Powell, Eleanor (1910–1982)

views updated

Powell, Eleanor (1910–1982)

American dancer and actress who starred in MGM musicals of the 1930s and 1940s . Born on November 21, 1910, in Springfield, Massachusetts; died of cancer on February 11, 1982; married Glenn Ford (an actor), in 1943 (divorced 1959): children: one son, Peter.

Selected theater:

Follow Thru (1929); Fine and Dandy (1930); Hot-Cha! (1932); George White's Music Hall Varieties (1932); At Home Abroad (1935).


George White's Scandals (1935); Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935); Born to Dance (1936); Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937); Rosalie (1937); Honolulu (1939); Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940); Lady Be Good (1941); Ship Ahoy (1942); Thousands Cheer (1943); I Dood It (1943); Sensations of 1945 (1944); Duchess of Idaho (1950).

Eleanor Powell made only 13 movies during her Hollywood career, but her dancing talent and exuberance have never been duplicated. The great director-choreographer Busby Berkeley, who worked with her in Lady Be Good (1941), put her in a class all her own. "Eleanor was by far the finest female dancer we ever had in films, and a very hard-working perfectionist," he said. "I've known very few women that talented and that gracious." Praise for the dancer also came from a more unlikely source, Maestro Arturo Toscanini. "Three things I will carry through life," he said, "the glorious sunset, the splendor of the Grand Canyon and the dancing of Eleanor Powell."

An only child, Powell was born in 1910 in Springfield, Massachusetts, and was two when her parents divorced. She began dancing lessons when she was 6, and at 13 Gus Edwards hired her for his children's revue at the Ritz Grill of the Ambassador Hotel. After she graduated from high school, Powell went to New York, where she discovered that in order to dance on Broadway, she had to add tap to her repertoire of ballet and acrobatics. After lessons from Jack Donahue and hours of hard practice, she landed a part in Follow Thru (1929), after which she did a string of shows, including George White's Music Hall Varieties (1932), with Harry Rich-man and Bert Lahr. "There is a large dancing chorus," reported The New York Times in its review of the show, "but among the supporting company it is the lanky Eleanor Powell, an excellent tap dancer, who stands out markedly."

The Fox studio called on Powell to dance in a screen version of Music Hall Varieties, but ultimately saw no potential in her decidedly unglamorous appearance. However, when MGM saw her dance number in the film, they envisioned another Ruby Keeler . After a stem-to-stern makeover that included extensive dental work, voice lessons, and a sophisticated new look, Powell made her movie debut in Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935), executing a couple of dazzling tap numbers that catapulted her into "overnight" stardom. After a trip to New York to fulfill a previous commitment, she returned to Hollywood, where she signed a seven-year contract with MGM. She then starred in a series of musicals, at the rate of one a year. By the time she finished Honolulu (1939), in which she tapped the hula and danced while skipping rope, she was making $125,000 per film.

In 1940, with great anticipation, MGM teamed Powell with her counterpart Fred Astaire in Broadway Melody of 1940, but the two lacked screen chemistry together. Part of the problem may have been Powell's acting, which The New York Times found automatic at best: "[T]he final impression of her characterization continues to be the memory of a professional smile, turned on and off like an essentially unamused neon." While further plans for Astaire-Powell pairings were shelved, the two parted on good terms.

By the time Powell departed from MGM in 1943, the public had tired of tap-dancing and the studio had no interest in renewing her contract. The actress, who had been dating her secretary Sid Luft (future husband of Judy Garland ), married rising star Glenn Ford that year, and retired to private life. The couple had one son, Peter (b. 1945), before divorcing in 1959. (Ford "had such an inferiority complex, it was sheer hell," Powell would say later.) For the most part, Powell busied herself with community and church activities, although she came out of retirement in 1954 to appear on the Emmy Award-winning "Faith of Our Children" religious teleseries. After her divorce, and with encouragement from her son, Powell dieted down to dancing weight and began rehearsing a nightclub revue which opened at the Sahara Club in Las Vegas in February 1961. The show was a hit, and she went on to play at the Latin Quarter in Manhattan. "Eleanor Powell has Broadway at her feet once again," announced The New York Times. Powell continued to play club engagements, and made television appearances on "The Perry Como Show" and "The Hollywood Palace."

Religion had always played an important part in Powell's life, and in 1964, she gave up the club circuit and became an ordained minister of the Unity Church. She enjoyed a brief burst of publicity after the release of the MGM documentary That's Entertainment (1974), and in March 1981, she attended an American Film Institute tribute to Fred Astaire, one of her last public appearances. Powell died of cancer on February 11, 1982.


Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: HarperCollins, 1994.

Lamparski, Richard. Whatever Became of …? 2nd series. NY: Crown, 1968.

Parish, James Robert, and Michael R. Pitts. Hollywood Songsters. NY: Garland, 1991.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

About this article

Powell, Eleanor (1910–1982)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article