Eleanor Powell was an American dancer and actress known for her powerful style of tap dancing. She performed several tap dance numbers in films during the 1930s and 1940s. In 1965, she was chosen as the ‘World’s Greatest Tap Dancer’ by the Dance Masters of America. Despite her massive popularity, she did only 14 movies during her entire career. A native of Springfield, Powell started studying ballet at the age of six and began dancing at nightclubs as a young lady. In 1928, she started her training in tap and eventually brought her athletic dance style to Broadway. Her powerful footwork earned Powell much recognition during this time and she ultimately made the move to Hollywood in 1935. After her debut in ‘George White's 1935 Scandals', the tap dancer went on to appear in numerous other films, including ‘Born to Dance’ and ‘Rosalie’. She retired after her marriage to Canadian-American actor Glenn Ford in 1943. However, following her divorce in 1959, she restarted her career and danced for a few years across New York and Las Vegas musical venues. Powell died in 1982 of ovarian cancer, at the age of 69.
Childhood & Early Life
Eleanor Torrey Powell was born on November 21, 1912, in Springfield, Massachusetts, USA, to Blanche Torrey and Clarence Gardner Powell.
She started dancing at the age of six. By the time she was a teenager, she had danced at various night clubs across Atlantic City. At the age of 16, she started learning tap dancing and soon joined ‘The Optimists,’ a musical revue at Casino de Paris theatre in New York City.
During this time, Powell appeared in many Broadway musicals, including ‘Follow Thru’.
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Eleanor Torrey Powell made her Hollywood debut with the 1935 film ‘George White's 1935 Scandals'. Although it was her first major film, she was not impressed with her experience working in it.
She then appeared in her first starring role in ‘Broadway Melody of 1936’ alongside Frances Langford and Jack Benny. The film became popular and brought huge profits to its production house Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) that was undergoing a financial crisis at the time.
After the success of this film, the upcoming tap dancer went on to work with the top leading men of that time, including George Murphy, Fred Astaire, and James Stewart.
In 1936, she did another film produced by MGM, titled ‘Born to Dance’. The film also starred James Stewart and had its score composed by Cole Porter.
Eleanor Torrey Powell did the films ‘Rosalie’ and ‘Broadway Melody of 1938’ in the ensuing years. While ‘Rosalie’ was a screen adaptation of the 1928 eponymous stage musical, the latter was a backstage musical revue by MGM.
This was followed by her appearance in ‘Honolulu’, a musical directed by Edward Buzzell. The film also starred Robert Young, George Burns, Rita Johnson, and Gracie Allen.
In 1940, Powell showcased her tap dance moves in ‘Broadway Melody of 1940’ which was the fourth and final installment of MGM's ‘Broadway Melody’ film series. The movie’s tap sequence ‘Begin the Beguine’ went on to become one of the best tap sequences of Hollywood.
Decline of Stardom
Following ‘Broadway Melody of 1940,’ none of Eleanor Powell’s films managed to create a major impact on the audience. Her projects of this time included ‘Lady Be Good’ and ‘Ship Ahoy,’ which were released in 1941 and 1942, respectively.
She parted ways with MGM in 1943 after the film ‘Thousands Cheer’ in which she performed only a single specialty number. A year later, the dancer showcased her athletic dance moves in ‘Sensations of 1945’. The film was, however, a commercial disappointment.
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Powell featured in a few documentaries during the late 1940s. In 1950, she collaborated with MGM for one last time in the romantic comedy ‘Duchess of Idaho’. Although her appearance in the musical was brief, she practiced day and night to make it look perfect on screen.
Later Entertainment Career
In May 1952, Eleanor Torrey Powell featured as a guest artist in an episode of ‘All Star Revue’ alongside June Havoc and Danny Thomas.
From 1953 to 1955, she served as a host of an Emmy Award-winning TV show titled ‘The Faith of Our Children’ that also starred her son.
In 1955, she made her last film appearance in the short film ‘Have Faith in Our Children’. Produced for the Variety Club of Northern California, the film was made to raise money for charity.
Following her divorce in 1959, Powell re-launched her nightclub career when she made appearances at Boston’s Latin Quarter.
Her live performances did good business during the 1960s. Also during this time, she made guest appearances in many TV programs like ‘The Hollywood Palace’ and ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’, to name a few.
In 1981, the tap dancer made her final public appearance at a televised concert to pay tribute to Fred Astaire. Her appearance earned her a standing ovation from her fans.
Reintroduction to Films
Eleanor Torrey Powell was reintroduced to the film audiences with the 1974 documentary ‘That's Entertainment’ and its sequels titled ‘That's Entertainment Part II’ and ‘That's Entertainment! III.’
During the 1980s and 1990s, her movies continued to be broadcast on television in the VHS video format by Turner Classic Movies.
Since 2007, several of her movies have emerged on DVD, such as ‘Rosalie’ and ‘Sensations of 1945.’
In 2008, Warner Home Video released a boxed DVD set in their ‘Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory’ films series. Out of the nine films in the series, four movies starred Powell, including ‘Born to Dance,’ ‘Lady Be Good,’ ‘Broadway Melody of 1936,’ and ‘Broadway Melody of 1938.’
Family & Personal Life
Eleanor Torrey Powell married Canadian-American actor Glenn Ford in 1943. The couple had a son named Peter Ford, who went on to become an actor and singer. He also served as the president of Blackoak Development Company.
Powell and Ford separated in 1959, following which she reportedly stayed with her son.
On February 11, 1982, she died of ovarian cancer at the age of 69. She was interred in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.