows. Her talents led her to work in a local radio program which added to her growing appeal. By the age of thirteen, she was even selected as Oregon’s Victory Girl, as part of a statewide campaign to augment the purchase of war bonds during World War II.
Despite her precocious abilities, Powell struggled with inadequacies that would eventually plague her for the rest of her life. This was due to her disconnect from her parents, and the abnormal demands for a child that show business imposed on her. Despite these pressures, The President of the radio station arranged for her to appear in Janet Gaynor’s Hollywood Showcase: Stars Over Hollywood, which was a famous radio talent show at the time. For Powell, this appearance changed her life forever as she ended up winning the talent competition.
On to Hollywood
Her win at the show brought her the opportunity many have strived for since the beginning of the motion picture era. According to her biography, the agent, Levis Green called the station with the exhilarating news that the next day she would be meeting Metro-Goldwyn Mayer studio head, Louis B. Mayer. In addition to that, Janet Gaynor arranged for her to meet the famed producer, David O. Selznick. The meeting turned out to be a resounding success as it resulted in Powell signing a seven-year contract with MGM, without even having to take a screen test. Despite this astounding early success, Powell claimed later in life that all she wanted was to have a normal life as a teenager. Out of a sense of obligation to her parents, she signed the contract. She could never have imagined how much her family life and future would change forever.
Powell began work on her first film, Song of the Open Road (1944). Though it was a loan out to United Artists, she had the good fortune of doing this movie with Charles R. Rogers, who was one of Deanna Durbin’s earlier producers. While the picture was pedestrian at best, Powell received rave reviews from critics. The New York Daily News and Variety both praised Powell’s voice and invited comparisons to Durbin.
Her early years in Hollywood consisted of many appearances in distinguished programs and studio functions. She sang in Frank Sinatra’s radio show and even recorded Hansel & Gretel for Columbia Recording Corporation. In 1946, she appeared on the cover of Life magazine. By 1948, Powell had starred in six pictures, including her first technicolor film, Holiday In Mexico (1946). Her stature had grown to the point where she had the honor of singing at the Inauguration ball for President Truman in 1949. The shy insecure girl from Portland had become a star by the age of twenty and was beloved by the American public. Powell later commented:
“My real work was being the girl next door.”
Despite her movie star status, Powell continued touring the country doing a vaudeville act. Her work ethic and fear of displeasing her parents, allowed her to find steady work and make a lot of money. As was the case with most child stars, however, Powell later said that she had no idea where most of the money went during that time. One highlight for her during this time was the lifelong friendship she established with Roddy McDowall, her love interest in Holiday in Mexico. Despite all this success, Powell continued to struggle with feelings of isolation and was ready to break free from her parents. The “girl next door” was ready to take the next step in finding her place in life and love. Powell later confessed in her autobiography:
“my teenage isolation greatly hindered my later sexual and emotional growth”
Marriage, Motherhood, and Success
In 1949, Powell married Geary Steffen in what would be the first of five marriages in her life. She eventually had three children, but the happy family life she yearned for eluded her. She later said that she was the breadwinner in her marriages and that her marriage choices were made out of fear of being alone. Despite this, the 1950s provided her signature moments in her movie career. In 1951, she received the opportunity to co-star with Fred Astaire in the classic Royal Wedding. This was the film in which Astaire did his iconic ceiling dance. Powell got the part only after the first choices Judy Garland and June Allyson had to withdraw. Powell was radiant while singing Open Your Eyes to Astaire, and in the dance segment, I Left My Hat In Haiti. While the majority of Powell’s movies were light-hearted musical fare and did not receive acclaim from critics, her individual performances continued to receive praise.
1953 was noteworthy for two roles in which Powell continued playing the wholesome down-to-earth types that the public loved. One of these pictures was Three Sailors and a Girl (1953). This picture co-starred her with Gene Nelson who had by then distinguished himself as one of the best dancers in Hollywood. Powell and Nelson were both mired in fruitless and unhappy marriages and began a torrid affair. While Powell was ready to marry Nelson, he backed out of the relationship at the last moment. For the first time, the publicity magazines had unpleasant things to say about Powell and her private life. Faced with this setback and the daunting prospect of being alone again, she remarried a car dealer named Patrick Nerney, which also produced her third and last child, Lindsay.
The following year produced the role and movie Powell is most remembered for. In Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), she played pioneer girl Milly Pontipee, in a musical romp set in 1850s Oregon. Powell once again received glowing reviews, which included her singing the joyful song Wonderful, Wonderful Day. Unlike her earlier film work, this movie garnered critical acclaim and has since become considered one of the greatest musicals in Hollywood history. Little did Powell know that far from being a springboard to greater success in Hollywood, it was to mark the beginning of the end of her movie career.
Due to changing tastes of moviegoers, all the major studios started downsizing their musical productions and focusing on pictures with social themes. This partly explains why in Powell’s recollections of the making of Hit The Deck(1955), the cast and crew were not excited about the movie despite a stellar cast that included Ann Miller and Debbie Reynolds. Powell did have one career fatal near miss. In 1955, she was scheduled to be in the production of Love Me or Leave Me, which was the story of legendary entertainer Ruth Etting. For unexplained reasons, she was replaced by Doris Day, who garnered praise alongside James Cagney for their performances. Powell lamented the lost opportunity to have a role that would have changed the course of her career, and allowed her to break free from her typecasting. In the end, Powell walked away from MGM without knowing that the new MGM studio head Dore Schary had already planned to dismiss her in a few months.
After a supporting role in Hedy Lamarr’s final film, The Female Animal(1958), which Powell admitted was an unpleasant experience after witnessing Lamarr’s mercurial personality, she realized her movie career was just about over. In the decades that followed, Powell remained as busy as ever. She appeared in numerous television programs and took part in various Broadway plays including replacing Debbie Reynolds in the 1973 hit Irene. Powell, unable to shake the difficulties of her marriage and her deteriorating relationships with her children, almost attempted suicide. After a brief recovery, she resumed her hectic work schedule for several more years until she finally found peace and stability in her final marriage to former child actor Dickie Moore.
On September 16, 2021, Jane Powell passed away peacefully in her home in Connecticut. When she passed, it symbolized the end of an era. Powell made her mark in cinema history, not just because of her glorious voice. Her screen image was a welcome respite for many during the tumultuous post-war years. She represented what America had lost after the Second World War, which was its innocence and its longing for happier times. Although actresses like Jane Powell struggled as we all do in love and family, she still shined the brightest right when her country needed her the most.
Jane Powell delivered as the Oregon Victory girl rallying her state to buy war bonds during America’s chaotic entry into the second World War. She then became a star right when America was moving front and center on the world stage. In the end, Powell was the quintessential girl next door to a generation of Americans who needed the reassurance that there was still something good to look forward to in an uncertain and dangerous time. While today the idea of the girl next door in Hollywood does seem like a relic from an earlier time, Jane Powell showed us what the human spirit is capable of when we work hard at our craft and are willing to share our talents with the world.
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