|Eleanor Powell and Buttons|
The Forgotten Eleanor Powell
While Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire were becoming legends at RKO, a very different dancer, now largely forgotten, enjoyed a successful career over at more prestigious MGM.
No, it was not Buttons the Dancing Dog. It was a human tornado named Eleanor Powell. To call Powell a tap dancer would be like calling a Bear in your kitchen a pest.
Eleanor Powell wasn't gorgeous, couldn't sing, and wasn't much for acting, either. The technicians and publicists at MGM had their work cut out for them to make her acceptable for the big screen. (The Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger includes Powell as a fascinating case study.) And Powell's salary demand was crazy-high under the circumstances. Louis B. Mayer offered her $1000 a week for Broadway Melody of 1936. She turned it down and countered with $1250.
He accepted. Mayer was a genius at knowing a good investment when he saw one. The gawky kid in costumes sewed by her mother could dance like nobody before or since.
Not as in "as good as," although she was fabulous. Eleanor Powell literally did things you can hardly believe even when you see them today. Her numbers might include ballet en pointe, acrobatics, stupefying high leg kicks and low back bends, and, of course, tap. Those pile-driver legs tapped Hell out of the dance floor as her smile lit up the screen.
Watch the jaw-dropping, if trippy, finale to Born to Dance (1936) - a tribute to America's Art Deco battleship fleet. Here, the incredible athleticism of Powell is displayed to full effect. (Just as odd, low-angle closeups of her grinning face unaccountably highlight her lack of movie-star beauty.)
Dancing Alone with Fred Astaire
A mere human partner would just slow Eleanor Powell down.
Powell was paired with Fred Astaire to make "Begin the Beguine" memorable in Broadway Melody of 1940. However, while Fred always had praise for her, it comes across as though he felt a little intimidated by her "mannish" strength and energy. He may have resented being forever an "and" with "Ginger," but one senses a tacit admission of what Ginger gave him that Powell could not.
Ginger knew her job, and it was not just dancing, it was acting. It was to make dancing with the incredibly talented, but balding and comical-looking Fred look like the most sublime experience a woman could enjoy.
Powell, on the other hand, was an equal to Fred, tap for tap.
Buttons the Dancing Dog
It was only with Buttons, a dog she trained herself, in a number shot in her living room (where the dog was used to dancing) for Lady Be Good (1941) that Powell found her perfect partner. Note, in the video below, Powell's hair all a-flop, something the studio normally took care to avoid. But, she was a stickler, and insisted that a "rehearsal" number look like one.
Tap had it's day, and Eleanor Powell retired quietly and became a Unity minister. She died in 1982 at the age of 69. She is not much remembered today, which is a shame, even if tap is not your thing (as it is not the Bear's).
The Alien Connection
Oh, what is the connection between Buttons and Ridley Scott's 1979 Alien?
That first MGM movie, Broadway Melody of 1936, featured the song "Lucky Star." Apparently, at the end of Alien, besides stripping down to her skimpies, Sigourney Weaver fights some sort of monster while nervously singing "Lucky Star." (Thanks to the Bear's driver, bodyguard and factotum, Red Death, for that amazing catch.)
It was Weaver's idea, but Scott took the heat for the expense of the music rights.
And here they are: Eleanor Powell and Buttons. Go ahead and smile. They don't make 'em like this anymore.