Belgian postcard, no. 752. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Blonde, slim Vera-Ellen (1921-1981) was one of the most vivacious and vibrant musical film talents to glide through Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s. Whether performing solo or dueting with the best male partners of her generation, including Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, Vera-Ellen gave life to some of the most extraordinary dance routines ever caught on film. She was a dance sensation in a string of light-hearted but successful films. Vera-Ellen retired from acting in the late 1950s.
Vera-Ellen Westmeyer Rohe was born of German descent in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1921 (some sources incorrectly indicate 1926). She was the only child of Martin F. Rohe, a piano dealer, and Alma Catherine Westmeier, and she began dancing at the age of 10. At age 13 she was a winner on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour and embarked upon a professional career. At age 18, Vera-Ellen made her Broadway debut with the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein musical Very Warm for May in 1939. She became one of the youngest Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall. Vera-Ellen appeared in several Broadway musicals until she was spotted by film producer Samuel Goldwyn in 1945. She was only 24 years old when Goldwyn cast her opposite Danny Kaye in Wonder Man (H. Bruce Humberstone, 1945). Gary Brumburgh at IMDb: "Blessed with a sweet, apple blossom appeal and elfin charm, Vera-Ellen’s movie career started to take shape in 1945. Supposedly her mother thought that since her daughter looked much younger than she was, it might be wise to shave five years off of her age in order to promote the dancing teen sensation image." Wonder Man (H. Bruce Humberstone, 1945) and another Danny Kaye vehicle, The Kid from Brooklyn (Norman Z. McLeod, 1946), were both hits and people soon fell in love with the lovely lady’s fresh-faced innocence. A hard-working, uncomplicated talent, she paired famously with Gene Kelly in MGM’s Words and Music (Norman Taurog, 1948) in which their Slaughter on Tenth Avenue number was a critical highlight. The landmark musical On the Town (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, 1949), in which she played Miss Turnstiles and the apple of Kelly’s eye, served as the pinnacle of her dancing work on film.
The versatile and acrobatic Vera-Ellen could be counted on now to perform any kind of dancing requested — tap, toe, jazz, adagio — whether solo or with partners and/or props. She became the woman of a thousand dance moves. Her light singing voice, however, was usually dubbed. Vera Ellen went on to appear twice with Fred Astaire, in Three Little Words (Richard Thorpe, 1950) and The Belle of New York (Charles Walters, 1952). She also shared dance steps with the Donald O’Connor in Call Me Madam (Walter Lang, 1953). The blockbuster and evergreen White Christmas (Michael Curtiz, 1954) is usuallly considered her best-remembered film in which she co-starred with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney. Gary Brumbrugh at IMDb: "Musicals went out of vogue by the late 50s and, as Vera-Ellen was practically synonymous with musicals, her career went into a sharp decline. But that was only one reason. A light acting talent, she might have continued in films in dramatic roles, as she had in the movie Big Leaguer (Robert Aldrich, 1953) with Edward G. Robinson, but dark, outside influences steered her away altogether. Personal unhappiness and ill health would quickly take their toll on her." Vera’s film career ended with the British musical Let’s Be Happy (Henry Levin, 1957) co-starring Tony Martin.
On TV Vera-Ellen appeared in variety shows such as The Colgate Comedy Hour, and The Dinah Shore Chevvy Show. She also starred in the successful 1955 Las Vegas dancing revue. It was later discovered that, due to the dancer’s compulsive dieting obsession, she had silently battled anorexia throughout much of the 1950s before anyone was even aware or doctors had even coined the term or devised treatments. Moreover, she had developed severe arthritis which forced an early retirement. In order to combat it, she reverted back to taking dance lessons again. The worst blows suffered, however, was in her personal life. Her two marriages failed. Her first husband was a fellow dancer, Robert Hightower, to whom she was married from 1941 to 1946. Her second husband was millionaire Victor Rothschild of the Rothschild family. They were married from 1954 to their 1966 divorce. While married to Rothschild, she gave birth to a daughter, Victoria Ellen, who died at three months of age from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) in 1963. Following the death of her only child, she withdrew from public life and became a virtual recluse. Little was heard for decades until it was discovered that she had died in 1981, of cancer. She was 60 years old. Gary Brumbrugh: "Perhaps less remembered today compared to several of the big stars that shared the stage with her, Vera-Ellen was a lithe and lovely presence who deserved a better personal life than she got. Nevertheless, she has provided true film lovers with a lasting legacy and can easily be considered one of Hollywood’s finest dancing legends."
Sources: Gary Brumburgh (IMDb), David Westman (IMDb), Wikipedia and IMDb.
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