Eleanor Torrey Powell was an American film actress and dancer of the 1930s and 1940s, known for her exuberant solo tap dancing.
Powell was born in Springfield, Massachusetts. A dancer since childhood, she was discovered at the age of 11 by the head of the Vaudeville Kiddie revue, Gus Edwards. When she was 17, she brought her graceful, athletic style to Broadway, where she starred in various revues and musicals. During this time, she was dubbed “the world’s greatest tap dancer” due to her machine-gun footwork, and in the early 1930s appeared as a chorus girl in a couple of early, inconsequential musical films.
In 1935, the leggy, fresh-faced Powell made the move to Hollywood and did a specialty number in her first major film, George White’s 1935 Scandals which she later described as a disaster due in part to her accidentally being made up to look like an Egyptian due to a mix-up prior to filming her scene. The experience left her unimpressed with Hollywood. Nonetheless, she was courted by MGM, but initially refused their offers of a contract. Reportedly, Powell attempted to dissuade the studio by making what she felt were unreasonable salary demands, but MGM agreed and she finally accepted. The studio groomed her for her future stardom making minimal changes in her makeup and conduct.
She was well-received in her first starring role in 1935’s Broadway Melody of 1936, and delighted 1930s audiences with her endless energy and enthusiasm, not to mention her stunning dancing. According to dancer Ann Miller, quoted in the “making-of” documentary about That’s Entertainment! III, MGM was headed for bankruptcy in the late 1930s, but the films of Eleanor Powell, particularly Broadway Melody of 1936 were so popular they made the company profitable again. Miller also credits Powell for inspiring her own dancing career, which would eventually lead her to become an MGM musical star a decade later.