Jane Powell obituary: Hollywood star who was typecast from the outset

She starred in movie musicals in her teens but her big-screen career peaked in her 20s

Jane Powell: “I get angry when I hear other actors blame the studios for all their problems.” Photograph: Getty Images

Jane Powell: “I get angry when I hear other actors blame the studios for all their problems.” Photograph: Getty Images

 

Born: April 1st, 1929
Died: September 16th, 2021

Jane Powell, whose pert good looks and lyrical soprano voice brought her Hollywood stardom before she was out of her teens — but whose movie career peaked when she was still in her 20s with a starring role in one of the last great MGM musicals, the 1954 extravaganza Seven Brides for Seven Brothers — died on Thursday at her home in Wilton, Connecticut. She was 92.

Susan Granger, a friend, confirmed the death.

Powell, who was just over 152cm (5ft) tall and retained the guileless features of an innocent teenager well past adolescence, found herself typecast from the outset.

She was only 15-years-old when her first film, Song of the Open Road (1944), was released. She played a disenchanted young film star who finds happiness when she runs away from home and joins a group of young people picking crops while adult farmworkers are at war. The film is noteworthy mostly because the name of the character she played, Jane Powell, became hers as well when the movie was released. She was born Suzanne Lorraine Burce.

Powell had already been signed by MGM, but the studio lent her to United Artists for Song of the Open Road. Her first several MGM movies were mostly forgettable musicals, with slender storylines that were little more than frameworks for the songs.

In Holiday in Mexico (1946), she played the daughter of the US ambassador to that country (Walter Pidgeon), while piano virtuoso José Iturbi, bandleader Xavier Cugat and Powell provided the music. In Luxury Liner (1948), she was a stowaway on a cruise ship captained by her father (George Brent), with Cugat and opera singer Lauritz Melchior among the passengers.

Her breakthrough was Royal Wedding (1951), the first movie in which she played an adult. This time Powell had an outstanding director, Stanley Donen; an outstanding score, by Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner; and, most important, an outstanding co-star: Fred Astaire.

Jane Powell with Howard Keel in the 1954 movie “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers.” It was one of the last great MGM musicals. Photograph: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images
Jane Powell with Howard Keel in the 1954 movie “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers.” It was one of the last great MGM musicals. Photograph: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images

Set just before the wedding of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Royal Wedding centres on an American brother-sister song-and-dance act (Astaire and Powell) on tour in London. Cast at the last minute to replace Judy Garland, who had been fired (and who herself had replaced a pregnant June Allyson), Powell had almost no time to learn her dance routines. But she acquitted herself well, notably in a knockabout 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?

Her movie career appeared to be gaining steam. In fact, it was halfway over.

After Royal Wedding, Powell, to her frustration, found herself once again cast as the girl next door in lightweight musicals such as Rich, Young and Pretty (1951) and Three Sailors and a Girl (1953). It would be three years before she had another role of substance — but it was a memorable one.

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 groom’s six rowdy brothers. Directed by Donen, with a lively score by Gene de Paul and Johnny Mercer and acrobatic choreography by Michael Kidd, it earned a place on many lists of the greatest film musicals of all time. It was, Powell later said, “my last really wonderful role in a film”.

Suzanne Burce was born April 1st, 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 — began grooming her as a potential successor to Shirley Temple.

By the time she was 5-years-old she was taking singing and dancing lessons and appearing on the radio. When she was 14 her parents took her to Hollywood, where her performance on a popular radio talent show led to an audition for Louis B Mayer of MGM and, in short order, a seven-year contract.

Looking back on that time in her 1988 autobiography, The Girl Next Door and How She Grew, Powell wrote: “I should have been the happiest girl in the world. Well, I wasn’t.” All she wanted to do, she said, was return home, go to high school and make friends. Her parents’ relentless efforts to make her a star had made for a lonely, artificial childhood. Despite her almost immediate success, she wrote, “Sometimes I just wanted to run away from it all.”

With musicals beginning to fall out of fashion, she had few film roles after Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. (“I didn’t quit movies,” she once said. “They quit me.”) Two middling 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 came to an anticlimactic end in 1958 with the dramas The Female Animal, in which she played the alcoholic daughter of a fading movie star (Hedy Lamarr), and Enchanted Island, in which she was improbably cast as a Polynesian islander. (“It was a terrible movie,” she said. “The best thing about it was that it gave the family a great vacation in Acapulco.”)

She made her Broadway debut in 1974, when she replaced her friend and frequent MGM co-star Debbie Reynolds as the title character in the hit revival of the 1919 musical Irene

Powell found a new home on television. A 1961 pilot for a sitcom, The Jane Powell Show, was not picked up, but she appeared regularly on dramatic anthology series, variety shows and musical specials, as well as in a recurring role as Alan Thicke’s mother on the sitcom Growing Pains in the late 1980s and in a long-running ad campaign for denture products. Her last TV appearance was on an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in 2002.

She also performed in touring productions of musicals, 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 title character in the hit revival of the 1919 musical Irene.

She never returned to Broadway, although she played the queen in a 1995 New York City Opera production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella and occasionally appeared off-Broadway. She seemed headed back to Broadway in 2003, when she played the mother of the entrepreneurial Mizner brothers in the Stephen Sondheim musical Bounce in Chicago and Washington. But the show was poorly received and never made it to New York. (It was later reworked, retitled 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 when he was writing a book about child actors. Although, as Dickie Moore, he had once been a child actor himself, their paths had never crossed until he interviewed her for his book.

Moore died in 2015, and Powell died in the home they had shared. She is survived by a son, Geary Anthony Steffen III; two daughters, Suzanne Steffen and Lindsay Cavalli; and two granddaughters.

Looking back in 1988 on her youthful stardom and her place in the Hollywood studio system, Powell was philosophical.

“I get angry when I hear other actors blame the studios for all their problems,” she wrote in her autobiography. “It really bothered me when Judy Garland used to say, ‘The studio made me do this, the studio made me do that.’

“Nobody makes you do anything. You make your own choices.” – This article originally appeared in The New York Times.