Eleanor Powell (1912-1982):
“I’d rather dance than eat.”
She was a magnificently talented movie-musical performer who proved to be too good for Hollywood. Too good at her specialty, tap dancing, for the studio execs and powerful male stars to tolerate. If you catch one of her films, you might not see her as being extraordinary, just an equal to the men she performed with, and that is what is so special about her. In the 1930s and 1940s, women in musicals were mostly there to make the men look good. Powell was a little too equal to her costars, and they felt less like stars.
Fayard Nicholas of the famed Nicholas Brothers, the best dance team ever, wrote:
“Eleanor Powell was one of the very greatest, bar none. Not one of the greatest women, one of the greatest, period.”
Dynamic and versatile, Powell danced with a musician’s sensitivity, essential with tap dancing. Male stars had trouble accommodating a woman as a peer on the soundstage. Fred Astaire, who performed with Powell memorably in several films, pinpointed the issue in a couple of interviews, as well as in his memoir, Steps In Time (1959). Astaire:
“Eleanor Powell, one of our greatest talents, is a bit too powerful for me. I love Eleanor Powell, but she dances like a man. She’s a remarkable dancer, but she has a very mannish style, and she’s a little big for me.“
Watching a clip of Powell and Astaire together in Broadway Melody Of 1940, I wondered what he meant. He must have meant unflattering to HIM. The kind of dancing thought of as partner dancing in Golden Age of Hollywood had most women functioning as the fantasy object of conquest. On screen, Powell seems neither conqueror nor the chased. Hollywood could find the best to use her, because she came across as a woman not easily used.
I have a dancer friend who is a university professor; he teaches classes in Dance History and Dance On Film. He claims that she was the very best tap dancer of all time, and who’s to argue. Ann Miller thought so.
I recently watched Broadway Melody Of 1936, one of the very best of MGM’s musical films. It has a screenplay by Moss Hart, directed by Roy Del Ruth and stars Jack Benny, Robert Taylor, Frances Langford, Buddy Ebsen (his film debut) and Powell. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Among the musical numbers by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed: Broadway Rhythm, Broadway Melody, I’ve Got A Feelin’ You’re Foolin’, All I Do Is Dream Of You, and You Are My Lucky Star, sung by Powell. It is so terrific!
During the 1930s and 1940s she starred in a string of big musicals for MGM, dancing her way through them tirelessly, making it all look so easy. There is Broadway Melody Of 1938, Rosalie (1937), Honolulu (1939), and Broadway Melody Of 1940. All these fabulous musical 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.
Broadway Melody Of 1940 features a sublime score by Cole Porter. Together, Astaire and Powell danced to Porter’s Begin The Beguine, which is probably the greatest tap sequence in film history. Astaire told the press:
“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.”
Here’s the entire number:
In the introduction to the clip of the number in That’s Entertainment (1974) Frank Sinatra says:
“You know, you can wait around and hope, but you’ll never see the likes of this again.”
According to Ann Miller in That’s Entertainment, MGM was close to bankruptcy in the late 1930s, but the films with Powell were so popular they made the studio profitable again. Miller also credits Powell for inspiring her own dancing career.
A dancer since childhood, when she was 17 years old, Powell brought her athletic style to Broadway, where she appeared in several revues and musicals. She was dubbed “the World’s Greatest Tap Dancer” because of her machine-gun footwork.
In 1935, Powell moved to Hollywood and performed a special tap number in her first major film, George White’s 1935 Scandals for Fox Studios which she later described as a disaster because she was made up to look Egyptian. When she was approached by MGM, she initially refused their offers of a contract. Powell attempted to dissuade the studio by making what she felt were unreasonable salary demands, but MGM agreed to them and she finally accepted. The studio groomed her for stardom, making minimal changes in her makeup or demeanor.
Lady Be Good (1941) gave Powell top billing and an epic tap dance routine directed by Busby Berkeley to George and Ira Gershwin‘s Fascinatin’ Rhythm, where Powell dances between a series of pianos without interruption, as stage hands quietly removed pieces of the set off-camera as she works her way across the stage. Another number has Powell doing a dance routine with a dog that she trained for the number.
In Ship Ahoy (1942) 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. Then she dances to the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra with Buddy Rich on drums and the two perform a great musical partnership with their number Tallulah.
After her next film, Thousands Cheer (1943), in which she appeared only for a few minutes to perform a specialty number as part of an all-star cast, she said goodbye to MGM.
Powell returned to MGM in Duchess Of Idaho (1950) starring Esther Williams. It would be her final film for the studio. Appearing as herself in a nightclub scene, a hesitant Powell is invited to dance by a bandleader played by Van Johnson. She begins with balletic performance until she is chided by Johnson. She then strips off her skirt, revealing her famous legs, and performs a big “boogie-woogie” number.
In her memoir The Million Dollar Mermaid (1999), Williams writes about watching Powell rehearsing until her feet bled, in order to make her brief appearance as perfect as possible.
In 1943, Powell married handsome actor Glenn Ford and retired from films to raise their son. Powell divorced Ford in 1959, and she began a very successful nightclub career. She performed her act through the 1960s and made guest appearances on television variety shows. She made her final appearance in 1981 at the American Film Institute tribute to Astaire, where she received a standing ovation. Powell was taken by that damn cancer in 1982. She was just 69 years old.
Powell only made 15 films, but for me, and fans of tap dancing, she is all that.