An Ann Miller video that’s pure joie de vivre

Ann Miller never got the stardom she deserved, but left a legacy of wonderful dances, including one that I find a cheering antidote to today’s depressing news.

Dad and I used to watch old musicals together when they showed up on TV, sparking my lifelong love of old musicals. For me, 1974 was a banner year. That’s when MGM cleaned out its vaults and released That’s Entertainment, its homage to the best of its old musicals. That same year, the Castro Theater in San Francisco held a summer-long MGM musical festival. I saw all of them, I think. Forty-nine years later, the magic has never waned.

Over those 49 years, though, one question about those MGM musicals has always befuddled me: Why was Ann Miller always second-billed rather than the main star? She was a phenomenal tap dancer, clocked at up to 500 taps per minute. She had a silky speaking voice, a great singing voice, she was gorgeous, and she could act at least as well as any of the top-billed stars…yet she was always in second place.

Of course, some might say that being second place in three of the best MGM musicals ever made — Easter Parade, On The Town, and Kiss Me Kate — was a pretty good deal. Ann also did spectacular turns in Small Town Girl and Hit The Deck. Indeed, if those last two movies are remembered at all, it’s because of her dances:

Ann’s failure to achieve stardom couldn’t have been because she was a soloist, rather than a partner dancer. After all, Eleanor Powell was a soloist, too, and had a huge career….

And then it hit me: The problem for Ann is that she reached maturity as a Hollywood performer when the era of female solo tap dancers had already ended. The 1930s had two famous female tap dancers: Ruby Keeler, who was good, and Eleanor Powell, who was extraordinary.

However, thanks in large part to the success of the Fred and Ginger movies, by the 1940s, all the top dancing moves focused on male stars with female partners. If you’re at all familiar with the Fred and Ginger movies, you know that Fred always had a solo, whereas Ginger had only one solo, in Follow The Fleet, and that ended as a joke with her disabled by hiccups that Fred had inadvertently triggered.

So, poor Ann peaked too late. It was simply a matter of timing that kept her from being a huge MGM star. She was a female soloist at a time when the men were getting the solos and the stardom.

For those of us who became aware of Ann at the end of her career (or even after her death), though, there was something we didn’t know: Back in the early 1940s, she was a top-billed musical star at RKO and Columbia. Admittedly, they weren’t big movies, but they still had a big reach.

Let me back up a little bit to talk about how Ann came to Hollywood in the first place. She was born in 1923 in Houston to a hearing-impaired mother and a lawyer father. Her extraordinary beauty may be attributed to the fact that she was one-quarter Cherokee.

Ann’s father was allegedly a hound dog so, when she was nine, her parents separated, and her mother took her to Los Angeles. The problem was that, being hearing impaired, Ann’s mother really couldn’t get good employment. Very soon, Ann, who apparently got a lot of her dance training just by watching Eleanor Powell movies, was dancing to keep the two of them afloat.

Lucille Ball was the one who discovered Ann, only 13, dancing in a San Francisco nightclub. Ball recognized that there was something special about Ann’s dancing chops and became Ann’s mentor.

Ann ended up in Hollywood, where she was showcased in a video about up-and-coming stars. When you consider that Ann was only 14 in the video below (although she lied and said she was 18), her dancing chops are exceptional. You can also see how strongly Eleanor Powell influenced her style:

Ann very quickly found herself in quality RKO movies (Stage Door and You Can’t Take It With You) because she was a genuine talent. However, she was never top-billed.

In 1941, Ann moved to Columbia Pictures, where she was in 11 movies, all B-grade (small, quickly produced), but in some of which she was the star. They were patriotic movies, and she gave her creative all for the troops:

Incidentally, the first dance comes from Reveille With Beverly, in which she starred and which was a huge hit with the troops. Johnny Carson later said that he’d seen it so often he had the dialogue memorized. And the third dance video recycles the costume from Reveille With Beverly, but it’s a different performance.

Miller never gave up working. She was in TV commercials, Saturday-night TV shows such as Love Boat, and Broadway revivals. In 1979, she and Mickey Rooney got together for a Sugar Babies, a show meant to capture the fun and glamour of Vaudeville at its best. I talked my mother (who was relatively tone deaf) into seeing the show with me (because, believe me, none of my friends would go), and enjoyed the show tremendously.

Personally, Ann had three failed marriages. Her first ended disastrously when she was eight months pregnant and her husband attacked her in a drunken rage and threw her down the stairs. She broke her back and miscarried. She never had another child. Ann died in 2004, when she was 80 years old, having worked almost to the end.

Anyway, I wanted to end this post on a high note, with a video of 15-year-old Ann Miller in 1938 dancing to a song performed by Kenny Baker with the Hal Kemp Orchestra:

To me this video is everything that entertainment should be. The song is charming but it’s Ann’s youthful joie de vivre and her incredible dance chops (which were her own now, rather than an Eleanor Powell imitation), that make it soar. It’s also so darn wholesome. Back then, Hollywood behind the scenes was probably just as squalid then as it is now, right down to the fact that it’s always been a pedophile factory, but it kept that under wraps for American audiences. Youth was wholesome and innocent, two qualities that Ann delightfully embodies.

Just one side note about Ann’s youth when she started her career. Betty Grable, seven years older than Ann, was another hard-working musical comedy actress. She managed to be a top-tier star, having made her debut in 1930 in Whoopee! Here she is at 14, in a 1931 Busby Berkeley number. You’ll recognize her leading the line-up of pole-wielding dancers:

Like Miller, Grable was a classy lady throughout her career, dying too young at 56.

Screen grab of Ann Miller colorized by Fotor.