★ Seen here in a glamorous studio portrait from the late 1940s, American actress, dancer and singer, Ann Miller, was born on this day in 1923. One of the most talented dancers of her generation, she appeared in over 40 films and earned the admiration of audiences in both the cinema and the theatre throughout her seven-decade career.
Born in Houston, Texas, to parents Clara Emma Birdwell and John Allison Collier, Ann was named Johnnie Lucille Collier at birth due to her father’s desire to have a son. Given dance lessons since the of age 5 because of her mother’s belief it would help counteract the effect of rickets, Miller was considered something of a child dance prodigy, and she would later cite Eleanor Powell as an early influence. Due to her father’s numerous affairs, Miller’s parents divorced when she was 9, and she and her mother left Texas to move to Los Angeles. With her mother’s deafness making it hard for her to find and hold-on to work, Miller was forced to help support them both, despite her extremely young age. Because she looked a great deal older than she actually was, she was able to secure jobs dancing in various Hollywood nightclubs, and it was around this time she began using the stage name Ann Miller.
In 1936, aged just 13 (but claiming to be 18), Miller became a showgirl at the Bal Tabarin nightclub in San Francisco, before being hired as a dancer at the Black Cat Club. It was here that she was discovered by Lucille Ball and talent scout Benny Rubin, leading to her being offered a contract with RKO Pictures. Securing the contract with the aid of a fake birth certificate procured by her father, under the name Lucy Ann Collier and showing a birth-date of 1918, Miller began appearing in films such as ‘Stage Door’ (1937), ‘Room Service’ (1938) and ‘Too Many Girls’ (1940). In 1939, she appeared on Broadway in ‘George White’s Scandals’, in an acclaimed role which she continued to perform for two years. Released from her RKO contract in late 1940, Miller was signed by Columbia Pictures in 1941, and starred in eleven musicals between 1941 and 1945, before ending her contract with ‘The Thrill of Brazil’ in 1946.
After marrying Reese Llewellyn Milner in 1946, Miller became pregnant but suffered a fall in the last trimester and went into early labour. Her daughter, Mary, was born on 12th November 1946, but lived only three hours. Miller and Milner would divorce in 1947. Returning to movie-making in 1948, Miller was snapped up by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer who cast her as the glamorous Nadine Hale in ‘Easter Parade’, alongside Fred Astaire and Judy Garland. Further hits followed with roles in ‘On the Town’ (1949), ‘Lovely to Look At’ (1952) and the celebrated Cole Porter-scored musical ‘Kiss Me Kate’ (1953), in which she appeared with Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson and Tommy Rall. Although she was a popular star and had worked steadily over the years, the decline of the studio system meant Miller’s performance in ‘The Great American Pastime’ (1956) was effectively the end of her film career.
Having dated such well-known men as Howard Hughes, Conrad Hilton and Louis B. Mayer during her time in Hollywood, Miller married for a second time in 1958, to William Moss, but they eventually divorced in 1961. She would marry for a third time in 1961, to Arthur Cameron, but this marriage proved even more short-lived and they divorced in 1962. Throwing herself into work, Miller remained active in theatre throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and was the last actress to take the starring role in the long-running Broadway production of ‘Mame’ in 1969 and 1970, where she thrilled audiences with a special tap-dancing routine created specially for her. She followed this with the first of several sporadic returns to the screen, with a role in the 1971 made-for-TV film ‘Dames at Sea’ becoming her first on-camera appearance in 15 years. In 1979 she began wowing audiences in the Broadway show ‘Sugar Babies’ alongside fellow MGM veteran, Mickey Rooney, and would continue to do so as the production embarked on an extensive tour of the United States.
After several more television appearances in shows including ‘The Love Boat’ (1982) and ‘Home Improvement’ (1993), Miller’s final stage role was in a production of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Follies’ in 1998, in which her rendition of the song ‘I’m Still Here’ earned her rave reviews. Now in her late 70s, Miller’s final acting role saw her career end on a distinct high, with a return to the silver screen as Coco in David Lynch’s acclaimed neo-noir movie ‘Mulholland Drive’ (2001). She died from lung cancer on 22nd January 2004, aged 80, and was interred in Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, alongside the remains of her daughter, Mary.
From a less than easy childhood, through personal losses, troubled marriages, and drastic changes within the movie business, Ann Miller became both a Hollywood and Broadway star. Beautiful, talented and resilient, she played a key part in helping to make the lavish musicals of the 1940s and 1950s into the true classics that we still know, love and enjoy to this day.