Jane Powell, sunny star of MGM musicals who had the role of a lifetime in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – obituary

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Jane Powell, circa 1948 - The Legacy Collection/Avalon
Jane Powell, circa 1948 - The Legacy Collection/Avalon

Jane Powell, who has died aged 92, was the singing star of more than a dozen MGM musicals in the Forties and Fifties, and best remembered as the girl who brought Howard Keel and his clan to heel in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954).

It was her only smash hit. Though she enjoyed star status from her earliest pictures, few were big attractions and they were often relegated to the second half of double bills. She was better known as a personality than for her films.

Jane Powell - Virgil Apger/Archive Photos/Getty
Jane Powell - Virgil Apger/Archive Photos/Getty

Petite, blonde, blue-eyed and with a relentlessly sunny disposition, Jane Powell could be sugary and cloying on screen. She hankered after meatier roles, but the studio boss Louis B Mayer always refused.

He was wiser than she knew. Although it seemed to her at the time that she was held back, there is no evidence that she could have played the parts she sought. Rather the reverse: her one stab at heavy drama, The Female Animal – made in 1958 after she had left MGM – required her to play a drunk scene. It was not well received.

A front-of-house or lobby card for the film in which she played Howard Keel’s bride - LMPC via Getty Images
A front-of-house or lobby card for the film in which she played Howard Keel’s bride - LMPC via Getty Images

What she could do was sing. Her natural talent was spotted, encouraged and trained from childhood, resulting in a chirrupy soprano similar to but less fragile than that of her friend and studio colleague Kathryn Grayson. Grayson, who looked as exotic as an orchid, took risks on the exposed high notes and sometimes came a cropper, but audiences forgave her, even as they winced.

Powell on the other hand took no risks, staying comfortably within her vocal range. But it meant that there was never any excitement – or danger – when she sang. She was a mite predictable, and came to be viewed as the girl next door, or everybody’s kid sister. Film fans never lost their hearts to her – as, with all her vocal faults, they did to Kathryn Grayson.

In private, Jane Powell’s life did not always run smoothly. She divorced one husband for cruelty for deserting her every weekend to pursue sporting activities, and another for extreme cruelty for never allowing her a moment to herself. He once silenced her at a dinner party, she recalled, by saying: “We’ve heard enough about you all evening; now let’s talk about me.”

As an interviewee, she could be naive: waxing lyrical to a reporter about her family’s fully stocked nuclear survival shelters (one at sea), she said the children were so excited that they could hardly wait.

Royal Wedding, 1951: Fred Astaire, Jane Powell, Peter Lawford - FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images
Royal Wedding, 1951: Fred Astaire, Jane Powell, Peter Lawford - FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images

The daughter of a baby-food salesman, she was born Suzanne Lorraine Burce on April 1 1929 in Portland, Oregon. (Her professional name was taken from the character she played in her first film, Song of the Open Road, in 1944.) At the age of seven, she was singing on a local children’s radio programme, but did not begin professional training until she was 11. Introduced to the manager of the radio station KOIN, she was given her own programme and supported the war effort at patriotic rallies, billed as Oregon’s Victory Girl.

After Grant High School in Portland, she accompanied her parents on a three-week holiday to California, where they entered her in a Los Angeles talent competition. She won, trilling an aria from Carmen, and was spotted by MGM talent scouts. Invited to the studio for an audition, she was, unusually, placed under contract without a screen test. She was only 15.

MGM put her under the wing of producer Joe Pasternak, who had made a star of another teenage canary, Deanna Durbin. In case she did not live up to the studio’s hopes, Jane was lent out for her first two films to United Artists. However, Song of the Open Road and Delightfully Dangerous (1945) amply fulfilled expectations and from then on, MGM kept her on a string.

Jane Powell - Hollywood Photo Archive/MediaPunch/Backgrid
Jane Powell - Hollywood Photo Archive/MediaPunch/Backgrid

Her first MGM feature was Holiday in Mexico (1946), in which she sang Ave Maria, followed by a string of minor musicals in which she was generally cast as a schoolgirl. These included Luxury Liner and A Date with Judy (both 1948), and Two Weeks with Love and Nancy Goes to Rio in 1950. The last was intended as the pilot for a series of films in which Nancy would also visit Rome and Paris. But box-office returns were disappointing and the sequels were cancelled.

