The Girl Next Door: Jane Powell (1929-2021) | Tributes

She said she played the same character in all her movies “just different clothes and hair,” and was a bit rueful that all the men who wrote fan letters to her saw her as a little sister, no suggestion of romance. “Being older to me was very important but [the studio] never let me grow up,” she said. She played that character in real life, as well, feeling that she always had to be positive and cooperative in her personal and professional relationships. In her 1988 memoir, The Girl Next Door and How She Grew, she talked about feeling disconnected from her career, wishing for the life of the friends she had left behind when she went to Hollywood, when she read their letters about going to dances and dating. “I envied them so much,” she said in a SAG-AFTRA interview, “though if the shoe was on the other foot, I know they would envy me.” 

Tiny (just over five feet) and with a pure coloratura soprano voice, Powell made her movie debut at age 15. She was already an assured professional who had been performing for a decade with two radio shows on the CBS network by the time she was 12. The network arranged for her to appear on a talent show hosted by Janet Gaynor called “Stars Over Hollywood,” and the next day she met with David O. Selznick. The day after that she was signed by MGM. 

MGM loaned her out for her first film, “Song of the Open Road” (1944). Powell had the lead as an exhausted child star who runs away and finds a better life picking crops with other teenagers to replace adults who have been called away to support the war. The most important impact the film had on her career was a new name. She was born as Suzanne Lorraine Burce, but was given her “Song of the Open Road” character name for the rest of her career: Jane Powell. She never liked the name, complaining that there were already a lot of Powells in Hollywood, but she got a call from the studio telling her that was who she was from then on and that was it.

Her next few roles were also as a singing teenager, mid-budget films with silly plots and supporting performances by major comedy stars like W.C. Fields, Edgar Bergen, and Carmen Miranda, and appearances by musicians like José Iturbi, and bandleader Xavier Cugat. To publicize “Song of the Open Road,” she played the girlfriend of ventriloquist dummy Charlie McCarthy for months on the radio. Her favorite performer was Jeanette MacDonald and she was thrilled to co-star and duet with her in “Three Daring Daughters.” 

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