Wednesday, April 1, 2009

jane powell celebrate 80th birthday

April 1st marks the 80th birthday of MGM songbird Jane Powell. Groomed by the studio in the mid 1940s to be a teen soprano in the Deanna Durbin mold, Powell scored a big success with A DATE WITH JUDY (1948).

Born 80 years ago today in Portland, Oregon, Jane Powell had a relatively brief but memorable film career in the '40s and '50s, playing the sweet-natured leading lady in a series of musicals and romances.

I had the pleasure of briefly meeting Powell five years ago, when she was the guest of honor at the Port Townsend Film Festival. There, she reminded the audience of her Northwest roots (her father worked for Wonder Bread in Portland, but they often visited family in Tacoma), smilingly shared that she was only the third choice to play Fred Astaire's partner in "Royal Wedding" ("June Allyson was taken pregnant, Judy Garland was taken ill"), noted that she was maid of honor at Elizabeth Taylor's first wedding, and confirmed that the pioneer-lady skirts she wore in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" were indeed made from old quilts, and were "very heavy."

Powell (who was born Suzanne Burce, and took her screen name from her first movie, 1944's "Song of the Open Road") also told us that her favorite film from her career was the 1950 romance "Two Weeks With Love," where she was partnered with Ricardo Montalban. (She plays a teen who falls in love with a dashing older man while on vacation with her family in the Catskills -- sort of a more innocent "Dirty Dancing.") Here, as a little birthday tribute, is a clip of Powell and Montalban (who died earlier this year, at the age of 88) from that movie, dancing a charming tango.

She was Fred Astaire’s partner in ROYAL WEDDING (1951), confidently holding her own on the dance floor alongside the master. (Despite their 30-year age difference, they were strangely plausible as brother and sister.) But it was SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (1954) that showed Powell off best, proving that she was a major movie-musical presence. Opposite Howard Keel, also at his best, and given some glorious tunes by Gene de Paul and Johnny Mercer, Powell was marvelous as Milly, the young woman who falls in love (with Keel) on sight. She marries him, only to find out that he was looking for someone to cook and clean for him and his six backwoods brothers. But she is more than a match for all seven of them!

The strength, warmth, and depth in Powell’s performance set her apart from the manufactured emoting of her soprano rivals at MGM, Kathryn Grayson and Ann Blyth. If either of those ladies had played Milly, the character would have been arch and insufferable. The vigorous spunk in Powell’s Milly feels authentic rather than cute. Her rendition of “Wonderful, Wonderful Day” is her vocal highlight, an uncontained expression of pure happiness, comparable to Julie Andrews’ mountain-top outburst in the Alps. Powell’s acting merited an Oscar nomination, to go with the film’s Best Picture nod. SEVEN BRIDES is one of the screen’s greatest movie musicals, enhanced by Stanley Donen’s zesty direction, Michael Kidd’s thrilling choreography, the irresistible ensemble of brides and brothers, handsome and rugged Keel, and, perhaps most of all, the gifted and altogether captivating Jane Powell. (You can read much more about SEVEN BRIDES and Powell in my book SCREEN SAVERS.) Happy Birthday, Milly!

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