It was a shaky start, broken in 1951 with Royal Wedding (shown in Britain as Wedding Bells). Jane Powell was not the first choice to be Fred Astaire’s singing and dancing partner. MGM would have preferred Judy Garland or June Allyson, but neither was available. Powell stepped into the breach, to play Fred’s sister, accompanying him to England to see “the” royal wedding (presumably Princess Elizabeth’s, though the film is not explicit).

Drying the dishes with Buster Keaton at the Hollywood Canteen, April 1944 - AP
Drying the dishes with Buster Keaton at the Hollywood Canteen, April 1944 - AP

She was called on to dance a bit, too. Nobody would claim that she was one of Astaire’s best dancing partners, but she did well enough and the film earned a place in the record books for the longest song title ever heard in a musical: How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life?

This was the best film she had yet been offered, but she had to revert to three more ingénue roles in Rich, Young and Pretty (1951), Small Town Girl (1953) and Three Sailors and a Girl (1953) before landing the role of a lifetime in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). Once more she was not the automatic choice: MGM toyed with other singers before she won the part.

Based on Plutarch’s account of the rape of the Sabine women, this was the tale of seven rough-and-ready brothers who abduct their brides in the Wild West only to find, as in the Greek play Lysistrata, that conjugal rights are denied until they bathe and acquire some manners.

Jane Powell played Howard Keel’s bride, who organises the sex-ban and drills the boys into shape. A catchy score by Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul gave everyone in the cast something memorable to sing. Powell’s numbers were the popular Spring, Spring, Spring and Going Courtin’.

Alas, this was the high-water mark of the MGM musical. As tastes changed, the studio began to phase out the genre with which it had come to be identified.

Powell featured in only three more musicals. Athena (1954) was a thin satire on health farms, in which she sang an aria from Donizetti’s La Fille du régiment; Hit the Deck (1955) was a film version of an old Broadway musical; and in Deep in My Heart (1955), a biopic of composer Sigmund Romberg, she made only a guest appearance singing a duet from Romberg’s Maytime with Vic Damone.

Complaining that MGM had never allowed her to grow up, she did not renew her contract and struck out on her own, signing a three-picture deal with RKO. None was a success. The first was another feeble comedy, The Girl Most Likely (1957), followed by The Female Animal and Enchanted Island (1958), in which she was miscast as a native girl opposite Dana Andrews. It was to be her last film for 27 years.

Instead, like many ex-MGM musical stars, she switched to television, cabaret and the stage. On TV, she co-starred with Michael Redgrave in Ruggles of Red Gap in 1957 and two years later played the Judy Garland role in a remake of Meet Me in St Louis. In 1976, she also featured in a TV movie, Mayday at 40,000 Feet! which secured a cinema release in the UK.

Jane Powell with Fred Astaire in Stanley Donen’s Royal Wedding - Mgm/Kobal/Shutterstock
Jane Powell with Fred Astaire in Stanley Donen’s Royal Wedding - Mgm/Kobal/Shutterstock

In the theatre, she toured in productions of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, South Pacific and My Fair Lady and scored a personal triumph when she succeeded Debbie Reynolds in the title role of the hit musical revival Irene on Broadway in 1974. But her career petered out.

In 1975, she was cast with Dick Van Dyke in a feature-length cartoon of the children’s musical Tubby the Tuba; she contributed a cameo, singing at a political rally, to the Sissy Spacek movie Marie (1985), and her final television appearance was as a traumatised old lady in a 2002 episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Jane Powell in 1986 - AP Photo/Richard Drew
Jane Powell in 1986 - AP Photo/Richard Drew

She made an aerobics video, Jane Powell’s Fight Back with Fitness, and in 1988 published her autobiography, The Girl Next Door … and How She Grew.

Jane Powell was married five times (and divorced four): first to ice skater Geary Steffen; second to stockbroker Patrick Nerney; third to agent James Fitzgerald; fourth to producer David Parlour; and fifth to the former child star Dickie Moore, who died in 2015. She is survived by a son and a daughter from her first marriage, and another daughter from her second.

Jane Powell, born April 1 1929, died September 16 2021

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