Jane Powell: Hollywood's Singing Girl Next Door

Jane Powell is a Child Star, Sings Like an Angel, is Elizabeth Taylor's Bridesmaid, and Designs Her Own Clothes.
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Jane Powell’s phenomenal singing voice almost guaranteed her a place in movie musical history. 

Today, Jane is probably best remembered for her performance as Milly in 1954’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.  But Jane’s talents and accomplishments extend beyond this classic musical.

Jane Powell

Here are a few things about Jane Powell you didn’t know:

A very young Jane Powell at the start of her Hollywood career.

Jane Powell Was a Child Star

Perhaps because she’s best remembered for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, it’s a little known fact that Jane Powell was a child star.  Indeed, of her 19 feature films, Jane is under twenty years old in 6 of them, and under thirty in the remaining 13.

Though a successful child star, Jane was lucky: similar to her friend Elizabeth Taylor, the public accepted Jane’s more mature image when the time came to transition to adult roles.

Jane Powell

She was the Family Breadwinner at Age 6

Suzanne Lorraine Burce–Jane Powell’s birthname– was an only child.  And she became the family breadwinner at age six.

Talk about pressure.  In Jane’s own words:

“…I never wanted to be a movie star, but Mama and Daddy wanted me to be another Shirley Temple—parents did in those days—so dancing lessons and curly hair were on the agenda…I had my first permanent when I was two years old, and many more after that.  I cried through the whole operation.”

Her parents’ aspirations for Jane’s show business career were so strong that they took some bad advice from a fraudulent talent scout, who, after seeing six-year-old Suzanne dance, claimed he could make her a star if only the Burces would move to Oakland, CA.

And that’s just what they did.  Jane’s father quit his job with the Wonder Bread Company, and moved the family from Portland, Oregon, to Oakland.

Well, little Suzanne wasn’t discovered, and she didn’t become a star.  (At least not yet.). So the family moved back to Portland, where, due to the Great Depression, her dad couldn’t get his old job back.  But young Suzanne continued with her singing and dancing lessons.  She also sang on the radio, even becoming the Oregon “Victory Girl.”

It wasn’t until Suzanne turned fourteen that the family went back to California, this time to Hollywood and stardom.

Jane Powell was Discovered on the Radio

On this fateful trip to Hollywood in 1943, Jane sang on Janet Gaynor’s radio show, Hollywood Showcase: Stars Over Hollywood.  It was a talent competition. 

Guess who won? 


Yep, Jane did.  It led to her discovery by Louis B. Mayer, who promptly signed her to a seven-year contract with MGM. 

Jane’s days as the family breadwinner continued, and the $225 a week Jane earned after signing–which eventually went up to $5,000 a week before she turned eighteen–supported both Jane and her parents.

Jane Powell
Friends by default, but good friends nonetheless. Jane at wedding number one with bridesmaid Elizabeth Taylor and new husband Geary Steffen. Steffen was one of ice-skating star Sonja Henie's partners in the rink.

She Grew Up on the MGM Backlot.  And was Friends with Liz T.

Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Jane spent her teenage years on the MGM backlot: after signing with MGM at age 14, Jane was rarely away from the studio.  And, as Jane says in her autobiography [aff. link]:

“By the time I was seventeen or so, Hollywood was my way of life.”

Jane attended MGM’s legendary “Little Red School House”—the school for underage stars on the backlot.  The school was MGM’s way of getting as much work/filming as possible out of their young stars without violating California education laws. Previous attendees included Judy Garland and Lana Turner.  When Jane arrived on the scene, her classmates, among others, were a young Elizabeth Taylor and Roddy McDowall. 

Jane became friends with both Taylor and McDowall, mostly by default:  MGM’s child stars never really got to know anybody outside of the studio gates.  These kids literally spent every waking minute at MGM.  As Jane remembered:

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“Elizabeth, who’s a couple of years younger, and I became friends….we were both doing the same thing, working.  I’d go to lessons, she’d go to lessons…Later, when Elizabeth became my bridesmaid and I hers, people assumed we were very close, but in fact we just didn’t know anyone else to ask.  How were we supposed to meet anyone else?  We were both working all the time.  It was hard to find enough bridesmaids for us.”

Jane Powell

Jane Powell Was Married Five Times

With Jane’s girl next-door persona, it’s surprising to learn that she was married five times. 

But with husband number five, former child star Dickie Moore, Jane finally found her forever match.  (Moore passed away in 2015.)

In her autobiography, Jane poked fun at hers and Elizabeth Taylor’s marital track records:

“She [Elizabeth] was a bridesmaid at my first wedding, and then I was a bridesmaid at hers.  I’m certainly glad we stopped that bridesmaid stuff—it could have become a full-time career!”

(Between Jane and Elizabeth, there’s a total of 13 marriages.  Full-time bridesmaid career indeed.)

Jane Powell
Jane's beautiful wedding dress by Helen Rose. Rose was one of Jane's favorite designers, and Jane helped design this stunning gown.

She Loved Fashion & Designed Many of Her Own Clothes

From the time she was a young girl, Jane Powell loved clothes.  As such, Jane appreciated being a star at Hollywood’s most glamorous studio, and wearing beautiful clothes by the very best designers, including Helen Rose and Irene:

“I had many, many costume fittings, but I never minded: eventually the magic would appear…those wonderful seamstresses would somehow transform a sketch and bits of cloth into something phantasmagoric.”

Jane even assisted Helen Rose in designing her first wedding dress.  She also designed all of her own maternity clothes for her three pregnancies.  Because of her very petite frame—Jane was a mere 5’1”—designing her own clothes never seemed unusual:

“I had to have all my clothes made anyway because I was so small.  There was no such thing as junior clothes in those days.  For years I’d had everything made—hats, gowns, petticoats, even underwear.”

Jane Powell
Jane as Milly in the classic Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954).

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was Her Last Great Screen Role

By the time Jane made 1954’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, her film career was near over.  She was only 25 years old.  As Jane wrote in her autobiography:

“I certainly had no idea, when I was working on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, that the charmingly sensible pioneer girl Milly would be my last really wonderful role in a film.”

As talented and charismatic as Jane was, times were changing.  The studio system was drawing to a close, and the public demand for big budget escapist musicals–the type of film Jane excelled in–was dwindling.   

Jane would still make another six films, but Milly was the last classic character she played on screen.

Jane wasn’t ready for the end of the Hollywood she knew:

“I didn’t quit movies, they quit me.”

Jane did enjoy a successful career on stage and television in her post-Hollywood years, starring in touring productions of The Sound of Music, Oklahoma!, and My Fair Lady.  Alongside Howard Keel, Jane even reprised her role of Milly in I Do! I Do!, a stage revival of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.  Jane was also a hit on Broadway, starring in Irene.

But her Hollywood years were special.  Jane knew it, and we know it, too.

Jane Powell

Celebrate Jane Powell!

Celebrate Jane Powell this month, and be sure to join me next week for all about Jane, Elizabeth Taylor, and A Date with Judy (1948).

Jane Powell

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