To be acknowledged as The Best at anything, one needs fortitude, talent, and visibility. It is not a light accolade: it must be earned. For Eleanor Powell, her honors came with the tap, tap, tap of gifted feet against sonorous floors, and still resonates with recollective kudos as the best, the “Queen of Tap.”
Eleanor Powell was born on November 21, 1910, in Springfield, Massachusetts. She began dancing at age 11; by the age of 17, she was wowing the throngs on New York’s fabled Broadway. On January 26, 1933, the first film version of State Fair opened at Radio City Music Hall, starring Will Rogers and Janet Gaynor; at the same time as the film’s premiere, the stage version, starring Powell, was entertaining live audiences. Two years later, in 1935, she made her film debut, in George White’s Scandals, the year’s installment in what was, to that point, an annual film sensation; Scandals began on Broadway in the early 1920s, directed by White, and staged yearly revues until the early 1930s, when sound allowed the marvelous singing and dancing elements of the show to marry in celluloid. That year, she also appeared in Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935), and her exhibition in that film, alongside co-stars Jack Benny, Robert Taylor, and Buddy Ebsen, solidified her star status. Powell would also get great exercise, to the collective audiences’ great delight, in Broadway Melody of 1938 in 1937, and Broadway Melody of 1940 in 1940 — the latter film is highlighted by a spectacular dance duet by Powell and Fred Astaire, setting the screen on fire with their rapid tapping to Cole Porter’s exquisite “Begin the Beguine.” Of Eleanor’s contribution to that film, Astaire gushed that his leggy, vivacious co-star “put ’em down like a man.” High praise, from one legendary hoofer to another.
In a relatively brief screen career, Eleanor Powell made a dozen films more lively because of her presence in them, from 1935-1944, with a guest appearance in one film in 1950, Duchess of Idaho. Her career took back seat to matters of the heart: on October 24, 1943, at her Beverly Hills home, Powell married actor Glenn Ford, six years her junior; the two had met during the first Hollywood war bond cavalcade. Their son, Peter Newton Ford, was born in 1945. The marriage, however, ended in divorce in a Santa Monica courtroom, on November 23, 1959, with Powell testifying that Ford was “very moody.” She never remarried.
After her marriage ended, Eleanor Powell made a brief but highly successful return to performance, with nightclub work in Las Vegas and New York, but eventually settled down to a quiet retirement, filled with charity and church work, culminating with her ordination as a Minister of the Unity Church. The February 11, 1982 death of Eleanor Powell was quietly noted, but hardly given the type of fanfare that was deserved. Her cinematic contributions, brief, intense, and spectacular, were recognized with a star along Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, at 1541 Vine Street. She only made twelve films, but her mark in each was so strong, and so memorable, that this lovely practitioner of leg arts par excellence will, forever, be remembered as The World’s Best Tap Dancer.