Friday, April 10, 2009

Ann Miller: A look back

All photos from Ann Miller Online

“[Fred Astaire] was a perfectionist. At rehearsal when you thought you'd got it perfect he would say, 'Go on, Annie, just one more time!' What I wouldn't give to do it just one more time.”

"I never played politics. I never was a party girl, and I never slept with any of the producers."

“At MGM, I always played the second feminine lead. I was never the star in films. I was the brassy, good-hearted showgirl. I never really had my big moment on the screen. Broadway gave me the stardom that my soul kind of yearned for.”

-Ann Miller on her career.

Ann Miller came of age in Hollywood at a time when stars were expected to do it all – sing, dance, act, and look good, while making it all seem effortless. Although Ann was an immensely talented tap dancer, a beautiful singer, and a charming actress, she never reached the level of stardom that she deserved. There was always another actress cast as the lead. But Ann Miller , like many supporting actors, often stole the show from the star. She was just more endearing, more flirtatious, and had better comedic timing, but most of all, Ann Miller danced like no other, and she sparkled on the screen.

Born Johnnie Lucille Ann Collier (she was named Johnnie because her father had wanted a boy) in Texas on April 12, 1923, Ann started dancing when she was just 3 years old. At the age of 9 she moved to California with her mother. During her childhood Miller danced in night clubs like the Black Cat Club, and the Club Bal Tabarin in San Fransisco to support her mother, who couldn't keep a steady job because of a hearing impairment. Tall for her age, an 11 year old Miller convinced her employers that she was really 18 years old. It was while working at these clubs that legendary television star Lucille Ball found Miller and helped her land a contract with RKO at the age of 13. Miller faked her birth certificate, and once again pretended to be 18 to keep her job.

By the late 1940s and early 1950s, with the help of MGM studios, Ann Miller had starred in some of MGM's most beloved musicals – Easter Parade, On the Town, and Kiss Me Kate. Her first truly popular role in Easter Parade nearly went to the iconic performer, and fellow Texan, Cyd Charisse, but Charisse lost the part due to a broken leg. Miller so impressed the studio heads that she earned a 7 year contract with MGM. By the early 1950s, she was so popular at MGM she was the initial choice for the role in Singin' in the Rain that eventually went to Debbie Reynolds. Many of Ann Miller's song and dance numbers appeared in the retrospective film, That's Entertainment! and its sequels.

Ann Miller married no fewer than three times to Reese Milner, actor Bill Moss, and Arthur Cameron. It was rumored that the head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer, proposed to her on numerous occasions. Miller's marriage to Milner was perhaps the most tragic – while pregnant with the couple's first child, Milner reportedly threw his wife down a flight of stairs, and she lost her daughter, Mary Ann Milner a few hours after her birth.

On the Town
in which Miller appeared alongside Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, and Kiss Me Kate are among my favorite musicals. I believe she's best in the film that she loved most – Kiss Me Kate. The 1953 film is an adaptation of the Broadway musical of the same name, featuring music by Cole Porter. The film is presented as a play within a play, with its internal play being inspired by William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. Most of Cole Porter's racy lyrics have been watered down for the film, but Miller's performance of songs “Too Darn Hot”, “From this Moment On”, “Tom Dick or Harry” (she gets to dance with Bob Fosse), “Why Can't You Behave? ”, and “We Open in Venice” are sensational and among the best on screen. Miller stars as stage actress Lois Lane, who has been cast as Bianca in a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew.

As usual, Ann Miller plays the second female lead, and twice in one film, even while playing an actress – it's the epitome of art imitating life. She plays Lois and Lois-as-Bianca beautifully. In the role of Lois she once again steals a film from leading lady, Kathryn Grayson, who plays her rival Lilli Vanessi. Miller is spirited, mischievous, and sexy with her trademark black hair, ruby red lips, and slender legs (“Why that's absurd, I wouldn't dream of displaying my legs,” snaps an icy Grayson as Lilli. “What's the matter with your legs? Are you knock-kneed?” Ann as Lois retorts.) Towards the start of Kiss Me Kate, Miller performs one of her famous tap dance routines (the studio line that she tapped 500 times a minute was a lie), and she is brilliant during her performance of “Too Darn Hot.” You never want the routine to end and you can't wait to see what she does next. Reportedly, for a number of her films, she looped the sound of the sped up so-called 500 taps, while watching herself on film, and then danced on a tap board to match with her dance steps in the film.

I grew up watching Kiss Me Kate repeatedly, and it was one of the last of the great MGM musicals. It was filmed in 3D using the most up-to-date technology of the era, and though the vivid color is a bit fainter on the DVD, it's worth owning because Ann Miller is simply dazzling in one of her finest film roles. You can also watch Ann Miller in Easter Parade to commemorate her birthday this Sunday, April 12, 2009 on TCM at 7PM Eastern in the US and you can catch her in Kiss Me Kate on TCM on Monday, April 13 at 2PM Eastern.

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  1. Very nice tribute to a great talent.

  2. Thanks!

    She was a fantastic artist that doesn't often get the credit she deserves.