Born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1912, Eleanor Powell began dancing almost before she could walk. While still a teen, she was on Broadway earning the sobriquet "The Queen of Taps". After appearing in a small role in a musical for another studio, MGM brought her to the studio in 1935 where she debuted in "Broadway Melody of 1936", all but stealing the film. For the next half dozen years, she dazzled Depression-era audiences with her amazing skill as a dancer. While tapping was her forte, she was so skilled that she could effortlessly do just about anything and make it look easy.
Among her most famous films were the aforementioned "Born to Dance", "Rosalie" co-starring with Nelson Eddy and with a memorable score by Porter, "Honolulu", a charming musical comedy with Robert Young and Burns and Allen and most famously, "Broadway Melody of 1940", Fred Astaire's first film after his on-screen split with Ginger Rogers.
Once again Cole Porter touched the film with his brilliance and Astaire and Powell made audiences sit up and take notice, especially when they launched into the unforgettable "Begin the Beguine" number near the film's conclusion. When the clip was included in the 1974 compilation film, "That's Entertainment", millions of moviegoers rediscovered Eleanor Powell.
At the premiere of "That's Entertainment" in May, 1974, the packed theatre in Beverly Hills broke into prolonged applause and cheers at the end of this clip. Unfortunately Ellie was not there to see and hear it but she quietly attended a screening of the film several days later.
During the history of movies, there have been many brilliant dancers. Certainly Cyd and Ginger and Ruby and Rita are among the names and Ann Miller certainly knew how to tap up a storm although, as much as I love Ann, at times she reminded me of "Ethel Merman with taps".
Even the cinema of Great Britain brought with it some fine dancing ladies including Jessie Matthews and Anna Neagle.
There was nobody, however, that moved with the grace and beauty of Eleanor Powell when she danced up a storm. Her spins and twirls made you wonder whether she was actually on ice. Check out You Tube and watch her dance. You'll be left breathless.
Eleanor Powell left the movies in the 40's to marry actor Glenn Ford. She returned once or twice but mostly spent her life raising the couple's son, Peter. She loved being a mother and she loved life.
After her split with Ford, she made a stage comeback in the early 60's and packed houses with her brilliance, seemingly undiminished by time. She appeared on television, too, and could have continued indefinitely but her career was never her end all and be all.
She encouraged young dancers and sometimes took them into her studio to show them how to do it the right way.
I met Ellie in 1978 and for 4 years we were good friends, sometimes dining together with other friends at The Cock and Bull a great restaurant on Sunset. It was like an English Pub with outstanding cuisine and a great staff. Ellie had been one of their first customers when they opened in the 1930's.
When Ellie became ill with cancer in 1981, we stayed in touch and she valiantly fought this invader with courage and class.
I contacted a mutual friend - Katharine Hepburn - who sent Ellie a letter of encouragement and hope. Ellie wrote me back just days before she succumbed at the age of 69 in early 1982.
I miss her - her humor, warmth and zest for life. Fortunately she lives on in all those amazing films - films that make audiences want to stand up, put on their own tap shoes and tap their heart out.