Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Tripping My Way Through “Eleanor Powell: Born to Dance”

“Nice” doesn’t make you famous. It doesn’t sell copies of magazines or get you invited to appear on TV talk shows. Ron Howard, for one, has spent much of his adult  career dodging the accusation that he’s merely a nice guy. But Paula Broussard and Lisa Royère have devoted their first biography to a woman who balanced star power with a personal graciousness that made her a joy to be around. They should know. When That’s Entertainment introduced them to Eleanor Powell (who starred in glossy MGM musicals from 1936 to 1943), the two fell in love with her spectacularly athletic tap-dancing. Dance-mad themselves, they managed to befriend the long-retired Powell, and were charmed by her friendly and upbeat manner. And yet their dream of compiling a pictorial guide to Powell’s films was put on hold for decades. It was the pandemic that revived the project, which then evolved into a fully-researched new biography, Eleanor Powell: Born to Dance.

 Powell’s early life, we learn, was not an easy one. Raised in tight circumstances by a single mother, she discovered in dance a way to overcome her shyness.  At an early age she made it to the Broadway stage as a variety performer.  Though she first specialized in ballet and acrobatics, she eventually learned to tap, and this became her springboard to Hollywood. Before reading Born to Dance I had never considered the importance of tap-dancing in early Hollywood musicals. In the decade after sound entered the picture, audiences thrilled to the rhythmic clatter of tap shoes on a soundstage floor. In a series of Broadway Melody films, as well as such starring vehicles as Rosalie, Honolulu, and Born to Dance, Powell thrilled audiences with bravura production numbers (like dancing down a series of oversized drums) while also performing romantic duets with the likes of James Stewart and Robert Taylor.

 Of course audiences clamored for her to be paired with the greatest of male ballroom dancers, Fred Astaire. According to Broussard and Royère, the self-critical Astaire resisted for quite a while the opportunity to be her dance partner. Finally it happened. In Broadway Melody of 1940, a sentimental tale of two hoofers and the woman who comes between them, they wowed audiences with  Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine,” in what has been called the greatest tap sequence in the history of Hollywood. Performed on an elaborate mirrored set, it begins with a mood of Latin elegance, then shifts midway through into joyous jazz.  Alas, though audiences hoped for an encore, it was not to be. Amazingly, Astaire was intimidated by her powerful tap skills, saying that “I had twenty-nine partners, but I met my match with Ellie.” 

 The end of her partnership with Astaire was not the only disappointment in Eleanor’s life. Tastes in entertainment changed, and she faced some health challenges. Her one stab at matrimony ended in disaster: husband Glenn Ford turned out to be a compulsive womanizer, and one who also stepped out with men. When they finally divorced, he proved himself a cad about finances, and she was too ladylike to object. Needing to raise son Peter on her own, she courageously resurrected her career as a nightclub entertainer after years of devoting herself solely to the domestic realm.  Through it all, a strong religious faith kept her sane.

 One truly admirable thing about Eleanor: she refused to accept skin color as a barrier to friendship. She and the great Bill “Bojangles” Robinson shared routines; Robinson and Pearl Bailey were honorary godparents to her son. A lovely lady, in every sense of the word. Brava!






  1. Insanely good tap routine!

    1. Thanks for commenting, Anonymous! I'm realizing now that by never learning to tap dance I've essentially wasted my life.