R.I.P. Jane Powell, star of ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ and many other Golden Age musicals
She also sang on The Ed Sullivan Show and boarded The Love Boat.
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In the early 1930s, the Portland, Oregon, radio show Stars of Tomorrow featured a five-year-old with a powerful voice that lived up to the show's name. Young Suzanne Burce wowed listeners even then and just a few years later began touring the state as an Oregon Victory Girl promoting the sale of war bonds during WWII.
In 1943, at the age of 14, Burce signed a contract with MGM to star in the studio’s many teen musicals. Her first role came a year later as a loan-out to United Artists in the film Song of the Open Road. She played a child actor who leaves Hollywood to become a farm worker. Her character’s name? Jane Powell — a moniker she decided to keep for herself.
Powell showed off her unexpectedly commanding singing voice in numerous MGM musicals throughout the 1940s and early '50s, including Three Daring Daughters, Luxury Liner and A Date with Judy, the latter alongside Elizabeth Taylor. Powell married her first husband, figure skater Gearhardt Anthony Steffen, in 1949 with Taylor in attendance as a bridesmaid.
Powell played Fred Astaire’s younger sister, despite their 30-year age difference, in 1951’s Royal Wedding, set during Elizabeth II’s 1947 marriage and famous for Astaire’s solo dance from the floor to the wall and then eventually the ceiling.
In 1954, Powell won her most famous role as Milly in the beloved musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. She played the wife of the oldest brother, whose engagement inspires his six younger siblings to get hitched as well. The film is remembered for its lively acrobatics and stunning scenery as much as its catchy songs. According to the AP, Powell recalled in 2000 that Seven Brides was originally seen as an underdog. “The studio didn't think it was going to do anything,” she recalled. In the end, her musical was the one shown at one of America’s most famous theaters, then still regularly playing films. “"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.”
The same year Seven Brides was released, Powell played the title character in Athena, a musical about seven sisters. Debbie Reynolds played one sister, Minerva, and the other five — Niobe, Calliope, Aphrodite and Ceres — also all had ancient Greek names. The quirky film, a satire of lifestyles and fads, pits the girls’ nutrition-obsessed grandfather against their “carnivore” suitors he deems literally unfit.
Powell transitioned to television in the late 1950s, appearing in anthology productions like Alcoa Theatre and The DuPont Show with June Allyson. She also sang on The Ed Sullivan Show and showed off her comedy chops in multiple episodes of The Red Skelton Show.
In the 1970s and '80s, Powell guest starred in Fantasy Island and The Love Boat. She also had a recurring role as Grandma Irma on the sitcom Growing Pains. She played Alan Thicke’s mother, who is first introduced in the episode “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” where she meets her new fiancé on a cruise ship. Later that season, she returns in a two-part episode titled “The Looooove Boat” for her wedding.
For anyone keeping track, Powell starred in the 1948 musical Luxury Liner, appeared in two episodes of The Love Boat and guest starred in multiple cruise ship storylines on Growing Pains. Boats bookended her long career.
Jane Powell passed away this week at the age of 92.