PART 4 – ELEANOR POWELL’S DANCING, DEMISE OF HER CAREER AND MAKING A COMEBACK
In Part 4 of our exclusive interview with Peter Ford about his mother, Eleanor Powell we focus on Eleanor’s dancing, the demise of her career and how she made a comeback later in life.
Eleanor Powell was considered to be “the best” tap dancer ever and that is high praise. She danced from her childhood making it big in Hollywood musicals at MGM.
She was well received in her first starring role in 1935 At Home Abroad (in which she was supported by Jack Benny and Frances Langford), and delighted 1930s audiences with her endless energy and enthusiasm, not to mention her stunning dancing. According to dancer Ann Miller, quoted in the “making-of” documentary That’s Entertainment! III, MGM was headed for bankruptcy in the late 1930s, but the films of Eleanor Powell, particularly Broadway Melody of 1936, were so popular they made the company profitable again. Miller also credits Powell for inspiring her own dancing career, which would lead her to become an MGM musical star a decade later.
Eleanor would go on to star opposite many of the decade’s top leading men, including James Stewart, Robert Taylor, Fred Astaire, George Murphy, Nelson Eddy, and Robert Young. Among the films she made during the height of her career in the mid-to-late 1930s were Born to Dance (1936), Rosalie (1937), Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937), Honolulu (1939), and Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940). All of these movies featured her amazing solo tapping, although her increasingly huge production numbers began to draw criticism. Her characters also sang, but Powell’s singing voice was usually (but not always) dubbed. (This would also happen to one of Powell’s successors, Cyd Charisse). Broadway Melody of 1940, in which Powell starred opposite Fred Astaire, featured an acclaimed musical score by Cole Porter. Together, Astaire and Powell danced to Porter’s “Begin the Beguine”, which is considered by many to be one of the greatest tap sequences in film history. According to accounts of the making of this film, including a documentary included on the DVD release, Astaire was somewhat intimidated by Powell, who was considered the only female dancer ever capable of out-dancing Astaire. In his autobiography Steps in Time, Astaire remarked, “She ‘put ’em down like a man’, no ricky-ticky-sissy stuff with Ellie. She really knocked out a tap dance in a class by herself.”
DEMISE OF HER CAREER
What happened to your mother’s career?
PETER: My parents married in 1943, on October 23 and then, I’m born and frankly, the war is ending, the films had moved away from the big elegant grand musicals and getting into film noir and the post war era became much more “edgy.” In other words, the world was changing and audiences weren’t interested in big escapist musicals anymore. My theory was that although my mom says she gave up her career for me, which is partially true, I just think she knew that the whole era that she was a part of was ending; and the war changed everything in this country. The last musical really from the old days was Singin’ in the Rain.
As mentioned in Peter’s book, Glenn Ford: A Life, on June 10, 1943, Louella Parsons’s Los Angeles Examiner column announced, “Eleanor Powell Retires from Screen.” The columnist wrote: “Eleanor feels that marriage and a career do not go together.” She also turned down a four-week engagement at Radio City Music Hall in Ner York City. “She reasons that if she did not stay close and Glenn was eventually sent overseas and possibly killed, she would regret those lost four weeks for the rest of her life…”
Peter: It sounds better, and I don’t mean to disparage my dear mother in any way, to say that it was because of me, but the fact was that they were not making those kind of films anymore.
Following Broadway Melody of 1940, Powell was sidelined for many months following a gall stone operation and things changed somewhat for the worse, at least as far as Powell’s movie career was concerned. 1941’s Lady Be Good gave Powell top billing and a classic dance routine to “Fascinatin’ Rhythm“, but Robert Young and Ann Sothern were the actual stars of the film. The same happened with Red Skelton in Ship Ahoy (1942) and I Dood It (1943), although in Ship Ahoy her character nonetheless played a central role in the story, and Powell’s dance skills were put to practical use when she manages to tap out a morse code message to a secret agent in the middle of a dance routine.
The entire number for “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” Eleanor starts dancing starting at about 4:50.
She was signed to play opposite Dan Dailey in For Me and My Gal in 1942, but the two actors were removed from the picture during rehearsals and replaced by Gene Kelly and Judy Garland. Later, production of a new Broadway Melody film that would have paired Powell with Kelly was also cancelled.
