Miss Whistle-Bait Of 1951—Jane Powell
Maybe you’ve heard of her. Her name’s Jane Powell, the girl with the voice—and plenty more. A couple of years ago, she’d walk along the street and people would say, “There goes Janie.” Not now. Now the people, particularly the men, stop, look—and whistle.
What happened? Well, to begin with, Janie was put into a corset for Two Weeks With Love, and corsets don’t come down to the ankles. Corsets don’t hang like potato sacks. The people on the set had an awakening. Janie wore this same corset to the Press Photographers’ Ball, and after that night it was public opinion that the glamor girls had better take one giant step forward if they want to keep ahead of Jane Powell.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer is really excited. All the time they thought they had just a cute teen-ager to put in Technicolor. Now they have a woman, and so much more to work with.
Most people are surprised at this new Jane, but those who know her well could have predicted what would happen. Even when she first came out to Hollywood, at 14, she had an air about her. Charles Rogers, who produced her first movie, Song of the Open Road, will tell you that she might have been a little scared, a little lonely, but it didn’t interfere with her performance.
“In the picture,” says Mr. Rogers, “we wanted to make her look older, so we dressed her in more mature clothes. It was surprising to see how naturally she wore them. Not like most kids, who would look as though they’d swiped their mother’s wardrobe. She made you believe she was 17.”
Despite her maturity at that age, Janie was a lonesome, homesick kid. Lillian Burns, the drama coach at MGM, remembers the first time she rehearsed Janie for a scene. It called for tears. But Janie said, “I don’t feel like crying.”
So Miss Burns began talking about Jane’s home, and the friends she’d left behind in Portland. Janie burst into sobs. “I want to go home!” she wailed. “I want to go back to school with my friends!”
Holiday in Mexico changed all that. She met Roddy McDowall. and through him, a lot of young people who lived in Hollywood. Soon she was happy and successful. Success brought enough fame, and money to turn anyone’s head, especially a teen-ager’s, but even now, Roddy McDowall says, “I’ve known Janie for five years, and she hasn’t changed one bit. Geary’s given her a lot of self-confidence, I think, but she’s still the same as she was back in 1945.”
As for the new-found sex appeal—that makes Lillian Burns laugh. “The first time she walked into my office she had the same cuteness, the same perkiness she has now. If you remember that scene in Holiday in Mexicowhere she imitated Ilona Massey, I don’t think there’s any doubt in your mind that she had sex appeal. And she was only fifteen then.”
Add to this the statement of a former publicist at MGM, and you’ll be even more enlightened. “As sure as God made green apples,” he says. “Janie Powell had IT. Every guy at the studio was mooning around like a lovesick calf. She didn’t know it—was completely unaware of it— but not because she was naive. She had a remarkable shrewdness about her career, and about people. But she was always a lady.”
The wardrobe department was never unaware of Janie’s charms. “We really had to tone down her clothes,” a designer says. “We were trying to make her look young, and we had trouble minimizing her allure. We never discussed it in her presence, though, because Janie isn’t the kind of girl who takes well to that kind of talk. She blushes so easily you feel sorry for her.”
And Joan Wilcoxon (wife of actor Henry Wilcoxon) who’s been a friend of Jane’s for some time, seems a bit incensed at the studio’s claim of new glamor.
“That’s silly,” she says briskly. They’re asking us to believe that overnight Jane’s ready to be a leading woman. She’s been doing that since she was born. I think it’s a mistake to believe that by spending two days or two months in the hands of experts, the true meaning of glamor can be achieved. Plunging necklines and new hairdos can make a girl look older, but that shouldn’t be confused with glamor. Glamor’s a dividend that MGM can’t give to Janie. She has it already. God gave it to her.”
Jane Powell has had the same trouble as other girls who started off early in a movie career. Despite the passing years, people tended to regard her as a child. They wouldn’t let her grow up, at least in their own minds. When she went to Sun Valley on a vacation a few years ago, people were shocked by her mature behavior. “Goodness,” they said to themselves. “What that Hollywood does to children’s lives! It makes them old before their time.”
Janie has disregarded these opinions -with a great deal of equanimity. “Older folks,” she has said, “never let kids mature. They don’t even give them credit for having good sense.”
Jane Powell has good sense, and she’s always had it. She almost married Tommy Batten when she was nineteen, but she was wise enough to recognize it as puppy love, and told him she wasn’t ready for marriage, or even an engagement. She was never interested in nightclubs, but preferred instead the smaller, quieter spots for an evening’s entertainment. She never gave a thought to leaving her parents’ home to do the “accepted” thing of living alone because she was financially independent. She never felt she’d die if she didn’t get certain roles at the studio, preferring to let her bosses choose her pictures, and performing her job with a minimum of temperament. She’s always maintained a mature attitude about her voice, knowing that it’s a great gift, and works hard at perfecting it. She isn’t even a bit superstitious, and has already made many baby clothes and tucked them away for future use.
Her outlook on everything is practical. At the time she became engaged, for instance MGM was whipping up her wardrobe for Nancy Goes To Rio. After she’s seen the sketches, she went to Dore Schary and announced that the clothes would make a perfect trousseau. This broke all precedent, since clothes worn by the stars are used again and again by the extras. But Janie figured that few people can get into clothes made for her; a logical conclusion—she’s five-feet-two, and weighs ninety-eight pounds. She got the trousseau.
When she and Geary decided on the apartment that was to be their home after the wedding, it was Janie who arranged the lease and got the rental reduced. “I sat in the car and let her do the talking,” Geary says.
She bought their furniture at bargain basements and auction sales. (Janie will buy anything on sale.) Their winnings from Canasta went into a piggy bank, and their honeymoon came out of it.
With a wedding in sight, Jane was naturally anxious to find a dreamhouse, but she refused to look at any until a definite wedding date was set. “We might find something just perfect, and then break our hearts because we aren’t in a position to buy it yet.”
The Steffens have their own house now, out in Brentwood, and whenever new people move into the neighborhood, young Mrs. Steffen gets herself gussied up and sets out to call on them.
This consideration for others is another thing that’s almost as old as Janie is. Producer Rogers recalls that, at fourteen, Jane worried quite a bit about the money poured into her film debut. “I don’t understand,” she told him, “why you spend so much money on my first picture.”
“Most kids,” says Rogers, “would be bragging about it, instead of worrying. Another thing about Janie—she was so appreciative. I remember that I gave her a small watch at Christmas that year. You’d have thought it was a Cadillac the way she raved about it.
“Janie’s never forgotten me, either. After the picture was finished, and she went back to Metro, she continued to write me little notes on Thanksgiving and Easter, and other holidays, always thanking me for what I’d done for her.”
“Changed?” ask the stars and the friends who’ve always known her. “She’s exactly the same as she always was. She’s always had a lot of sense for her age, and a lot of glamor, too. But now that the years are creeping on through twenty, the glamor’s beginning to show. And on Janie, it’s a wonderful sight!”
—BY JANE WILKIE
It is a quote. MODERN SCREEN MAGAZINE FEBRUARY 1951