Eleanor Torrey Powell was born in Springfield, Massachusetts. A dancer since childhood, she was discovered at the age of 11 by the head of the Vaudeville Kiddie revue, Gus Edwards. When she was 17, she brought her graceful, athletic style to Broadway, where she starred in various revues and musicals. During this time, she was dubbed "the world's greatest tap dancer" due to her machine-gun footwork, and in the early 1930s appeared as a chorus girl in a couple of early, inconsequential musical films.
She was well-received in her first starring role in 1935's Broadway Melody of 1936 (in which she was supported by Jack Benny and Frances Langford), and delighted 1930s audiences with her endless energy and enthusiasm, not to mention her stunning dancing. According to dancer Ann Miller, quoted in the "making-of" documentary about That's Entertainment! III, MGM was headed for bankruptcy in the late 1930s, but the films of Eleanor Powell, particularly Broadway Melody of 1936 were so popular they made the company profitable again. Miller also credits Powell for inspiring her own dancing career, which would eventually lead her to become an MGM musical star a decade later.
Powell would go on to star opposite many of the decade's top leading men such as Jimmy Stewart, Robert Taylor, Fred Astaire, George Murphy, Nelson Eddy, and Robert Young. Films she made during the height of her career in the mid-to-late 1930s co-starred these men and others and included Born to Dance (1936), Rosalie (1937), Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937), Honolulu (1939), and Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940). All of these movies featured her amazing solo tapping, although her increasingly huge production numbers began to attract criticism. Her characters also often sang, but Powell's singing voice was usually (but not always) overdubbed (this would also happen to one of Powell's successors, Cyd Charisse). Broadway Melody of 1940, in which Powell starred opposite Fred Astaire, featured an acclaimed musical score by Cole Porter. Together, Astaire and Powell danced to Porter's "Begin The Beguine", which is considered by many to be one of the greatest tap sequences in film history. According to accounts of the making of this film, including a documentary included on the DVD release, Astaire was somewhat intimidated by Powell, who was considered the only female dancer ever capable of out-dancing Astaire. In his autobiography Steps in Time, Astaire remarked: "She 'put 'em down like a man', no ricky-ticky-sissy stuff with Ellie. She really knocked out a tap dance in a class by herself."
Following Broadway Melody of 1940 Powell was sidelined for many months following a gall stone operation and things changed somewhat for the worse, at least as far as Powell's movie career was concerned. 1941's Lady Be Good gave Powell top billing and a classic dance routine to "Fascinatin' Rhythm", but Robert Young and Ann Sothern were the actual stars of the film. The same happened with Red Skelton in Ship Ahoy (1942) and I Dood It (1943), although in Ship Ahoy her character nonetheless played a central role in the story, and Powell's dance skills were put to practical use when she manages to tap out a morse code message to a secret agent in the middle of a dance routine.
She was signed to play opposite Dan Dailey in For Me and My Gal in 1942, but the two actors were removed from the picture during rehearsals and replaced by Gene Kelly and Judy Garland. Later, production of a new Broadway Melody film that would have paired Powell with Kelly was also cancelled.
She parted ways with MGM in 1943 after her next film, Thousands Cheer, in which she appeared only for a few minutes to perform a specialty number (as part of an all-star cast), and the same year married Canadian-born lead actor Glenn Ford. She danced in a giant pinball machine in Sensations of 1945 (1944) for United Artists, but this picture was a critical and commercial disappointment, Powell's performance overshadowed by what was to be the final film appearance of W.C. Fields. Powell retired from the cinema afterwards to concentrate on raising her son, actor Peter Ford, who was born that year (although she did appear in a couple of documentary-style short subjects about celebrities in the late 1940s). Overseas audiences did get to see one additional Powell dance performance in 1946, however, when the compilation The Great Morgan was released, which included a number that had been cut from Honolulu.
In 1950, Powell returned to MGM one last time for a cameo in Duchess of Idaho, starring Esther Williams. Appearing as herself in a nightclub scene, a hesitant Powell is invited to dance by Van Johnson's character, and she begins with a staid, almost balletic performance until she is chided by Johnson for being lazy. She then strips off her skirt, revealing her famous legs, and proceeds to perform a "boogie-woogie"-style specialty number very similar to the one she performed in Thousands Cheer seven years earlier. Williams, in her autobiography The Million Dollar Mermaid, writes of being touched watching Powell rehearsing until her feet bled in order to make her brief cameo as perfect as possible.
After Duchess of Idaho, Powell returned to private life. In May 1952, she emerged as a guest star on an episode of Four Star Revue with Danny Thomas and June Havoc. Around this time, she was ordained a minister of the Unity Church and later hosted an Emmy Award-winning Sunday morning TV program for youth entitled The Faith of Our Children (1953 - 1955). Her son, Peter Ford, was a regular on this show and would later find his own success as a rock and roll singer and as an actor. In 1955, Powell made her last-ever film appearance when she appeared in Have Faith in Our Children, a three-minute short film produced for the Variety Club of Northern California in which Powell asked viewers to donate to the charity. The short, which other than its title had no relation to the TV series, marked the only time Powell appeared on screen with her husband, Glenn Ford.
Powell divorced Ford in 1959, and that year, encouraged by Peter, launched a highly-publicized nightclub career, maintaining her good figure and looks well into middle age. Her live performances continued well into the 1960s. During the early 1960s she made several guest appearances on variety TV programs, including The Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace.
Powell was reintroduced to audiences in the popular That's Entertainment! documentary in 1974, and its sequels That's Entertainment Part II (1976) and That's Entertainment! III (1994) and the related film That's Dancing! (1985) which spotlight her dancing from films such as Broadway Melody of 1940, Lady Be Good, and Born to Dance. She is one of only a few performers to be the subject of spotlight segments (as opposed to being included in a montage with other performers) in all four films. That's Entertainment! III is notable for including behind-the-scenes footage of her "Fascinatin' Rhythm" routine from Lady Be Good.
Powell's films continue to be broadcast on television regularly by Turner Classic Movies, with most released in the VHS video format in 1980s and 90s. North American DVD release of her work has been slower in coming. Aside from clips from her films being included in the aforementioned That's Entertainment! trilogy, plus clips that were featured in other releases such as the 2002 special edition DVD release of Singin' in the Rain, it wasn't until the 2003 DVD release of Broadway Melody of 1940 that a complete Powell film was released in the format. In February 2007, Warner Home Video announced plans to release a boxed DVD set of Eleanor Powell's musical films by year end. This did not occur; instead, on April 8, 2008 Warner released of a third boxed set in the Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory series, with nine films, four of which star Powell: Broadway Melody of 1936, Born to Dance, Broadway Melody of 1938, and Lady Be Good. The films are expected to be released in individual two film sets (the two Broadway Melody films in one set, Born to Dance/Lady Be Good on the other) later in the year.