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Jane Powell, the radiant and refined singing star of such ebullient Hollywood musicals as A Date With Judy, Royal Wedding and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, died Thursday. She was 92.
Powell, who projected an image of the innocent girl next door throughout her movie career, which began as a teenager, died of natural causes at her home in Wilton, Connecticut, film critic and longtime friend Susan Granger told The Hollywood Reporter.
With her soprano operatic voice, Powell also was a recording star and a popular stage performer, playing in road productions of such musicals as The Sound of Music, Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady and Carousel, and she reteamed with her Seven Brides co-star Howard Keel in South Pacific and I Do! I Do!
Powell was married five times. Her first husband was Geary Steffen, the ice-skating partner of Norwegian Olympic champion Sonja Henie; her last was former child star Dickie Moore, who died in September 2015.
An energetic hazel-eyed beauty, Moore is most famously known for playing boarding-house cook Milly, who falls in love with frontier farmer Adam (Keel) and sets out to teach his six uncouth brothers a thing or two about manners, in Stanley Donan’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), one of the most popular MGM films of all time.
In the rollicking CinemaScope classic, which was based on Stephen Vincent Benet’s 1937 short story The Sobbin’ Women, Powell hoofs it up in the Oregon Territory of the 1850s and performs “Wonderful, Wonderful Day” in an obvious studio-set meadow, a highlight of the film.
MGM had put most of its money behind another musical that year, Brigadoon, starring Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. But the summer sleeper Seven Brides, with impeccable contributions from choreographer Michael Kidd and lyricist Johnny Mercer, went on to gross $6 million and bring in five Oscar nominations, including one for best picture (it lost to On the Waterfront).
Earlier, Powell had stepped in for June Allyson (who was pregnant) and then Judy Garland (who was fired after missing a rehearsal) to play the wise-cracking sister of Fred Astaire’s character in Donan’s first solo directing effort, the musical romance Royal Wedding (1951).
Another box office hit, Royal Wedding marked the first time that Powell had been cast as an adult character, and her Ellen Bowen winds up marrying Peter Lawford’s Lord John Brindale.
She and Astaire also have a lot of fun with the tap-dancing song and dance number with the breathless title, “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life?”
Powell’s MGM musical résumé also included Two Weeks With Love (1950), Athena (1954) — she was the oldest of six sisters in her Seven Brides follow-up — and Hit the Deck (1955), all three co-starring Debbie Reynolds.
In 1973, she made her Broadway debut when she replaced Reynolds in a revival of Irene, then returned to the stage in 2004 for Stephen Sondheim’s Bounce, playing a part that Sondheim had written just for her.
More recently, Powell played the widowed mother of Alan Thicke’s home-bound psychiatrist character on the 1985-92 ABC sitcom Growing Pains and had stints on the daytime soap operas As the World Turns and Loving.
She was born Suzanne Lorraine Burce on April 1, 1929, in Portland, Oregon. Her parents hoped she would become another Shirley Temple and, buoyed by singing, dancing and acting lessons (not to mention a permanent to give her curls just like Temple), she garnered nightclub jobs during World War II and got her own weekly radio show.
After the family moved to Los Angeles, she sang an aria to win a talent contest on Janet Gaynor’s Stars Over Hollywood radio program. MGM execs took notice and signed her to a contract at $225 a week, putting her in the Little Red Schoolhouse on the lot. She was the only one in her class, she once recalled.
“We had other advantages, obviously. It was exciting,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 2011. “You got to meet people you’d never otherwise get to meet. But there’s something young people miss if they don’t have the usual progression from kindergarten to grade school to high school, all of that. There were no sleepovers, no girls’ nights. I didn’t know anybody. It was a lonely life, really.”
At age 15, she gained her first movie credit when she was loaned to United Artists for Song of the Open Road (1944), playing a rich, child movie star who wants to hang out with regular kids. One of her numbers, “Too Much in Love,” received an Oscar nom for best original song.
Her character in the movie was named Jane Powell, and she was told to take that as her stage name.
Working often in lavish Technicolor with producer Joe Pasternak and Cuban bandleader Xavier Cugat, Powell then entranced audiences in such musicals as Delightfully Dangerous (1945), George Sidney’s Holiday in Mexico (1946) — she made the cover of Life magazine after that film — Three Daring Daughters (1948), A Date With Judy (1948), Nancy Goes to Rio (1950) and, opposite Ricardo Montalban, Two Weeks in Love.
(A Date With Judy tidbit: The music from one of her songs in that film, “It’s a Most Unusual Day,” can be heard when Cary Grant walks into the Plaza hotel lobby near the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.)
In 1949, Powell sang at Harry S. Truman’s Inauguration Ball. Also around this time, she launched a recording career with the Columbia and MGM labels.
For Warner Bros., she starred in the musicals Rich, Young and Pretty (1951) with Vic Damone, Small Town Girl (1953) with Ann Miller and Three Sailors and a Girl (1953) with Gordon MacRae, Gene Nelson (with whom she would soon have an affair) and Merv Griffin.
After making Hit the Deck, Powell asked to be released from her MGM contract and left the studio at age 26 in November 1955. The era of the big studio musical was coming to an end.
Powell stood out in RKO’s The Girl Most Likely (1958), directed by Mitchell Leisen and choreographed by Gower Champion, and — in her first non-musical role — played the promiscuous adopted daughter of an aging actress (Hedy Lamarr) fighting over the same man in the Universal melodrama The Female Animal (1958).
Powell then became a regular on television, appearing on such variety staples as The Perry Como Show, The Andy Williams Show, The Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace. She starred in a live 1959 remake of Meet Me in St. Louis for NBC, fronted her own 1961 special and was a panelist and mystery guest on the game show What’s My Line?
Her last movie appearance came in Picture This (1999), in which she played an arts patron, and she was excellent as a woman with dementia on a 2002 episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
She wrote a 1988 autobiography, The Girl Next Door and How She Grew, and performed in a one-woman show by that name.
Her wedding to Steffen in November 1949 in Beverly Hills was a Hollywood-style extravaganza that featured 500 guests. Her Date With Judy co-star Elizabeth Taylor was one of her bridesmaids; she returned the favor at Taylor’s first wedding, to Conrad Hilton.
She and Moore met in 1981 when he was researching his book about kid actors, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star (But Don’t Have Sex or Take the Car), and they married in 1988.
Survivors include her children, Geary, Suzanne and Lindsay, and grandchildren, Skye and Tia.
Duane Byrge contributed to this report.
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