“I have worked like a dog all my life, honey. Dancing, as Fred Astaire said, is next to ditch-digging. You sweat and you slave and the audience doesn’t think you have a brain in your head.” (photo courtesy of vintagegal.tumblr.com)
Ann Miller was a big star in some of the Golden Age of Hollywood’s biggest musicals. She became known for how fast she could tap dance. But before all of that, she was born into the world Johnnie Lucille Ann Collier in Texas in 1923. She was named Johnnie because her father was hoping for a son; she was nicknamed ‘Annie’. After contracting rickets between the ages of three and five (various sources give different ages), Annie began taking dance lessons. Her mother believed that dancing would help her regain her strength. Boy, was she right about that.
Leaving Texas with her mother around 1932 (her father had been unfaithful to her mother), the two headed for Los Angeles. Her mother was hearing-impaired and had trouble finding work. Annie, on the other hand, had an advantage: She was not even ten years old when she began looking for – and finding – dancing gigs in nightclubs in order to support her mother and herself. She was successful in this endeavor because she looked much older than her age, something that would come back to help her in the not-too-distant future. (Annie also did a little bit of uncredited extra work in films in the mid 1930s.) At the age of thirteen, she claimed to be eighteen – and got by with it. As a young girl, she learned to tap dance so well that she became something of a child prodigy. She named dancing legend and film actress Eleanor Powell as one of her inspirations.
She soon became Ann Miller, the stage name we all know her by.
One night in 1936 or ’37, Lucille Ball and RKO Pictures talent scout Benny Rubin were in the audience of the Club Bal Tabarin in San Francisco where Ann was doing her specialty act. Ball loved her. Benny Rubin got her into RKO for a screen test and she secured her first studio contract that year at the age of fourteen. After producing a fake birth certificate to “verify” that she was eighteen (the studio demanded this in order for her to come on board at RKO as a contract player), she began her journey into stardom.
Ann’s first credited role was in the film New Faces of 1937 in which she played herself. She got a small role in the film The Life of the Party (1937). That same year, Ann secured a supporting role in a film that really resonates with me: Stage Door (1937). Directed by Gregory La Cava, Stage Door tells the story of a group of young ladies who share a living space in a boarding house and they also happen to be looking for work onstage – some successfully and some not successfully. They all fight a lot, but through the film, they learn the importance of supporting each other. In my opinion, it’s an amazing movie. To look at her, you wouldn’t believe Ann Miller was just fourteen years old in that film. It’s incredible.
Here’s Ann dancing to a catchy tune in the 1938 film Tarnished Angel. She was just fifteen here. Watch her performance carefully. Look how much personality she has shining through. And just look at that talent running through her young legs.
1938 brought more film roles for Ann, including the Marx Brothers comedy Room Service and Frank Capra’s classic romantic comedy You Can’t Take It With You – the latter being another one of my personal favorites. It’s a true inspirational classic and its theme is near and dear to my heart.
Miller stayed with RKO for a couple more years and then left in 1940. She went on to sign with Columbia Pictures in ’41. In 1946, while married to her first husband Reese Llewellyn Milner, Ann suffered a miscarriage after being thrown down the stairs by Milner during a fight. The two divorced in early 1948.
When she was still in a back brace (the fall gave her a severe back injury), Ann was picked up by MGM. She auditioned for – and got the role – of Nadine Hale in the hit 1948 musical Easter Parade which starred Judy Garland and Fred Astaire. She performed her big tap numbers – most notably “Shakin’ the Blues Away” – in the back brace. Ironically, she replaced Cyd Charisse – who was first cast in the role – after Charisse tore a ligament in her knees. Fred Astaire also replaced Gene Kelly, who was set to star as Don Hewes but he broke his ankle before filming began.
When I learned about the stuff that she went through and how she persevered through it all, I was so amazed. Look at this girl GO:
In 1949, Ann co-starred with Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Vera-Ellen, Betty Garrett, and Jules Munshin in the MGM musical On the Town. This film was the first musical to shoot its musical numbers on location: In this case, New York City. In the 1950s, musical films were becoming less prevalent in Hollywood. The lavish musicals of the 1940s were becoming a thing of the past. Ann Miller was in a handful of films that decade, including the musical Hit the Deck and the 1956 remake of the 1939 classic The Women called The Opposite Sex. According to her biography on tcm.com, Ann’s favorite role at MGM was as Lois Lane/Bianca in the musical Kiss Me Kate (1953), starring Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel.
While reading up on Ann, I found some cool “fun facts” about her. One was this, from IMDb:
“At the end of her MGM contract, she flew overseas to Morocco to entertain on the Timex TV Hour for Bob Hope. She sang and danced ‘Too Darn Hot’ in 120-degree heat, entertaining 5000 soldiers.”
Ann also danced the Charleston with Ginger Rogers during a party at the Mocambo – a popular nightclub in West Hollywood that operated from the early ’40s until the late ’50s. This photo is adorable and what a party that must have been!
After she left MGM in the late ’50s, Ann married oil tycoon William Moss in 1958. Just after they divorced in 1961, she married her third husband Arthur Cameron and their marriage was annulled less than a year later. She never remarried after that. When film roles weren’t coming her way, Ann got her own nightclub act, acted on Broadway, and even landed a memorable spot in an early 1970s commercial for Great American soup. The commercial was styled after iconic musical director and choreographer Busby Berkeley, with an overhead shot and snazzy choreography. Keep in mind, she was about 50 years old here and she rocks just as hard here as she did in the ’40s.
Ann’s last film role was in neo-noir mystery cult classic Mulholland Drive (2001), written and directed by David Lynch (Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet). On her role, Ann once commented, “I don’t understand one damn thing about that crazy movie, but isn’t it a hoot that I’m in it!”
Ann’s vivacious personality and big hair (which she fashioned in her later years) were often riffed by comedians, like Carol Burnett. The impressions and jokes, of course, were done in good taste. I know I’m not the only one who appreciates how Ann Miller seamlessly fits into the fusion of modern-day and classic pop culture, as proven by the hilarious and brilliant YouTube channel PunchyPlayers. Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli also prove to be pop culture queens. This is one of my favorite videos of all time:
Ann Miller came into my life when I was little girl. For a long time, my only exposure to her was through Easter Parade (1948). I was raised on that movie. I’ve always been a Judy Garland fan. In fact, this was my only exposure to Fred Astaire until my teenage years, when I finally watched a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical. But Ann Miller holds her own and then some in that movie. I vaguely remember my dad telling me about Ann Miller and how she was such a fast tap dancer. “Shakin’ the Blues” away has always a treat to watch and hear.
I think Ann would’ve been so fun to chat with. She was a ball of fire and so talented. According to an article by the Hollywood Reporter, she did things like writing “Star Lady” down in the “occupation” column of her W-4 forms. And once, a friend of Ann’s was asked to look up actress Arlene Dahl’s phone number in Ann’s personal phone book. To her friend’s confusion, Dahl’s number couldn’t be found in the “D” or even “A” section; Ann had it saved under “G” for “girlfriend”.
If you want to get an even more in-depth look into the world of Ann Miller, check out any of her interviews that can be found on YouTube. Her Private Screenings interview with Robert Osborne on TCM is on there, uploaded in several parts. She was so interesting and a live wire into her old age!
Okay, how could I end a piece about Ann Miller without letting her finish it up? Here she is dancing and singing in Small Town Girl (1953). The one and only Busby Berkeley choreographed this number.