Jane Powell, who starred as an angelically visaged young actress in a number of MGM musicals including “Royal Wedding” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” during the 1940s and ’50s, has died of natural causes. She was 92.
The blonde, blue-eyed Powell usually played characters with a gentle mischievous streak in her musical comedies, but she would shatter the light-hearted atmosphere of her films when she sang: A surprisingly powerful coloratura would emerge from the diminutive (5-foot-1) thesp. (Interestingly, she never learned to read music.)
Her producer and mentor was MGM’s Joe Pasternak, who had earlier developed the talents of Deanna Durbin at Universal.
Auditioning for Louis B. Mayer and David O. Selznick, she quickly drew a seven-year contract with MGM in 1943. Her first film, on loan-out, was 1944 musical “Song of the Open Road,” in which the actress played a child film star who runs away. She took her character’s name, Jane Powell, as her own.
In “Holiday in Mexico” she starred with Walter Pidgeon plus pianist-conductor Jose Iturbi and bandleader Xavier Cugat as themselves; in “Three Daring Daughters” her character is threatened by a relationship between her mother (Jeanette MacDonald) and Iturbi (as himself again); and in “A Date With Judy” (Powell was Santa Barbara teen Judy) she tangled with father Wallace Beery, whom she incorrectly believes is having an affair with Cugat’s singer, played by Carmen Miranda.
These teen-centered musicals, with their similar plots, began to seem alike after a while, but in 1951 Powell starred with Fred Astaire in Stanley Donen’s “Royal Wedding,” the musical in which Astaire famously dances (solo) on the side walls and ceiling of a room. Powell (first June Allyson and then Judy Garland had been slotted for the part) and Astaire played a brother-and-sister act who head to London in 1947 at the time of Princess Elizabeth’s marriage; Powell’s aristocratic love interest was played by Peter Lawford (the storyline echoed the real lives of Fred and his sister Adele).
The New York Times said, “Mr. Astaire and Miss Powell are at their cutest in a ragtag-and-barrel-house affair called ‘How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life.’ In this one the couple shimmy-shammy and knock each other — and the audience — dead.” After “Royal Wedding,” however, Powell returned to the kind of musicals she had been making since the mid-1940s, though “Rich, Young and Pretty” was set in Paris (her long-lost mother was played by Danielle Darrieux).
She returned to work for Donen in 1954’s high-profile tuner “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” which was nominated for the best picture Oscar. In this spirited affair, Powell starred opposite Howard Keel (and the rest of a necessarily large cast) in a somewhat more mature role than she had previously played. The Times said, “Mr. Keel, whose baritone is as big and impressive as his frame; Miss Powell, who sings and acts to the pioneer manner born; as well as their sturdy and energetic kinfolk — and this must include the nubile, dancing damsels they abduct — are lovely to look at and hear.”
Also in 1954, in perhaps her kookiest (but nevertheless charming) role, Powell played a member of a family of weightlifting vegetarians who becomes involved in a somewhat star-crossed romance with a straitlaced politician (Edmund Purdom) in “Athena.”
Powell also had a small role in 1954 in Donen’s “Deep in My Heart,” starring Jose Ferrer and Merle Oberon.
In 1955 she starred with Debbie Reynolds and Ann Miller in “Hit the Deck,” a musical derivative of “Anchors Aweigh” and “On the Town.”
In 1956 Powell’s recording of “True Love” hit No. 15 on the Billboard charts, and the actress sang “I’ll Never Stop Loving You” at the Academy Awards that year.
Powell was aging out of the teen roles for which she had been charmingly well suited — the New York Observer said she “made enough soda-fountain musicals at MGM to give herself a lifelong milkshake hangover” — and mostly found frustration in her last few 1950s film roles.
The 1958 Hollywood-set melodrama “The Female Animal” saw Powell’s alcoholic daughter compete with her drunken has-been movie star mother, played by Hedy Lamarr (in a comeback role), for the affections of a young extra, but the film was not a success. She was miscast as a cannibal chief’s daughter in “Enchanted Island,” though “The Girl Most Likely,” a musicalized remake of the Ginger Rogers vehicle “Tom, Dick and Harry,” was relatively successful even if Powell’s character was a bit ditzy.
