The list of great female dancers includes the likes of Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charisse, Leslie Caron, and Ann Miller. But the greatest was one that few people are familiar with, unless they happen to be a classic movie buff, dancer, or octogenarian.
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Eleanor Powell was without peer among her dancing counterparts. For the better part of a decade, she was box-office gold, saving her studio, MGM, from bankruptcy with her winsome screen presence and show-stopping dance routines. Despite her film success, Powell had the shortest career of any major musical star, starring in only a dozen movies from 1935 to 1945. Nevertheless, she left a lasting legacy through her work onscreen and off.
Primarily celebrated for her dazzling tap work, Powell was accomplished in ballet, acrobatics, ballroom, and jazz, combining elements of these into many of her routines. While her colleagues, including the great Fred Astaire, relied on choreographers for most, if not all, of their work, Powell choreographed her own dance numbers, which were always high in technical merit and creativity.
As for Fred Astaire, among his many and storied partners, Eleanor Powell was the only one who could match his footwork. In fact, when the “Queen of Taps” was suggested as his leading lady in Broadway Melody of 1940, Astaire is said to have been unnerved at the thought of their pairing. Years, and many dancing partners, later, Astaire said that Powell “was in a class by herself.” But it was more than uncommon talent that set her apart.
Eleanor Powell was a woman of practiced faith whose Christian beliefs shaped her as an artist and a person. She acknowledged her talent as a God-given gift and her film career as a prelude to ministry. More on that later.
As one of the brightest stars in the Hollywood firmament, Powell could have easily drifted into the narcissism so common among celebrities then and now. But even at the height of fame, she remained the charming “girl next door” whose gentleness, generosity, and caring were legend among friends and fans alike; in fact, many of her fans became life-long friends and pen pals who knew her affectionately as “Ellie.”
Throughout Ellie’s life, her faith was central. It kept her chaste in an off-screen culture that reflected on-screen “pre-Code” values; it led her to retire from film at the pinnacle of her career to become a devoted wife and mother; it helped her endure a difficult 16-year marriage that eventually ended in divorce; it strengthened her and anchored her after divorce; and it inspired her advocacy for at-risk children, children with disabilities, and racial equality long before the national conscience was awakened to racial injustice.
Born on November 21, 1912, to a teenage mother in a fatherless home, Eleanor Powell entered the world under anything but auspicious circumstances. With her young mother working several jobs to make ends meet, Eleanor was raised by her maternal grandparents.
While it is not clear where Eleanor’s early faith was formed, it is known that her family had a Quaker heritage, and that she regularly attended church. In an interview she gave after her screen retirement, Powell mentioned a Bible she had won as a child for perfect church attendance.
As a young girl, Eleanor was pathologically shy with no interest in or, according to her, any natural talent for, dancing—as hard as that is to imagine considering the body of her work. In hopes of helping her socialization, Eleanor’s mother enrolled her in ballet and acrobatic dance. She took to both and quickly excelled.
One day on a family trip to the beach, Eleanor’s playful acrobatics caught the eye of Gus Edwards, an Atlantic City club owner. Edwards recruited the 12-year-old to open for his dinner show. That led to other dancing gigs over the next couple of summers.
Ironically, Eleanor had a strong distaste for tap. But with her sights set on Broadway, she eventually, and begrudgingly, enrolled in tap class. Nearly quitting after a shaky start, Eleanor finally caught on to hoofing and, with only 10 lessons under her belt, began dancing at social events with legendary Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Robinson became her mentor, life-long friend, and later, with Pearl Bailey, the god-parent of her son, Peter Ford.
Her big break came when she was 22 years old. It was then that she was tagged to do a specialty number in the movie, George White’s 1935 Scandals. Her performance captured the attention of MGM mogul Louis Mayer, who gave her a lead part in Broadway Melody of 1936. That led to a succession of starring roles in Born to Dance (1936), Rosalie (1937), Broadway Melody of 1938, Honolulu (1939), and what many consider the zenith of her career, Broadway Melody of 1940, in which she starred with Fred Astaire in their one-and-only pairing.
It was the first movie Astaire had made without Ginger. He was arguably the world’s best male hoofer, and Ellie the best female. Together they lit up the silver screen as no dance team had done before or since. The final dance sequence, “Begin the Beguine”—shot amazingly in one take!—has been called the finest moment in Hollywood musical history. Of it, the late Frank Sinatra said, in That’s Entertainment (1974), "You know, you can wait around and hope, but I tell you, you'll never see the likes of this again." One film critic remarked that if he were exiled to a desert island with but one movie clip to take, it would be “Begin the Beguine.”
Despite her star power, Eleanor Powell was unaffected by celebrity; hers or anyone else’s.
In the golden era of Hollywood, the studios had an unwritten caste system. As crowned royalty on the lot, stars were not to associate, commiserate, or even been seen with their “lessers” on or off the set. It was a system that Ellie ignored throughout her career.
Despite threats by the studio heads, Ellie ate at the commissary with friends, some who were stage hands (gasp!). She took a personal interest in the crews of her films. She knew them by name, met their wives and children. “I loved them,” she once said in interview. And they loved her, affectionately calling her “The Baby.” It is commonly reported that she was the most beloved person in pictures. And it is little wonder.
Although Ellie’s feet were always in time, her heart didn’t follow the rhythms of Hollywood. In the afterglow of the “pre-Code” era, she stood out as a modest girl who, by her own admission, was inexperienced in love and romance. It was a situation that many a leading man was eager to correct. Robert Taylor, Jimmy Stewart, and Al Jolson were among the A-list stars who wooed but never won her. Clark Gable went as far as giving her a white roadster on her birthday in hopes of getting to first base. He never did.
Neither did Ellie’s innocence keep the tabloids from persistently linking her with would-be suitors. But contrary to rumors and press, her son told me in an interview that her first and only serious love was Glenn Ford, and her first sexual experience was on their wedding night.
Off the lot, while members of the fast set were hanging out at local hotspots and celebrity parties, Ellie took to hiking, bird-watching, or entertaining at orphanages and prisons with her friend Bill Robinson. Even in that bygone era, Eleanor Powell was something of an anomaly—a person who lived an ennobling vision of what it means to be human, following her better angels.
Later in life Ellie was asked about a possible autobiography. Lacking any salacious exploits involving sex, drugs, and booze, she dismissed her story from having any commercial appeal: “It’s too clean. It’s just loving people and loving to perform.”
To watch a Powell film is to be captivated by an artist whose arresting talent is only exceeded by her disarming charm, wholesomeness, and sweetness. She was a rare individual who, through her craft and character, stands in time as role model for us all, but especially young girls, as this mother and fan testifies:
Eleanor Powell has been such an inspiration to my daughters (now ages 21 & 18) as they were growing up...My girls still read anything they can get their hands on about Eleanor Powell. What a classy Christian lady...truly an inspiration.
But the turn she took after film marks, perhaps, the most inspirational period of her life. I will explore that next time.
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.