Ann Miller, Hollywood's Tap Dancing Queen

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Ann MIller

Ann Miller was a long legged American actress who could tap dance like an angel. She is less well known now than many of her contemporaries but was extremely famous in her heyday during the 1940's and early 1950's. She starred in over 40 movies during her Hollywood career including 'Easter Parade' in 1948, with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland and 'On The Town' in 1949 with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly. She is regarded as second only to Eleanor Powell for technical ability and it was claimed by her studio that she could perform at 500 taps per minute.

She had a successful stage career after her movie career wound down, appearing in the Broadway smash hits 'Mame' and 'Sugar Babies'. In 1970 she starred in a Great American Soup TV commercial which has become one of the most famous ever made, ending with the famous line : No on second thoughts, watch the clip, I don't want to spoil it for you.

The Best Commercial Ever? Ann Miller in 1970

The child prodigy
The child prodigy

Early Days

Ann Miller was born in Chireno, Texas on April 12, 1923 with the name
Johnnie Lucille Ann Collier. Her father had wanted a boy and so she was stuck with the unusual name, but she was always known as Annie as a child. Annie's family were well off and her father was a criminal lawyer famous for having acted as counsel for various gangsters such as Bonnie and Clyde and Baby Face Nelson.

She began dancing at the age of three when her mother enrolled her in classes in order to straighten her legs after an attack of rickets. She proved to be naturally gifted and came to be regarded as a dancing prodigy. Her earliest inspiration was the great dancing star, Eleanor Powell, and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson also became a personal hero when she met him whilst he was performing at a local theatre.

When Ann was nine her mother, Clara, left her father, tired of his philandering. Clara had a hearing disability and found it difficult to get work, but she was determined to get Ann into show business to use her dancing gifts, and she moved with her daughter to Hollywood.

Early Struggles

Without her husband's support, things were bleak for Clara. She sold everything she could, including their car, and enrolled Ann into Fanchon and Marco's dancing school. They made money wherever they could and when Ann was eleven, but with her long legs, looking considerably older, she began working as a dancer at two small, seedy drinking and gambling clubs called the Sunset Club and the Black Cat Club. She began to use the stage name of Ann Miller and she began to get noticed for her remarkable "machine-gun" tap dancing.

Ann gradually began to get small, uncredited movie roles, firstly in 1934 in 'Anne of Green Gables'. The following year she had a part in 'The Good Fairy' and in 1936 in 'The Devil on Horseback'. She continued her nightclub work and in 1936 she was hired for a four-month run to dance in the San Francisco club "Club Bal Tabarin", after telling them she was 18. It proved to be her lucky break because she was seen there by Lucille Ball and comedian and talent scout, Benny Rubin, who recommended her to Lucille's studio, RKO. In 1936, still aged just 13, (but with the help of a forged birth certificate, still maintaining she was 18), Ann signed a seven year contract with the studio.

She made her movie debut with her new studio playing herself in 'New Faces of 1937', followed by two sizzling tap numbers in the musical 'The Life of the Party' in the same year. Later in 1937 she played one of the Broadway hopefuls and danced with Ginger Rogers in the comedy, 'Stage Door'.

Ann, aged 14, in 'Stage Door' Dancing with Ginger Rogers

The Start of a Career

She also appeared with big name stars, Jean Arthur and James Stewart, in 'You Can't Take It with You' in 1938 which won the Oscar for Best Picture. In the same year she also worked with the Marx Brothers in one of their lesser known films 'Room Service'.

Ann appeared many times on stage throughout her career. In 1939 she began a highly successful two year run on Broadway in producer George White's musical 'Scandals of 1939'. The production was a smash hit and in 1940 Ann was invited by the director, George Abbott, to work on the film version of Rodgers and Hart's 'Too Many Girls'. She co-starred with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz (it was the film on which they met.) She had made it, she was at last a Hollywood star.

Too Many Girls, 1940

Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and Ann Miller
Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and Ann Miller

Hollywood Star

When RKO released her from her contract, thinking that Ginger Rogers was the only star dancer they needed, Ann's contract was taken up by Columbia pictures and she appeared in a string of low budget wartime morale-boosters including 'True To The Army' and 'Priorities On Parade' in 1942, 'Reveille With Beverly' and 'What's Buzzin' Cousin?' in 1943, and 'Hey Rookie' and 'Jam Session' in 1944. All were successful and popular and after 'Eve Knew Her Apples' in 1945, a musical remake of 1934's 'It Happened One Night' Ann was one of Columbia's biggest stars and was fast becoming one of the biggest draws in Hollywood.

