As an MGM star, Jane Powell was “the girl next door” — she even titled her 1988 autobiography “The Girl Next Door and How She Grew.” The frequent description of her as pert and perky still fits. At 83, Powell is lithe (she credits Pilates), with sparkling eyes, creamy skin, and an unassuming manner that belies her stature as Hollywood royalty.
Powell was in Boston with film historian and author Leonard Maltin recently to introduce a sold-out screening of one of her best-known films, “Royal Wedding” (1951), at the Brattle Theatre. Boston is one of 10 cities on TCM’s “Road to Hollywood,” showcasing classic films and live appearances by silver screen luminaries to publicize the fourth annual TCM Classic Film Festival, set for April 25-28 in Hollywood.
“Turner Classic Movies has brought all of us old folks back again,” Powell said. “There are not many of us left. I don’t know what we’d have done otherwise.” She said she misses many friends and colleagues who’ve died. “Roddy [McDowall] was like a brother to me, Ricardo Montalbán, so many are gone.”
Powell grew up on the MGM lot with another child star, Elizabeth Taylor, and they became friends. “I was a bridesmaid at her first wedding and she was one at mine. I’m glad we stopped it or it would have become a full-time career. It almost did.” Powell married her fifth husband, former child star Dickie Moore, in 1988. They live in New York and Connecticut.
Born Suzanne Burce in Portland, Ore., Powell won a talent show hosted by Janet Gaynor when she was 12. That led to a contract with MGM. Her 19-film career slowed in the mid-’50s, but she continued to act in television and stage roles.
“I was replacing the style and type of Deanna Durbin at the right time,” Powell said. Does she have a favorite role? “I never watch my films,” she said. “But I guess I’d have to say the classics: ‘Royal Wedding’ and ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.’ One of my favorites is ‘Two Weeks With Love’ (1950) because I got to do a period piece and the cast was wonderful. It was just froth, but I loved it.”
An accomplished cook, Powell seemed more interested in giving Maltin her apple spice cake recipe than in discussing movies. “I love to cook. I cook every night. I used to do all my own parties. I don’t dance. Or sing. To me, that means getting ready to go to work.”
Powell wasn’t MGM’s first choice to star opposite Fred Astaire in “Royal Wedding.” “It was June Allyson, then it was going to be Judy Garland. The choreography was in place so I had to learn all the dances in three weeks. I didn’t meet Fred Astaire until I went to the set. I asked him, ‘When did you and your sister stop dancing together?’ He said, ‘1929’ and I answered, ‘Oh, the year I was born!’ He thought that was funny.”
Does Powell still get movie offers?
“Not many. I’m not one to promote myself. I’m a little shy. It’s fine; I’d probably say no anyway. My life is different now. My husband is not well and I’m the caretaker of him. I feel more useful now than I’ve ever felt. I’ve always been a homebody; I took my kids on the road when I was working. This is the first time I’ve really felt useful.”
Maltin said “Royal Wedding” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” are significant because they allowed Powell to break from the sweet teenage girl mold. “Jane and Astaire are so well matched. ‘How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life’ is a fantastic comedy dance showcase you can watch over and over. These are two terrific performers at the top of their game. I think because she played so many teen ingénues, many took Jane’s talent for granted. We knew she could sing and dance but she’s a good all-around performer and that’s what you see in these films. If she’d been one-dimensional she couldn’t have sustained a 30-year career in theater and nightclubs.”
Powell gave a broad smile and pressed her fingers to her cheeks as if making dimples. Just like the girl next door.