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Vera-Ellen: A Look at the Dancing Starlet From Your Favorite Midcentury Musicals

She danced with Gene Kelly *and* Fred Astaire!


Vera-Ellen may not be the best-known name of Hollywood’s Golden Age, but the dancer and actress was an essential part of classic Technicolor musicals like On the Town and White Christmas. The mononymous, multitalented star was known for her sunny screen presence and graceful dance moves, and watching her instantly transports you back to a simpler time, when movies were filled with vividly colored dance sequences and charming romances. Here’s a look at how the great Vera-Ellen became a fixture of some of the most beloved musicals of all time.

Vera-Ellen becomes a dancer

Born Vera-Ellen Rohe in 1921, the actress seemed destined for stardom, even down to her distinctive name. The name, hyphen and all, came to her mother in a dream. Vera-Ellen began dancing at 9 years old and proved quite precocious, becoming a professional dancer by her teenage years. In 1939, at 18, she made her stage debut in the Broadway musical Very Warm for May. She’d appear in four more Broadway productions in the early ’40s.

Actress and dancer Vera-Ellen doing the splits, at the Arthur Prince Dance Studio in Hollywood, circa 1940
Vera-Ellen practices her dance moves in 1940Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty

As a teen, Vera-Ellen became a Radio City Rockette, and was one of the youngest dancers in the famed troupe. Those high kicks and flashy costumes prepared her well for a career in Hollywood, and the fact that she was a dancer first would be an asset in making the transition from the stage to the screen.

Vera-Ellen in 1940
Vera-Ellen in 1940Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty

Vera-Ellen the movie star

In 1943, Vera-Ellen had a fateful encounter with Hollywood bigwig Samuel Goldwyn, who saw her onstage and cast her in her first film, the 1945 musical comedy Wonder Man. She starred opposite Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo, playing Kaye’s nightclub dancer fiancee. Like many actresses of the time, her singing voice was dubbed, but her dance moves were all her own.

MUST-READ: The Beloved Career of Danny Kaye — A Look at the Actor’s Most Iconic Films

Danny Kaye and Vera- Ellen in 'Wonder Man' 1945
Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen in Wonder Man (1945)FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty

Vera-Ellen appeared with Kaye and Mayo again the next year, in The Kid From Brooklyn. She then acted in Three Little Girls in Blue and Carnival in Costa Rica. In 1948, she costarred in Words and Music, which boasted an A-list ensemble cast including Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Cyd Charisse, Gene Kelly and more.

Kelly and Vera-Ellen danced together in the sequence “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” — an evocative ballet set in a seedy dance hall. Looking back on the dance, Vera-Ellen said, “I’ll never have a dance I loved more than ‘Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,’ I’ll never stop being grateful to Gene Kelly for giving me a chance at doing it with him,” The chemistry between the two stars jumped off the screen, and they’d be paired once again in On the Town a year later.

MUST-READ: Gene Kelly Movies: The Musicals That Made the Talented Charmer Hollywood Royalty

Vera-Ellen and Gene Kelly in 'On the Town' 1949
Gene Kelly and Vera-Ellen in On the Town (1949)Silver Screen Collection/Getty

On the Town, a jaunty tale of Navy sailors (played by Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin) enjoying a whirlwind shore leave in New York City, became one of Vera-Ellen’s signature films, and is a certified classic of the musical genre. Once again, Vera-Ellen and Kelly brought seriously impressive dance moves and fabulous compatibility to their roles.

The same year Vera-Ellen was in On the Town, she also appeared in the final Marx Brothers film, Love Happy. While Love Happy isn’t the most acclaimed Marx Brothers movie, it’s known for featuring a (very) brief appearance from a then-unknown Marilyn Monroe, and it provides another fun showcase for Vera-Ellen’s captivating dance moves.

Related: Young Marilyn Monroe: Rare Early Photos of Hollywood’s Most Captivating Star

Harpo Marx playing the harp for Vera Ellen in a scene from the film 'Love Happy', 1949
Harpo Marx and Vera Ellen in Love Happy (1949)United Artists/Getty

Vera-Ellen in the ’50s

Vera-Ellen’s star continued to rise in the ’50s. In 1950, she starred opposite none other than Fred Astaire in Three Little Words. They paired up again in The Belle of New York in 1952. Astaire had already been an icon of onscreen dance for 20 years at that point, and these two films aren’t as well-remembered as his many movies with Ginger Rogers. Still, Vera-Ellen held her own alongside the king of dance.

Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen publicity portrait for the film 'Three Little Words', 1950
Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen in Three Little Words (1950)Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty

Vera-Ellen’s other early ’50s films included Happy Go Lovely (in which she played a chorus girl in Scotland), Call Me Madam (in which she played a princess) and Big Leaguer (her only non-musical film, in which she played the niece of a baseball team manager played by Edward G. Robinson).

Edward G Robinson and Vera-Ellen in 'Big Leaguer' 1953
Edward G. Robinson and Vera-Ellen in Big Leaguer (1953), her only non-musical filmMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty

Vera-Ellen’s next film, White Christmas, had far more staying power than her earlier ’50s roles. The 1954 musical, which featured Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney, was the biggest box office success of the year, and the combination of its Irving Berlin songs and festive, colorful atmosphere made it essential holiday viewing for many generations.

Related: Rosemary Clooney: A Look Back Through the Hollywood Icon’s Life and Legacy

American actors Bing Crosby (1903 - 1977), Rosemary Clooney (1928 - 2002), Vera-Ellen (1921 - 1981), and Danny Kaye (1913 - 1987) sing together, while dressed in fur-trimmed red outfits and standing in front of a stage backrop, in a scene from the film 'White Christmas,' directed by Michael Curtiz, 1954
Left to right: Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen and Danny Kaye in White Christmas (1954)John Swope/Getty

Clooney and Vera-Ellen played sisters, and like many of her costars, Clooney was in awe of her talents. In an interview, she called Vera-Ellen one of the best dancers in the industry, and said that she couldn’t always keep up with her moves (although unlike Vera-Ellen, Clooney did her own singing for the film!)

Vera-Ellen in 1955
Vera-Ellen in 1955Silver Screen Collection/Getty

Given the success of White Christmas, it seemed like Vera-Ellen would be in higher demand than ever, but she appeared in just one more film, the 1957 musical Let’s Be Happy. By this time, musicals were starting to wane in popularity, and at just 36, she retired from the film industry.

Vera-Ellen’s personal life

While Vera-Ellen always projected a cheerful energy onscreen, she dealt with some drama in her personal life. She briefly dated Rock Hudson in the ’50s, but this was a prefabricated relationship meant to hide the actor’s homosexuality. She also dealt with much pressure on her looks as a dancer, and was rumored to have an eating disorder.

American actors Rock Hudson (1925 - 1985) and Vera-Ellen (1921 - 1981) on a beach with  a dog, circa 1955
Rock Hudson and Vera-Ellen in 1955Silver Screen Collection/Getty

From 1954 to 1966 she was married to Victor Rothschild, a wealthy oilman, and they had a daughter in 1963. Tragically, their child died at just three months old, and Vera-Ellen lived a private life outside of the spotlight until her passing at age 60 in 1981.

in a car in 1965
Vera-Ellen in 1965Graphic House/Archive Photos/Getty

Vera-Ellen remains an underrated great of classic Hollywood. Her dance moves are unparalleled, and she charmed icons from Danny Kaye to Gene Kelly to Fred Astaire. Well over half a century after they were first released, her vibrant musicals can still get our toes tapping.

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