Obituary: Jane Powell, 'girl next door’ film star from the golden age of musicals

Jane Powell, actress, singer and dancer. Born: 1 Apri, 1929 in Portland, Oregon. Died: 16 September, 2021 in Wilton, Connecticut, aged 92.

Jane Powell danced with Fred Astaire and starred in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

Jane Powell was one of the last surviving stars of the golden age of MGM musicals of the 1950s, playing the lead female role in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and dancing and singing with Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding, although she later revealed that she never wanted to be a film star.

Her career was driven by parents who hoped she was the new Shirley Temple. She was dancing at two, was on the radio at five and made her film debut at 14.

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“I never wanted to be a movie star,” she wrote in her 1988 autobiography The Girl Next Door… And How She Grew, “but Mama and Daddy wanted me to be another Shirley Temple – parents did in those days – so dancing lessons and curly hair were on the agenda.

“I never felt as if I really belonged in Hollywood… I wanted to be normal or ordinary… I just wanted to be one of the gang.”

Only with the benefit of hindsight did Powell realise how unhappy and dysfunctional her family life and childhood had been, with two parents who seemingly shared the same obsessive ambitions for their daughter, but little love for each other.

Not only did her parents deprive her of her childhood and force her into a career she did not want, she also had to contend with her mother’s alcoholism and short temper and she suffered sexual abuse from neighbours that she never felt she could tell her mother about.

“I never thought of being sad,” she wrote. “I never knew I was.” But at the same time she recalled that she spent a lot of her childhood crying. “Crying all the time didn’t make me the most desirable, fun-loving girl to be around.”

As the title of her book suggests, Powell was marketed as the wholesome “girl next door”, but tastes change and by the end of the 1950s her film career was over. “I didn’t quit movies,” she said once, “they quit me.”

But she continued to work in television for many years, making her last appearance in an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit in 2002, playing an elderly woman suffering from dementia and abuse.

An only child, Powell was born Suzanne Lorraine Burce (sic) in 1929, in Portland, Oregon, where her father was a manager with a bread company. She took singing and dancing lessons and a talent scout encouraged the family to move to California in the hope a film career.

“The worst part was daddy even quit his job,” she recalled. “He’d been with the Wonder Bread Company for 14 years and he left them so we could move to Oakland, so I could, would, become another Shirley Temple.

“I had dance classes… The mothers sat like crows on a fence, watching and waiting, ready to pounce on anyone who got in their little one’s way. It was a gruesome sight.” That first attempt to break into Hollywood came to nothing.

But back in Portland Powell became the “Oregon Victory Girl”, travelling around the state singing and selling war bonds. She was 12 at the time. After two years doing her bit for the war effort she returned to California, won a talent contest and signed a seven-year contract with MGM.

The studio promptly hired her out to United Artists and she made her debut in a musical comedy called Song of the Open Road, with WC Fields. She had a lead role as a character called Jane Powell, a young film star who runs off to do farm work because she is fed up with her mother forcing her to do films she does not want to do.

As if to emphasise just how close this was to reality Burce retained the name Jane Powell as her professional name in her future films. She worked steadily through the 1940s, making a string of films that are now pretty much forgotten, before she replaced Judy Garland, a much more obviously troubled star, in a starring role opposite Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding, aka Wedding Bells.

She and Astaire play siblings, visiting London with their vaudeville act, at the time of the wedding of the future Queen Elizabeth to Philip. It was Powell’s first real adult role, giving her the chance to sing and tap-dance with Astaire on the memorably energetic showstopper How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers followed three years later in 1954. Like Royal Wedding, it was directed by Stanley Donen, one of Hollywood’s top musical directors. Powell and Howard Keel play newlyweds returning to his cabin in a remote part of Oregon and taking up the challenge of finding spouses for his six uncultured brothers. She performs the songs Wonderful, Wonderful Day and When You’re in Love.

Royal Wedding and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers were to prove the high points of Powell’s film career. She made a few more musicals and played a dramatic role in The Female Animal, in which she and her on-screen mother, played by Hedy Lamarr, have designs on the same man. She made an unlikely Polynesian in Enchanted Island and she shot a pilot for a TV sitcom that would have been entitled The Jane Powell Show, but it never went to series.

As well as appearing in guest roles on TV shows, she toured with various musical stage shows and featured in a long-running series of adverts for Polident denture cleaner in the US.

She was married five times. Her first four marriages all ended in divorce. Her fifth husband was Dickie Moore, an actor from the silent era and early days of the talkies, whose roles included Oliver Twist and the leader of Our Gang. He died in 2015. She is survived by three children.

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