Ann was dating steel millionaire Reese Milner at this time and when she announced that she was going to marry him and retire from movie making, Columbia boss Harry Cohn took exception and sued her for breach of contract, winning a settlement of $150,000. It was not a good time for Ann as her marriage ended with divorce after 2 years and Cohn refused to take her back.

She was immediately taken on by MGM, at that time the number one studio for musicals. After some spectacular dancing in a less than spectacular 1948 movie 'The Kissing Bandit' with Frank Sinatra and Kathryn Grayson she appeared later in the year in the classic 'Easter Parade', as replacement for Cyd Charisse, who had injured her knee. Not only did Ann do a fast solo tap number called "Shakin' the Blues Away" but she also performed a romantic dance with Fred Astaire, a sure of how far her star had risen. The movie and Ann received flattering reviews and MGM gave Ann a seven-year contract.

Ann with Fred Astaire in 'Easter Parade', 1948
Ann with Fred Astaire in 'Easter Parade', 1948

'On The Town', 1949

Ann went on to do several top quality musicals which showed off her talent in spectacular Technicolor. 'On the Town' in 1949, with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, 'Small Town Girl' and 'Kiss Me Kate' both in 1953, and 'Hit The Deck' in 1955. Each movie was successful and in each one Ann played the secondary female role, never the main one.

Times and movie fashions were changing with the rise of television and by the mid 1950's the spectacular MGM musicals were losing popularity and profits, so it was a sign of things to come that in Ann's last two movies she had non-dancing roles, 'The Opposite Sex' and 'The Great American Pastime', both in 1956. It was the end of an era for MGM and also for Ann. Her MGM contract came to an end and she went to Morocco with Bob Hope, entertaining the troops.

Later Career

Ann was a hard worker and she switched from movie making to performing a nightclub act and to appearing more on stage and on television. She took over from Angela Lansbury in the Broadway producion of'Mame' for 3 years from 1966 and had a smash hit co-starring with Micky Rooney from 1979 in 'Sugar Babies' both on Broadway and on tour for nine years. In 1970, as mentioned above, she appeared in one of the most enduring and iconic television commercials ever made, for Great American Soup in which, parodying old Busby Berkley movies, she tap-dances on top of a giant soup can surrounded by a troupe of dancing girls and an orchestra and which ends with her husband asking her, "Why must you make such a big production out of everything?".

Ann returned to the big screen in 2001 in a strange move when she appeared in a double role in avant garde filmmaker David Lynch's "Mulholland Dr."

Ann was married and divorced three times, each time to a millionaire, firstly from 1945 to 1947 to steel heir, Reese Milner, then from 1958 to 1961 to oilman William Moss. A third marriage in 1961 to another oilman, Arthur Cameron, was annulled within a year. During the mid 1940's Ann briefly dated the head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer but refused his offers of marriage in favour of her first husband Reese Milner. Ann had a lifelong passion for the occult and believed she was the reincarnation of the Egyptian Queen Hathshepsut, which she said accounted for her failed relationships as she used to execute her husbnds in her previous life.

Ann's Second Marriage to William Moss, 1958
Ann's Second Marriage to William Moss, 1958

The End

Ann Miller died from cancer on January 22, 2004. Her contribution to movies is still under-appreciated. The only other performer whose ability could challenge Ann's for tap dancing was Eleanor Powell, whose career was ending just as Miller's was beginning.

Assessing her career, Ann once said, "I made it with my lucky legs, my mother and a lot of backbreaking hard work."

And thank goodness she did.

Ann MIller 1923-2004

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2 comments

FloraBreenRobison profile image

FloraBreenRobison 4 years ago

I have always loved Ann Miller. My favourites of her career are Easter Parade, Kiss Me Kate, On the Town, and (from her late, non-movie musical career), Mulholland Drive. This is a wonderful tribute to her. she is my favourite female dancer. (My favourite male dancer is Gene Kelly, although I think Fred Astaire was an even better dancer-if they aren't tied.)


gunsock profile image

gunsock 4 years ago from South Coast of England Author

Thank you Flora. I do think Ann Miller is a wonderful dancer and she always had a sense of enjoyment about her dancing. My favorite male dancer? I'll have to go with Fred over Gene, but its a mighty close thing!

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