Surrounded by artist Michael Mazur's monumental drawings of the Memorial Drive sycamores in an upstairs alcove of the Charles Hotel, pixie-ish MGM musical star Jane Powell looked even more petite than she seemed on the big screen. But at 83, she was as adorable and lively as ever. She's in great shape. She works out. And cares for her husband, the former child star Dickie Moore, who is suffering from arthritis and bouts of dementia. They've been together since 1988, and this has been the longest-running of her five marriages.
Marriages and weddings were a large part of our conversation. When I asked her about working with Elizabeth Taylor, in the 1948 musical comedy A Date with Judy (Powell played Judy), she said they'd been in school together at MGM's "little red schoolhouse" and were each other's bridesmaids at their first weddings. "That could have been a full-time job!" she joked.
She was in Cambridge to do a Q&A with noted cineaste Leonard Maltin before a free screening of her one film with Fred Astaire, Royal Wedding, at the Brattle Theatre (March 12) sponsored by XFINITY and Turner Classic Movies. It was all part of TCM's "Road to Hollywood" tour, taking place in 10 cities, as a promotion for the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, April 25-28.
"That's practically the only station I watch — though I never watch my own movies," Powell admitted; "and the news."
The 1951 Technicolor Royal Wedding is one of Astaire's best later musicals (it's the film in which he dances on the walls and ceiling of his hotel room), with a score by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane. The hit song, "How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know I've Been a Liar All My Life?" (the legendary song with the longest title), had Powell in a short black wig and a red-and-yellow striped skirt, chew'n gum, tawkin' tough, and swiveling her hips— not her usual girl-next-door image. She loved the change. That part was not originally intended for her. But June Allyson got pregnant and Judy Garland got sick. So Powell didn't actually learn the dances from working with Astaire (she had never even met him before), but from rehearsing with a woman who taught her the steps.
The plot was loosely based on Astaire and his first dancing partner, his sister Adele. "I asked Fred when was the last time he danced with his sister, and he said 1929." What was he like? "I was very comfortable with him. He was a very private man, very close to his family. And very friendly. But it was as if he wore a sign that said 'Don't touch me!' "
Powell started dancing when she was two. "Everyone wanted their little girls to be the next Shirley Temple." But when MGM wanted to replace their singing star Deanna Durbin, they discovered that Powell, who began singing lessons when she was 10, was at least as good a singer as a dancer.