She parted ways with MGM in 1943 after her next film, Thousands Cheer, in which she appeared only for a few minutes to perform a specialty number (as part of an all-star cast), and the same year married Canadian-born lead actor Glenn Ford. She danced in a giant pinball machine in Sensations of 1945 (1944) for United Artists, but this picture was a critical and commercial disappointment. Powell’s performance was overshadowed by what was to be the final film appearance of W. C. Fields.
Eleanor dancing in a giant pinball machine in Sensations of 1945.
In 1950, Powell returned to MGM one last time for a cameo in Duchess of Idaho, starring Esther Williams. Appearing as herself in a nightclub scene, a hesitant Powell is invited to dance by Van Johnson’s character, and she begins with a staid, almost balletic performance until she is chided by Johnson for being lazy. She then strips off her skirt, revealing her famous legs, and proceeds to perform a “boogie-woogie”-style specialty number very similar to the one she performed in Thousands Cheer seven years earlier. Williams, in her autobiography The Million Dollar Mermaid, writes of being touched, watching Powell rehearsing until her feet bled, in order to make her brief cameo as perfect as possible.
What was her favorite film?
PETER: Probably Broadway Melody of 1940 with Fred Astaire because she said they were like two race horses at the time. She felt that they would challenge each other and from a dancers point of view that was the best.
Eleanor and Fred Astaire dancing Begin the Beguime in Broadway Melody of 1940
Was she a perfectionist?
PETER: Yes, and Fred Astaire was, too. The two of them were both really perfectionists. She would practice until her feet bled. Fred Astaire told me himself that she was the best dancer he’d ever seen, including himself. According to Fred Astaire, she was the best dancer, “male or female,” at least that’s what Fred told me.
Who was her favorite dancing partner?
PETER: She didn’t really have a dance partner. My mom was a solo act except for dancing with Fred Astaire.
Did she admire other dancers?
PETER: I think probably Ann Miller would have been her favorite dancer because she knew Ann Miller and they were friends.
Eleanor Powell’s friend, Ann Miller dancing to “Shakin’ the Blues Away” from “Easter Parade“, 1948.
It’s said that you encouraged your mother to make a comeback by starting her nightclub performance career. Can you talk about that a bit?
PETER: Yes, that was the line, but I tell you the truth, when they divorced, she got the house and it was a big 22 room mansion in Beverly Hills and she didn’t get a whole lot of alimony, and quite frankly to keep that house going we were really struggling. So, she made a comeback.
The story is that she made a comeback to show me how good she was and to some degree that’s correct. We had gone to Las Vegas on a little field trip with a young friend of mine, my grandmother and my mother and wherever she went to see the shows, they had her stand up and the audience was so appreciative and so she just said, “gee, maybe they remember me.”
But the truth is that we were absolutely broke and she needed to make some money and my dad was pretty resentful for having to pay alimony and he didn’t want to cut her any slack. So she went back to try to make some money. She got back to her dancing weight and opened up at the Sahara; worked for three or four years; played the Dunes, played back east at the Latin Quarter, had a command performance for Princess Grace and did all kinds of stuff. She was about 50 years, and looked 20. However she wasn’t a young girl anymore and it took it’s toll, so she retired again.
She moved to a small duplex apartment on Roxbery Drive after she sold the house in about 1965, or so and at that point I was working in movies and I lived with my dad on occasion; I was about 19. We went to Europe together in 1964 and I came back and my dad was not married and my dad asked me to live with him.
Below is Eleanor’s first TV appearance on “All Star Review” in 1952. It proves that she still “had it.”
READ THE OTHER PARTS OF THIS INTERVIEW WITH PETER FORD BY CLICKING ON THE LINKS BELOW:
- PART 1 – EARLY CHILDHOOD AND DANCING FOR HER SUPPER
- PART 2 – ACHIEVING STARDOM AND FILM CAREER
- PART 3 – MARRIAGE TO GLENN FORD
- PART 4 – ON DANCING, THE DEMISE OF HER CAREER AND MAKING A COMEBACK
- PART 5 – MORE ABOUT ELEANOR
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