LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Jane Powell, the bright-eyed, operatic-voiced queen of Hollywood’s golden age musicals who danced with Fred Astaire in “Royal Wedding” and sang with Howard Keel in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” has died. She was 92 years old.
Powell died at her Wilton, Connecticut, home on Thursday, according to close friend Susan Granger. The cause of Powell’s death was natural, according to Granger.
“Jane was the most wonderful friend,” Granger said. ”She was candid, she was honest. You never asked Jane a question you didn’t want an absolutely honest answer to.”
Granger was young when she met Powell, a teenager at the time and making her film debut in S. Sylvan Simon’s 1944 movie “Song of the Open Road.”
She began her career as a singing prodigy on the radio in Portland, Oregon, when she was just five years old. She soon progressed from teen roles to the grandiose musical productions that were a Hollywood trademark in the twentieth century.
Her 1950 role in “Royal Wedding” came about by accident. June Allyson was originally cast as Astaire’s co-star, but she backed out due to her pregnancy. Next, Judy Garland was cast but had to drop out due to personal issues. The following person in line was Jane Powell.
She quipped at the time, “They had to give it to me.” “Everyone else is pregnant.” Also among Lana Turner, Esther Williams, Cyd Charisse, and Jean Hagen the expected MGM stars.
Powell had only turned 21 when she was cast in the role, while Astaire was in his fifties. She was frightened because she had never danced before, but he was “extremely kind and understanding,” she said. We got along swimmingly right away.”
“Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” was a sleeper hit in 1954.
“The studio didn’t think it was going to do anything,” she said in 2000. “MGM thought that `Brigadoon’ was going to be the big moneymaker that year. It didn’t turn out that way. We were the ones that went to the Radio City Music Hall, which was always such a coup.”
Back then, the famous New York venue was a movie theater.
The passionate singing of Keel and Powell, as well as Michael Kidd’s athletic choreography, wowed the audience. The film “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” became a classic, spawning a TV series and a Broadway musical.
“Blonde and small and pretty, Jane Powell had the required amount of grit and spunk that was needed to play the woman who could tame seven backwoodsmen,” John Kobal wrote in his book “Gotta Sing Gotta Dance: A Pictorial History of Film Musicals.”
After 13 years at MGM, Powell left the studio, believing she would be fired because “they weren’t going to be doing musicals anymore.”
“I thought I’d have a lot of studios to go to,” she said in 2000, “but I didn’t have any, because no one wanted to make musicals. It was very difficult, and quite a shock to me. There’s nothing worse than not being wanted.”
“The Girl Most Likely,” a 1958 version of “Tom, Dick, and Harry,” was the only musical she found at RKO. Her film career was over, with the exception of a few brief roles.
Suzanne Lorraine Burce was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1928. As a tiny child, she began singing on local radio, and as she grew older, her voice blossomed into a clear, high-pitched soprano.
Suzanne was requested to appear on a network talent show in Los Angeles when the Burce family was planning a trip there. With an aria from “Carmen,” the small kid with a 2½-octave voice received enormous ovation and was promptly signed to MGM.
Her first film was a loanout to an independent producer for “Song of the Open Road,” a 1944 mash-up starring W.C. Fields, Edgar Bergen, and Charlie McCarthy (at the conclusion of his career).
Jane Powell was the name of the character in “Song of the Open Road,” and MGM opted to use that name for her film.
In films like “Holiday in Mexico,” “Three Daring Daughters,” and “A Date With Judy,” she played a teen. But she lobbied with the studio executives to offer her mature roles, and she finally got one in “Royal Wedding.”
“Young, Rich, and Pretty,” “Small Town Girl,” and “Three Sailors and a Girl” were among the frothy romances and musicals that dominated her career.
After her film career ended, musical theater provided enough opportunities for a celebrity of her stature and talent. She performed in supper clubs and traveled with productions including “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” and “I Do! I Do!” She also took over for Debbie Reynolds in the Broadway run of “Irene.”
She appeared on television frequently, most memorably in a revised rendition of “Meet Me in St. Louis” in which she played Judy Garland.
Powell gave up singing as she entered her seventies. In 2000, she remarked, “I can’t hit the high notes, and I won’t be second-rate.” She transitioned to acting, participating in plays such as “Avow,” in which she played the mother of a pregnant unmarried daughter and a son who wished to marry his male companion.
Geary Steffen (son Geary, daughter Suzanne), Patrick Nerney (daughter Lindsay), James Fitzgerald, and David Parlour were Powell’s first four marriages, all of which ended in divorce.
When she was interviewed for her book about child actors, Powell met her fifth husband, Dick Moore. He was a well-known child actor in the 1930s and 1940s as Dickie Moore, and in “Miss Annie Rooney,” he gave Shirley Temple her first movie kiss (1942). Powell married Moore, the president of a New York public relations firm, in 1988. In 2015, he passed away.
Jane Powell’s daughter, Lindsey Nerney, is one of her survivors, according to Granger.