Royal Wedding: Jane Powell on a ‘lost and found’ MGM musical
Although she's been a performer nearly all her life, Jane Powell will be doing something a little different when she takes to the stage at the Ridgefield Playhouse on Sunday, Oct. 21, at 6:30.
She will be seated in a director's chair, ready to answer questions from the audience after a screening of the film Royal Wedding, in which she starred opposite Fred Astaire for MGM in 1951.
It's part of the Ridgefield Playhouse Film Society "Lost & Found Film Series."
Ms. Powell, who has lived in Wilton — she also lives in New York City — with her husband, Dickie Moore, since 1985, was just 22 when she landed the part of Ellen Bowen in the lighthearted musical that was based on Astaire's early career with his sister Adele.
He was a huge star and his reputation was not lost on the young Ms. Powell.
"Working with Fred was really a thrill," she said during an interview with The Bulletin this week. "I was very intimidated when I first met him. He was very quiet and private," she said. "Even people who had danced with him ... didn't know him. For a while I felt like, 'Oh my, he doesn't like me.'" But that was just his way, she said.
The film is set just prior to the wedding of the future Queen Elizabeth II and Lt. Mountbatten (Prince Philip), and the two play Ellen and Tom Bowen, a brother-and-sister dance team whose agent books them to play in London. While sailing to Europe, Ellen meets and falls quickly in love with a handsome but poor aristocrat named Lord John Brindale, played by Peter Lawford.
They soon become engaged, a situation that — while sure to break up the act — leads to some of the most memorable dance sequences on film: Astaire dancing with a hat rack in the ship's gymnasium, and later dancing on the walls and ceiling of his room.
Together, Astaire and Ms. Powell dance in the ship's ballroom to the waltz Open Your Eyes, a number that begins harmoniously enough but soon turns comedic as the ocean swells spell disaster on the dance floor. The scene was based on an actual incident Astaire and his sister had to weather on a trip to London in 1923.
"The set was on a gimbal," Ms. Powell said, a device that allowed the floor to tilt in different directions. "It was not very easy to dance," she said, adding all the sliding back and forth was part of the choreography.
Although Astaire was 30 years older than Ms. Powell she said the age gap was never an issue as far as the film was concerned, even though they played siblings.
"That's just Hollywood," she said. "It's a musical. It has never come up."
Royal Wedding is probably the best known of Ms. Powell's musicals, but she also starred in the energetic Seven Brides for Seven Brothers among others.
She moved away from movies at the end of the 1950s and in ensuing years had an active career working in television and on the stage. She also performed for five presidents — including at the inauguration of Harry S. Truman and at a state dinner for Dwight D. Eisenhower — and Queen Elizabeth on a royal visit to Washington, D.C.
She's enjoyed it all. "It's all so different," she said of the paths her career has taken. "One part of the experience takes over for the other. I just never looked to the future very much, just always day by day."
Having many talents was key. "The more you have to give, the more chances you get," she said.
Born Suzanne Lorraine Burce, she got the name Jane Powell in Hollywood. "It was the name of the girl in the first movie I made," she said. "I didn't like that name, but there was nothing I could do about it. It's served me well."
Ms. Powell spent most of her life on the West Coast, but was enticed to come east by Mr. Moore. The couple met when Mr. Moore, himself a child actor, interviewed her for his autobiography, Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, But Don't Have Sex or Take the Car.
While living in New York City they searched for a home in the country. "We just wanted to have it for a weekend house," she said. "Its kind of different now. We are Connecticut residents."
Ms. Powell has three grown children and two grandchildren. She likes to cook and reads of lot. "Any kind of cooking," she said when asked if she has a specialty. "I've cooked since I was about 5 years old."
Joseph Consentino, a documentary film producer, is artistic director of the Ridgefield Playhouse Film Society.
"I'm a great fan of Jane Powell's," he said when asked why Royal Wedding was chosen to be featured in the Lost & Found Series. "She's just a delightful woman. A woman who has never lost her grace as an individual and a talented actress."
In addition, Mr. Consentino said, he wanted "people to revisit Fred Astaire."
"We are always looking to try and entertain people at a very modest cost and bring filmmakers here. People have really responded," he said.
Reserved seats are $10 for adults, $7.50 for seniors and $5 for students. For tickets, visit the box office or call 203-438-5795, or go to ridgefieldplayhouse.org.
The Ridgefield Playhouse is a nonprofit performing arts center at 80 East Ridge, parallel to Main Street.