Jane Powell: MGM’s Musical “Girl Next Door”

With sass, spunk and a soaring soprano, this winsome Northwesterner became a major box-office draw before she was out of her teens and established herself as one of the last leading lights of Hollywood’s classic musical cycle. Born in Portland, Oregon, in 1929, Suzanne Burce’s affinity for singing and dancing was apparent from the time she was a toddler. After she appeared on the radio at the age of five, Suzanne’s parents had visions of her becoming the next Shirley Temple, but after a move to Oakland in furtherance of a show biz career proved disastrous for the family, their ambitions were tabled for a time. Family friends remained encouraging, however, and a Portland promoter ultimately got 12-year-old Suzanne selected as the Oregon Victory Girl; she’d stump the state over the next two years on war bond drives.

The Burces thereafter headed to Hollywood for Suzanne to participate in a talent competition on Janet Gaynor’s radio show; her claiming the prize led to an audition with MGM honcho Louis B. Mayer, who signed her to a seven-year-deal without even benefit of a screen test. Her first project came as a loan-out to United Artists, playing opposite W.C. Fields and Bergen & McCarthy in the 1944 wartime variety show tale Song of the Open Road. In the film she played Jane Powell, and from this movie she was re-christened with her new permanent stage name.

She quickly followed with another UA feature in 1945, Delightfully Dangerous, which showcases Jane as an aspiring singer who travels to New York City to visit the sister she believes to be a Broadway star — but before she can say Gypsy Rose Lee, Powell discovers that her sibling Constance Moore) is actually a stripper.

Her first movie under MGM’s aegis, 1946’s Holiday in Mexico, had Jane as the daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico (Walter Pidgeon) who, against her father’s wishes, falls in love with an older man. This movie is rumored to have a teenaged Fidel Castro in one of the crowd scenes. As a new golden voiced youngster on the MGM lot, she befriended her family of co-stars, and when Esther Williams married Ben Gage, young Jane sang “Because” at their wedding.

When she signed on to do Holiday in Mexico, her career was placed in the hands of producer Joe Pasternak, in the hopes that he’d find similar gold as he earlier had at Universal with another teen soprano, Deanna Durbin. The promise emerged with her engaging supporting performance in Jeanette MacDonald’s final musical feature, Three Daring Daughters (1948), a big honor for Jane as Miss MacDonald was her role model and very favorite actress. Powell would spend the next few years headlining Pasternak-produced vehicles like A Date with Judy (1948), which introduced her to two other teenagers on the MGM lot, Elizabeth Taylor and Roddy McDowall, with whom Jane became lifelong friends. Taylor was a bridesmaid and McDowall an usher at Jane’s first wedding.

Luxury Liner, also from 1948, was a familiar formula for her fans. In the spirited seafaring musical comedy, Jane is an aspiring singer and daughter of ship captain George Brent, who stows away on one of Brent’s cruises — which just happens to feature a bevy of musical stars which she thinks will jump-start her career, playing matchmaker for dad along the way. In 1950, Jane headlined Nancy Goes to Rio, a somewhat loose remake of the Deanna Durbin hit, It’s A Date. Audiences couldn’t get enough of the sprightly singer and her success continued later that year with Two Weeks With Love, which is the movie that helped young future star Debbie Reynolds get noticed when she sang “Aba Daba Honeymoon” with Carleton Carpenter.

When a pregnant June Allyson had to abandon the production of Royal Wedding in 1951, the young Jane proved up to the challenge of keeping in step with Fred Astaire. Oddly enough, Allyson was taking over for Judy Garland, who was too ill to do a movie at that time. Although this film is best known for Fred’s legendary dancing up the walls of his hotel room, Jane held her own with a performance marked by the energetically comic “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life.”

She’d know continued success through the early ’50s under Pasternak’s banner with Rich, Young and Pretty (1951), as a young Texas girl joining her rancher dad on a trip to Paris that leads to romance with the Frenchman of her dreams (Vic Damone) and the discovery of her real mother, now living in Europe. In 1953’s Small Town Girl, a musical remake of an earlier Janet Gaynor vehicle, a wealthy playboy (Farley Granger) runs afoul of the law after speeding through a sleepy hamlet and is sentenced to 30 days in the hoosegow — but when he’s released into the custody of Jane as the judge’s daughter, sparks start to fly.

Powell plays a singer who dreams of becoming a Broadway star in the 1953 musical Three Sailors and a Girl, and she peaked with her first mature characterization as the country wife who has to bring boisterous lumberjack husband Howard Keel and his six siblings in line in 1954’s enduringly entertaining  Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. As the decade went on, however, the storied MGM musical unit was showing its age, and the returns for Jane and her peers began to diminish through efforts like Athena (again playing Debbie Reynold’s sister), and in a cameo role in the MGM biographical musical Deep in My Heart, the life story of  composer Sigmund Romberg.

Hit the Deck (1955) reteamed her with some of her former co-stars, including Reynolds and Ann Miller, and she danced her way over to RKO to co-star in that studio’s final film, the 1958 comedy/musical The Girl Most Most Likely. But after her dubious casting as a South Sea princess in the MGM adventure drama Enchanted Island (1958), a not-yet-30 Powell called it a day with her feature film career. Years later, she made her position clear by saying, “I didn’t quit movies. They quit me.” Throughout her career she was often thought to be related to Tinseltown superstars Dick Powell, Eleanor Powell or William Powell, but in fact, was no relation to any.

Jane stayed busy over the next several decades, however, largely through nightclub and stage work. The actress made a 1973 Broadway debut in Irene, taking over from fellow MGM alum Reynolds, and headlined multiple touring productions, including reunions with Keel for Seven Brides, I Do! I Do! and South Pacific. Television would also be a frequent outlet, with copious variety and talk show appearances (including co-hosting The Mike Douglas Show in 1970); series guest turns (The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Growing Pains, Murder, She Wrote), soap stints (As the World Turns, Loving) and telefilms (Meet Me in St. Louis, Feathertop, Mayday at 40,000 Feet!, Perfect Murder, Perfect Town and The Sandy Bottom Orchestra). Her last TV performance was a 2002 guest-starring dramatic stint on Law & Order: SVU.

She continued to appear now and again and in 2009, she paired up with singer Michael Feinstein in his salute to Movie Musicals, where she sang, “Love is Where You Find It,” which she originally performed in A Date With Judy. Jane was the very first guest on Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne’s series of “Private Screenings” interviews and opened up her heart, telling about her career at MGM. She has also appeared at the Hollywood Bowl with the “little orchestra” Pink Martini (hailing, like Powell, from Portland); her most recent performance was in 2010.

In 1988 (the same year her autobiography, The Girl Next Door and How She Grew, was published), Jane entered into her fifth and most enduring marriage to one-time child star Dickie Moore, who passed away in 2015. Today, Powell is enjoying her well-earned retirement in New England.