A Leg Up
By Devin D. O'Leary
OCTOBER 26, 1998: Ann Miller--to use the journalistic parlance of her era--is a hoofer, a terpser, a footlighter. With her vivid personality, great pins and extraordinary tapdancing ability, she landed a movie contract at RKO Studios at the tender age of 13. Between the years 1935 and 1956, Miller danced her way through more than 40 films. Her most famous roles came during her Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer period when she starred in such classics as Easter Parade with Fred Astaire, On The Town with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, and Kiss Me Kate with Howard Keel and Katherine Grayson.
Since her Hollywood days, Miller has starred in several Broadway musicals including Sugar Babies with Mickey Rooney. Most recently, she appeared in an off-Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim's Follies.
Ms. Miller, a network spokesperson for Turner Classic Movies, is currently engaged in a cross-country lecture tour sponsored by TCM and Jones Intercable.
Weekly Alibi recently had the opportunity to chat with Miller from her home in Beverly Hills.
Oh, sure. The only difference in films is that there's just no major studios (anymore). Well, there's Disney. And Sony. But they don't usually put stars under contract for longer than three pictures. When you're a contract player, as I was for 12 years at MGM, you were like family--the MGM family.
Back in the '30s and '40s, artists may not have had as much money or creative control as they do today, but it seems that there was a certain camaraderie working with the same crew, the same directors, the same actors film after film. Is that true?
Yes, it is. Like I said, it's like a family. ... Before I got to MGM, I was lucky as a kid--I grew up in Hollywood. When I was 13, I did New Faces of 1937. When I was 14, I starred in Radio City Revels with Milton Berle and Victor Moore and all these big people. When I was 14, also I got to be in Stage Door with Ginger Rogers and Katherine Hepburn. It was my first speaking part. And then when I was 15, I played a married woman in You Can't Take It With You. I was directed by Frank Capra. I was directed by Gregory La Cava in Stage Door. They were two of the biggest directors in Hollywood. Then I did Room Service with the Marx brothers. This is when I was a baby, more or less. A kid. So I've been very lucky that I had a training, a background of being in films long before I ever hit MGM. Of course MGM is like hitting Zigfield's Follies. When you get there, you are hitting the epitome of the big, big candybox musicals.
In digging through some old Variety reviews, I noticed that even if a film was considered mediocre, you were always singled out for putting on a fantastic dance performance.
Well, thank you. I've been blessed that I've had that ability. But one of the things they overlooked with me was my singing ability. It wasn't until I did Broadway. I did Mame first on Broadway. I did that for two years (1969-70), then four and a half years on the road with that show. People began to notice the fact that I had this big singing voice. Then, when I did Sugar Babies, they really knew I had it. But before that, people just thought of me as a dancer. Thank God now I did this show, Follies, and I just sang. I didn't dance. I loved it! I played a straight part. That's where I want to go now. I don't want to keep dancing. You know, at my age now, coming out in a short costume, I think I'd look like a dumbbell.
I don't know; in their review of 1953's Small Town Girl, Variety wrote, "Shapely Ann Miller exposes her gams in two hot production numbers."
(Laughs heartily). Small Town Girl, you know, is the one that got the shot in Life magazine. The Busby Berkeley number that he did with me--"I've Got To Hear That Beat"--that was a huge production number. It was the biggest production number I ever did on that lot. It wound up on the front of Life. It was the last number (Berkeley) did before he died, and it was a spectacular number. Oh, God! what a number that was.
What was it like working with Busby Berkeley?
It was a great thrill to work with him, but he was very difficult. I had a bleeding blister on my heel and he wouldn't stop to let me put a plaster on it because he said, "You'll hold up the company." So when I finished I had a boot full of blood! He was difficult, but he was brilliant. He was a genius.
You've worked with an amazing list of stars. You appeared in two films with Frank Sinatra.
Oh, yes. I love Frank. Actually, I worked with him in (1943's) Reveille with Beverly at Columbia (as well). It was the big band era and he just sang in front of an orchestra. That's when I first met Frank. Then, later on of course, at MGM I did On The Town with him. And then (we) did Kissing Bandit. I just had that one big number in it. The picture was so terrible they put that number in at the last minute to try and boost it up. But I knew him quite well socially. He was a nice guy.
What was it like working with the Marx brothers?
They were totally insane. When I first met them, I had my mother with me, because I was quite young when we worked on Room Service. I think I had just turned 16 or was about to turn 16. (Mother) came on the lot with me, and the first thing when I met the Marx brothers--the director was standing there and introduced me--Harpo dropped his pants and chased me around the whole soundstage with that horn. Beep-beep! Beep-beep! Well, I was petrified and I ran like a scared rabbit!
Room Service was one of Lucille Ball's first films as well.
Lucille Ball, years back when I was a kid, she walked in one night with (comedian) Benny Rubin when I was working in a nightclub. I was only 13. I lied and said I was 18; I had to because they served liquor. Lucille Ball was the one that told this talent scout, "You better give that girl a test because she's a great dancer. She'd be a great competitor to Eleanor Powell." That's how I got my (screen) test at RKO and got my contract. So I really owe that to Lucy Ball.
You teamed with some of the finest dancers in the biz: Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, Ginger Rogers. Who was your favorite dance partner?
Fred Astaire. Unfortunately, I was too tall for him. Now I've shrunk about an inch and a half, so I would be about right. He was like five-seven. They had to put me in ballet shoes to work with him (in Easter Parade). I had that long gown; you don't really notice. Cyd Charisse was really too tall for him. But she learned to bend her knees, because she's a ballerina, you know, and you didn't notice it too much. I think the perfect partner for him was Ginger Rogers. She was the right height for him. She was about five-foot-three in stocking feet. They were like two dolls together.
You worked several times with Howard Keel and Katherine Grayson (Kiss Me Kate, Lovely To Look At).
Oh, I adored both of them! They're still my dear friends today. I just talked to Katherine last night.
Are there any other co-stars you keep in touch with?
Red Skelton I knew quite well before he passed away. Debbie Reynolds is one of my dearest friends. I see her quite often. Jane Powell, when I come to New York. All those girls. Esther Williams is my dear friend. Ann Rutherford, who I adore, is very close to me. I still see them. We gave a luncheon about two or three years ago and invited the ones that are still alive and kicking. We invited all the MGM (stars). Debbie Reynolds and myself were the hosts. We got all the gals together and it was just great. We had Janet Leigh and Esther Williams and Ann Rutherford and Cyd Charisse and all the ones that are still, uh ... portable. (Laughs). It was such fun to see them. We didn't allow any press. It was like a sorority getting together.
Still a family.
Yeah. The MGM family.
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