She is best remembered for her work in the Classical Hollywood musical films of the 1940s and 1950s.
Anne of Green Gables
The Good Fairy
The Devil on Horseback
New Faces of 1937
The Life of the Party
Radio City Revels
Having Wonderful Time
Too Many Girls
Hit Parade of 1941
Time Out for Rhythm
Go West, Young Lady
True to the Army
Priorities on Parade
Reveille with Beverly
What’s Buzzin’, Cousin?
Eadie Was a Lady
Eve Knew Her Apples
The Thrill of Brazil/Dancing Down to Rio
The Kissing Bandit
Watch the Birdie
Two Tickets to Broadway
Lovely to Look At
Small Town Girl
Kiss Me Kate
Deep in My Heart
Hit the Deck
The Opposite Sex
The Great American Pastime
Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood
Ann Miller was never nominated for an Academy Award.
At MGM, I always played the second feminine lead. I was never the star in films. I was the brassy, good-hearted showgirl. I never really had my big moment on the screen. Broadway gave me the stardom that my soul kind of yearned for. ~ Ann Miller
Johnnie Lucille Collier was born April 12, 1923 in Texas to Clara Emma (née Birdwell) and John Allison Collier, a criminal lawyer who represented the Barrow Gang, Machine Gun Kelly, and Baby Face Nelson, among others.
Miller’s father insisted on the name Johnnie because he had wanted a boy.
She began to take dance classes at the age of five, after suffering from a case of rickets. Her mother believed that these classes would help strengthen her young daughter’s legs.
She lived in Texas until she was nine, when her parents divorced reportedly due to her father’s infidelities. Her mother moved with her to Los Angeles. As her mother was deaf, it was hard for her to find work; however, because Miller looked much older than she was, she began to work as a dancer in nightclubs and supported both of them. About this time she adopted the stage name Ann Miller, which she kept throughout her entire career.
She was considered a child dance prodigy. In an interview in a “behind the scenes” documentary on the making of the compilation film That’s Entertainment! Part III (1994), she said Eleanor Powell was an early inspiration.
At age 13 in 1936, Miller became a showgirl at the Bal Tabarin. She was hired as a dancer in the “Black Cat Club” in San Francisco (she reportedly told them she was 18). It was there that she was discovered by Lucille Ball and talent scout/comic Benny Rubin. This led Miller to be given a contract with RKO in 1936 at the age of 13 (she had also told them she was 18, and provided a fake birth certificate, procured by her father – with the name “Lucy Ann Collier”) and she remained there until 1940.
In 1941, she signed with Columbia Pictures, where, starting with Time Out for Rhythm, she starred in 11 B movie musicals from 1941 to 1945. In July 1945, with World War II still raging in the Pacific, she posed in a bathing suit as a Yank magazine pin-up girl. She ended her contract in 1946 with one “A” film, The Thrill of Brazil. The ad in Life magazine featured Miller’s leg in a large, red, bow-tied stocking as the “T” in “Thrill”. She finally hit her mark in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musicals such as Easter Parade (1948), On the Town (1949) and Kiss Me Kate (1953).
In later life, Miller claimed to have invented pantyhose in the 1940s as a solution to the continual problem of tearing stockings during the filming of dance production numbers. The common practice had been to sew hosiery to briefs. If torn, the entire garment had to be removed and resewn with a new pair. Miller asked a hosiery maker to produce a single combined garment.
Miller was famed for her speed in tap dance. Studio publicists concocted press releases claiming she could tap 500 times per minute, but in truth, the sound of ultra-fast “500” taps was looped in later. Because the stage floors were waxed and too slick for regular tap shoes, she had to dance in shoes with rubber treads on the sole. Later she would loop the sound of the taps while watching the film and actually dancing on a “tap board” to match her steps in the film.
She was known, especially later in her career, for her distinctive appearance, which reflected a studio-era ideal of glamour: massive black bouffant hair, heavy makeup with a splash of crimson lipstick, and fashions that emphasized her lithe figure and long dancer’s legs.
Her film career effectively ended in 1956 as the studio system lost steam to television, but she remained active in the theater and on television. She starred on Broadway in the musical Mame in 1969, in which she wowed the audience in a tap number created just for her. In 1979 she astounded audiences in the Broadway show Sugar Babies with fellow MGM veteran Mickey Rooney, which toured the United States extensively after its Broadway run. In 1983, she won the Sarah Siddons Award for her work in Chicago theatre. She appeared in a special 1982 episode of The Love Boat, joined by fellow showbiz legends Ethel Merman, Carol Channing, Della Reese, Van Johnson and Cab Calloway in a story-line that cast them as older relatives of the show’s regular characters. Her last stage performance was a 1998 production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, in which she played hardboiled Carlotta Campion and received rave reviews for her rendition of the song “I’m Still Here”.
Miller appeared as a dance instructor in Home Improvement episode “Dances with Tools” (1993). Between 1995 and 2001, Molly Shannon parodied Miller several times on Saturday Night Live in a recurring sketch titled “Leg-Up!” In 2001, she took her last role, playing “Coco” in director David Lynch’s critically acclaimed Mulholland Drive.
Miller married three times, to Reese Llewellyn Milner in 1946, to William Moss in 1958 and to Arthur Cameron in 1961, and in between marriages dated such well-known men as Howard Hughes, Conrad Hilton and Louis B. Mayer. During her marriage to Reese Llewellyn Milner, while pregnant with daughter Mary in her last trimester, Miller fell and went into early labor. Baby Mary lived only three hours on November 12, 1946
Miller died, aged 80, from lung cancer, and her remains were interred in Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California, beside the remains of her infant daughter Mary
To honor Miller’s contribution to dance, the Smithsonian Institution displays her favorite pair of tap shoes, which she playfully nicknamed “Moe and Joe”.