Saturday, February 17, 2024

Book Review: Eleanor Powell: Born to Dance

MGM musicals were my "gateway" into my lifelong love of classic films, so I've been an admirer of dancer Eleanor Powell for almost as long as I can remember.

I've read about Powell's work in numerous books on MGM over the years, and I learned about MGM's "star-making" process for Powell in Jeanine Basinger's wonderful 2007 book THE STAR MACHINE.

I've also read Peter Ford's 2011 biography of his father, Glenn Ford, which as a matter of course included insights into his mother, Powell. At a 2011 book signing Peter told me his mother was "an angel."

All that said, Powell has continued to be something of an enigma to me over the years and I've known little about her personal life compared to many of her MGM colleagues.

That's now changed thanks to ELEANOR POWELL: BORN TO DANCE by Paula Broussard and Lisa Royere. The book was published a few months ago in the University Press of Kentucky Screen Classics series.

Broussard and Royere's book is a detailed, impeccably researched account of the life of a woman they each had the good fortune to know personally.

As a side note, I felt a kinship reading that Royere first met Powell at the Gary Theatre in 1974, as it was right around that time my parents took me to see ON THE TOWN (1949) and SUMMER STOCK (1950) at the Gary, feeding my own growing love for MGM musicals, including Eleanor Powell's movies.

I was deeply impressed with this biography's level of detail, given that so many who knew Powell are no longer with us. The authors paint a portrait of Powell as a woman with incredible talent and a strong work ethic. Her films and dance numbers are covered in fascinating detail; musical fans will love that aspect.

In her personal life Powell was a loving woman who sadly was let down by a philandering husband. Powell was married to Glenn Ford from 1943 to 1959, but he was incapable of being faithful.

She stood by their marriage for many years for a combination of reasons, including fear of losing custody of Peter in a divorce. Her film career long over at the time of the divorce, Powell restarted her career performing in Las Vegas and nightclubs. This wasn't as easy as one might think, as she was overweight and out of shape when she hit on the idea of live performances as a way to improve her finances.

Another notable aspect of Powell's life was that she was a woman of deep religious faith. She spent years as a Presbyterian Sunday School teacher, and her career included hosting a local Los Angeles TV series, THE FAITH OF OUR CHILDREN, in the mid-'50s. Her program was unusual for its era in that she insisted on children of all races being part of her show.  The show won several local Emmy awards.

Late in life Powell enjoyed the resurgence of interest in her career following the release of THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT! (1974). Sadly she was only 69 when she died of cancer in Los Angeles on February 11, 1982. Her final resting place, which I've had the privilege of visiting, is at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Despite the sadness she experienced with the breakdown of her marriage, I found Powell's overall story uplifting. She achieved enormous career success by dint of courage and hard work, she was a beloved mother, and she was clearly a very good person who treated others with kindness. Her faith and tenacity in the face of difficulties was inspiring.

ELEANOR POWELL: BORN TO DANCE is a hardcover which is 300 pages, including extensive end notes, bibliography and index.

The page count does not include an impressive 48-page insert of 84 well-produced black and white illustrations.

ELEANOR POWELL: BORN TO DANCE is highly recommended.

Thanks to the University Press of Kentucky for providing a review copy of this book.


Blogger Vienna said...

I too enjoyed this biography and discovered I had a photo taken with Eleanor and Lisa Royere in 1979 at the Jeanette MacDonald Fan Club gathering. Such a wonderful memory to have met Eleanor. She starred in some spectacular musical numbers at MGM, my favourite being ‘Begin The Beguine’.

1:53 PM  
Anonymous Karen said...

I’ve read Eleanor Powell: Born to Dance, and your review is so similar to all my thoughts about it. It is easy to delve into this book and not come up for air, for hours. A very well written book, and a lovely review from you!

10:20 AM  

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