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Hollywood's raven haired hoofer


SHE BECAME an actress because she could sing and dance — and how! At her best, she could tap-dance at eye-popping speed, claiming a record of 500 taps a minute. No wonder the RKO studio insured her legs - as they did Betty Grable's - for $ 100,000. On January 22, Ann Miller died of lung cancer at the age of 81, and her co-stars of the Golden forties and fifties recalled how she hoofed her way to cinemagoers hearts.

"She could knock `em dead vocally as well as out-dance everybody", Debby Reynolds who co-starred with Miller and Fred Astaire, in that evergreen Irving Berlin musical of 1988, "Easter Parade", told the Associated Press.

Entering films as a bit player in 1938, Ann Miller did a string of tap dancing musicals for RKO, Republic and later Columbia in the early 1940s.

They gave her little scope for showcasing her acting talent and by the time she switched to MGM — the home of the classiest musicals — she was too old to play the lead, recalls film historian Leonard Maltin. "I always played the second feminine lead; I was never the star. I was the brassy good-hearted show girl", she was to say later.

It did not matter. Fans still recall with nostalgia and pleasure, her unforgettably energetic numbers in "The Kissing Bandit" (With Cyd Charisse), "On The Town" (with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra), "Lovely To Look At" (with Red Skelton) and in "Kiss Me Kate!," Hollywood's musical version of Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew" (with Howard Keel and Katherine Grayson).

When the musicals became less popular, Ann Miller faded away... to reappear triumphantly in 1979, her tap dancing shoes firmly on again, in the Broadway musical "Sugar Babies," alongside old co-star Mickey Rooney. She also appeared in stage revivals of musicals like "Mame" and "Hello Dolly". Her last, and uncharacteristically negative, appearance on screen was in 2001 in a bizarre thriller, "Mulholland Drive". It was a film best forgotten - as the many fans of Ann Miller relive instead, the rat-a-tat of her twinkling toes in the musical classics of Hollywood's heyday.

ANAND PARTHASARATHY

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