Born: April 1, 1929
Death: September 16, 2021
Jane Powell, whose beauty and lyrical soprano voice brought her Hollywood stardom before her late teens – but whose film career peaked when she was still in her twenties with a lead role in one of MGM’s last major musicals, the 1954 Seven Brides for Seven Brothers extravaganza – died Thursday at her home in Wilton, Connecticut. She was 92 years old.
Susan Granger, a friend, confirmed the death.
Powell, who stood just over 5ft (152cm) and retained the naive features of an innocent teenager long after his teenage years, found herself cataloged from the get-go.
She was only 15 when her first film, Song of the Open Road (1944), was released. She played a disenchanted young movie star who finds happiness when she runs away from home and joins a group of young people picking crops while adult farm workers are at war. The film is notable primarily because the name of the character she played, Jane Powell, also became hers when the film was released. She was born Suzanne Lorraine Burce.
Powell had previously signed with MGM, but the studio loaned her to United Artists for Song of the Open Road. His early MGM films were mostly forgettable musicals, with slender storylines that were little more than frames for the songs.
In Holiday in Mexico (1946), she played the daughter of the United States Ambassador to that country (Walter Pidgeon), while piano virtuoso JosÃ© Iturbi, conductor Xavier Cugat and Powell provided the music. In Luxury Liner (1948), she was a stowaway on a cruise ship commissioned by her father (George Brent), with Cugat and opera singer Lauritz Melchior among the passengers.
Her breakthrough was Royal Wedding (1951), the first film in which she played an adult. This time, Powell had an exceptional director, Stanley Donen; an exceptional score, by Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner; and, most importantly, an exceptional co-star: Fred Astaire.
Set just before the wedding of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Royal Wedding focuses on an American song and dance number (Astaire and Powell) touring London. Cast at the last minute to replace Judy Garland, who had been fired (and who herself had replaced a pregnant June Allyson), Powell hardly had time to learn her dance routines. But she did well, especially in a vaudeville-style number with Astaire, How could you believe me when I said I love you when you know I’ve been a liar all my life?
His film career seems to be gaining momentum. In fact, it was halfway.
After the royal wedding, Powell, to her frustration, found herself once again as the Girl Next Door in light musicals such as Rich, Young and Pretty (1951) and Three Sailors and a Girl ( 1953). It would be three years before she got another big role – but it was memorable.
Set in a pioneer community in 19th-century Oregon, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers told the story of newlyweds (Powell and Howard Keel) whose first order of business as a married couple is to find wives for the six rowdy brothers of the groom. Directed by Donen, with a catchy score by Gene by Paul and Johnny Mercer and acrobatic choreography by Michael Kidd, it has earned a spot on many lists of the greatest musicals of all time. It was, said Powell later, “my last really wonderful movie role.”
Suzanne Burce was born April 1, 1929 in Portland, Oregon. An only child, she was still a toddler when her parents – Paul Burce, who worked for a bread company, and Eileen (Baker) Burce – started grooming her as a potential successor to Shirley Temple.
At the age of 5, she was taking singing and dancing lessons and playing on the radio. When she was 14, her parents took her to Hollywood, where her performance on a popular radio show led to an audition for MGM’s Louis B Mayer and, in no time, to a seven-year contract.
Thinking back to that time in her 1988 autobiography, The Girl Next Door and How She Grew, Powell wrote, âI should have been the happiest girl in the world. Well, I wasn’t. All she wanted to do, she said, was go home, go to high school, and make friends. Her parents’ tireless efforts to make her a star had led to a lonely and artificial childhood. Despite her almost immediate success, she wrote: âSometimes I just wanted to run away from it all. “
With musicals starting to go out of style, she had few movie roles after Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. (âI didn’t quit the movies,â she once said. âThey left me.â) Two average musicals followed: Hit the Deck (1955), her last film for MGM, and The Girl Most Likely (1958), in which she was courted by Cliff Robertson and two other men.
Her big-screen career ended in 1958 with the dramas The Female Animal, in which she played the alcoholic daughter of a declining movie star (Hedy Lamarr), and Enchanted Island, in which she was unlikely to be cast as a Polynesian islander. . . (âIt was a terrible movie,â she said. âThe best thing about it was that it made the family have a great vacation in Acapulco.â)
She made her Broadway debut in 1974, when she replaced her friend and frequent MGM co-star Debbie Reynolds as the main character in the hit 1919 musical Irene revival.
Powell has found a new home in television. A 1961 pilot for a sitcom, The Jane Powell Show, was not reprinted, but she has appeared regularly in anthology-drama series, variety shows, and music specials, as well as in a recurring role as Alan Thicke’s mother on the Growing Pains in the late 1980s sitcom and in a long-running publicity campaign for denture products. His last TV appearance was in an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in 2002.
She has also appeared in touring musicals productions, including My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music and Carousel. She made her Broadway debut in 1974, when she replaced her friend and frequent MGM co-star Debbie Reynolds as the main character in the hit 1919 musical Irene revival.
She never returned to Broadway, although she played the Queen in a 1995 New York Opera production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella and occasionally appeared off Broadway. She appeared to be returning to Broadway in 2003, when she played the mother of the Mizner brothers in Stephen Sondheim’s musical Bounce in Chicago and Washington. But the show was poorly received and never reached New York. (It was then reworked, renamed The Road Show, and staged at the Public Theater in New York in 2008, without Powell in the cast.)
Powell’s first four marriages ended in divorce. In 1988, she married Dick Moore, whom she met while writing a book about child actors. Although, as Dickie Moore, he was a child actor himself, their paths never crossed until he interviewed her for his book.
Moore died in 2015, and Powell died in the house they shared. She is survived by one son, Geary Anthony Steffen III; two daughters, Suzanne Steffen and Lindsay Cavalli; and two granddaughters.
Thinking back in 1988 to his youth and his place in the Hollywood studio system, Powell was philosophical.
âI get angry when I hear other actors blaming the studios for all of their problems,â she wrote in her autobiography. âIt really bothered me when Judy Garland used to say, ‘The studio made me do this, the studio made me do that.’
âNo one is forcing you to do anything. You make your own choices. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times.