By Robert Simonson
22 Jan 2004
Reports of her age varied. For years, her birthdate was listed as April 12, 1919. However, recently, it became clear that, as a teenager, she lied about her age in order to work, and that her real year of birth was 1923, making her 80 at her death. The U.S. census taken in 1930 gives her age as 7 years, acccording to the Internet Movie Database.
Ms. Miller was part of the golden age of MGM movie musicals. Among her films were "Easter Parade," "Hit the Deck," and "Small Town Girl." She is regarded as the best and fastest female tap dancer Hollywood had ever seen, a hoofer whose could fit in a dozen steps within a single second.
She staged a major comeback in 1979 when she starred with Mickey Rooney in Sugar Babies, another former MGM star. The show, conceived by Ralph G. Allen and Harry Rigby and directed and choreographed by Ernest Flatt, was an affectionate and nostalgic look at the age of burlesque. The revue gave the still spry Miller plenty of chances to show off her well preserved legs and dancing chops. It ran for 1,208 performances and Miller later headed a touring company. She was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance.
Ms. Miller, who was born Johnnie Lucille Ann Collier in Chinero, TX, got her start on the stage in George White's Scandals of 1939. She returned to Broadway in Mame, playing the title role for a time in the original 1966 production.
Ann Miller began dancing in childhood. She had her first film role in 1936 when she was a teenager. Early supporting roles included those in "Stage Door" and "You Can't Take It With You," in which she played the ballet-obsessed Essie. She began her career at RKO—which insured her legs for $1 million—and then moved on to Republic, which wasted her talents on second rate and forgettable films with titles like "What's Buzzin', Cousin?" and "Jam Session." She moved to MGM in the late '40s.
Rarely was she cast as the ingenue or leading lady. Instead, she shined as the sharp-witted, often wisecracking sidekick or best friend. Her first major film was 1948's "Easter Parade," in which she played the conniving dance partner of Fred Astaire. (The 5' 7" Miller dwarfed Astaire, so she was made to dance their duets in ballet shoes.) The next year, she was the vivacious and slightly nutty scientist Claire in Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen's big screen adaptation of Leonard Bernstein, Adolph Green and Betty Comden's On the Town. Her last great film role was the sexy, libidinous starlet Bianca in 1953's "Kiss Me, Kate."
In her good and poor films alike, her electric dance routines were singled out by critics. One of the highlights of "On the Town" is her "caveman" dance "Prehistoric Man." And she blazed across the floor in "Kiss Me, Kate" with her version of "Always True to You in My Fashion." The otherwise lackluster "Hit the Deck" benefitted from a finale in which Miller executed a seemingly endless series of spins before the white-clad members of a Navy vessel. And in "Small Town Girl," she sang "I Gotta Hear That Beat" while tapping around a stage of disembodied hands playing musical instruments.
Her film career died with the age of the movie musical. Temporary employment came in the form of a series of early '70s Heinz soup commercials which parodied old Busby Berkley movies. As usual, Ms. Miller danced like a trouper.
Her last role, strangely enough, was in avant garde filmmaker David Lynch's "Mulholland Dr." in 2001.
Three marriages—to Bill Moss, Reese Milner and Arthur Cameron—ended in divorce. For a time, she dated MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, but refused his proposal of marriage, opting instead to wed Milner.
Assessing her career, Ms. Miller once said, "I made it with my lucky legs, my mother and a lot of backbreaking hard work."