The actress had, however, already been transitioning to TV for a couple of years at this point, appearing on anthology shows such as “Producers’ Showcase,” “Goodyear Theatre” and “Alcoa Theatre,” and variety shows such as “The Red Skelton Hour.” She appeared in a 1959 small-screen version of “Meet Me in St. Louis” in the Garland role.
And she was spending her summers touring in musicals such as “Unsinkable Molly Brown,” “Most Happy Fella,” “The Boy Friend,” “Brigadoon,” “The Sound of Music,” “Oklahoma!,” “My Fair Lady,” “Carousel,” “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “Peter Pan.” In 1964 Powell toured in the musical revue “Just 20 Plus Me!,” featuring Powell and 20 handsome fellows.
In 1974 she made her sole Broadway appearance replacing Reynolds in the title role of “Irene.”
She and Howard Keel also reunited for stage work in revivals of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “I Do! I Do!” and “South Pacific.”
On TV, Powell made de rigueur stops on “Fantasy Island,” “Love Boat” and “Murder, She Wrote,” and had a recurring role on sitcom “Growing Pains” in the late 1980s as Alan Thicke’s mother.
She did turns on the soap “Loving” in the 1980s and on “As the World Turns” in the early 1990s. The actress also remained prominent on television through the commercials she did for Polident, and Powell appeared in a pair of telepics in 2000: Showtime’s “The Sandy Bottom Orchestra” and CBS’ “Perfect Murder, Perfect Town.”
She was still appearing onstage as well.
After touring in the early 1980s in the comedies “Same Time Next Year,” “Marriage-Go-Round” and “Chapter Two,” Powell appeared with Anne Meara in the late ’90s in Meara’s comedy “After-Play.”
In 2000 she appeared Off Broadway in the very irreverent comedy “Avow.” Variety’s Charles Isherwood said, “Powell looks radiant and chic (I suspect she’s reviving an old stage tradition and wearing her own clothes), and bats her many punch lines over the footlights with pixie-ish charm.”
In 2003, she appeared in “Bounce,” but the Stephen Sondheim musical was not successful and did not make it to Broadway.
Powell made her last screen appearance in a 2002 episode of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” but she was still making guest appearances in concerts, performing with Pink Martini at the Hollywood Bowl in September 2010.
The actress also served as a guest host on Turner Classic Movies, subbing in for Robert Osborne while he was on medical leave for a week in July 2011.
Born Suzanne Lorraine Burce in Portland, Ore., she began dance lessons very early and appeared on the children’s radio show “Stars of Tomorrow” at age 5. The family moved to Oakland, Calif., in the hope that she would be discovered in the studio of a dance teacher there, but nothing came of it and they returned home.
During WWII, she was chosen as the Oregon Victory Girl, boosting the sale of war bonds.
During a 1943 family vacation in Hollywood, she won the Janet Gaynor radio talent competition “Hollywood Showcase: Stars Over Hollywood” and soon thereafter secured a contract at MGM.
Powell was a member of the board of trustees for the Actors Fund of America.
Her’s autobiography, “The Girl Next Door and How She Grew,” was published in 1988, and she wrote the foreword to Ken Bloom’s 2010 book “Hollywood Musicals: The 101 Greatest Song-and-Dance Movies of All Time.”
Powell was married five times, with three children from the first two marriages.
Her first marriage was to former figure skater Gearhardt “Geary” Anthony Steffen. At their November 1949 wedding, Elizabeth Taylor served as one of her bridesmaids.
Powell married her fifth husband, former child star Dickie Moore, in 1988. Moore predeceased Powell in 2015. She is survived by three children, Geary Anthony Steffen III, Suzanne Steffen and Lindsay Cavalli, as well as two granddaughters, Skye Cavalli and Tia Cavalli.