TCM Summer Under the Stars: Day Five — Ann Miller

Every inch a star.

Ann Miller was a dancer, a singer, and an actress, but to me, she was always more than that. She always seemed to be a little bit larger than life, an iconic product of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

A star.

In the Beginning:

Miller was born Johnnie Lucille Ann Collier in Chireno, Texas, on April 12, 1923 – she was named by her father, who reportedly wanted a boy. As a child, Johnnie suffered from rickets, a childhood disease characterized by softening and distortion of the bones. Her mother, Clara Birdwell put her in dance classes, believing that this would strengthen the youngster’s legs.

Young Ann.

In the early 1930s, Johnnie’s parents divorced and she moved with her mother to Los Angeles; shortly afterward, according to one source, her mother started calling her Annie. Birdwell, who was deaf, found it hard to find work; to help support the family, Johnnie developed a dance routine and adopted the name Ann Miller, and earned enough money performing at local civic organizations to support them both. After Miller saw Eleanor Powell dance in Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935), Birdwell told her that, with more practice, she could be just as good. Miller would later consider say that Powell was an early inspiration.

Miller got her big break at the age of 13 when she was spotted at a popular San Francisco nightclub by talent scout Benny Rubin and future star Lucille Ball, who introduced her to RKO studio execs. Claiming to be 18 (and reportedly producing a fake birth certificate given to her by her father), Miller was signed to a seven-year contract and appeared in her big screen debut, New Faces of 1937. Later that year, she was seen in Stage Door, starring Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, and Lucille Ball. She was 14 years old.

Other stuff:

  • Miller’s father, John Alfred Collier, was a criminal lawyer who defended such infamous gangsters as Baby Face Nelson, the Barrow Gang, and Machine Gun Kelly.
  • According to one source, at the age of 10, Miller met famed dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson at a local theater and he gave her a brief tap-dancing lesson.

    Miller replaced Cyd Charisse in Easter Parade.

  • Miller was married three times. Her first marriage was to steel heir to Reese Llewellyn Milner. While she was pregnant with their daughter, Milner threw her down a flight of steps and she went into early labor. The baby lived only a few hours. Miller divorced him a short time later.
  • When Cyd Charisse broke her leg, Miller replaced her in MGM’s Easter Parade (1948), starring Fred Astaire. This led to a contract with MGM and some of her best-known films, including On the Town (1949) and Kiss Me, Kate (1953).
  • Miller saw a resurgence of her career in the late 1970s when she starred on Broadway (and later toured the country for two years) with Mickey Rooney in Sugar Babies. Of her role in the production, Miller once said, “I was never the star in films. I was the brassy, good-hearted showgirl. Sugar Babies gave me the stardom that my soul kind of yearned for.”

My SUTS Pick:

If you want to smile, tune in.

Choosing my pick for Ann Miller Day didn’t require any thought at all. It’s one of my all-time favorite movies: You Can’t Take It With You (1938). This delightful comedy stars Lionel Barrymore, Jean Arthur, and Spring Byington as just a few of the members of one of the wackiest – but happiest – households you’re ever likely to encounter. They live together in a big house with extended family members (and others they invite to join them), all doing exactly as they please, from making fireworks to writing novels. Their contented lifestyle is threatened by the efforts of a ruthless financier (Edward Arnold) to buy up all the property in the area, and his son (James Stewart), who’s in love with Arthur’s character. As a member of the madcap family who lives in the house with her xylophone-playing spouse, Miller gets a chance to show off her dancing prowess. She’s an absolute delight in the role – I dare you to try to keep from smiling every time she’s on the screen.

If you’ve never seen this film, do me a favor and check it out. I promise you’ll be glad you did.

And join me tomorrow for Day Six of Summer Under the Stars!

~ by shadowsandsatin on August 4, 2020.

11 Responses to “TCM Summer Under the Stars: Day Five — Ann Miller”

  1. We’re lucky the Sugar Babies tour took the troupe to Toronto. Ann atop a piano singing Don’t Blame Me is a favourite memory.

  2. I worked Sugar Babies on two separate occasions, eight performance weeks. I must admit she was amazing. It was said she was the world’s fastest tap dancer. I believe it. Also she was very demanding. The first one week was with Mickey Rooney who took great pleasure in making her angry. The second time Rooney was replaced with Eddie Bracken and Ann was very happy and capable being the star of the show.

  3. She is fabulous in everything. She really ought to have been a much bigger star.

  4. […] Day 5: Ann Miller […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: