She was known as one of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's top dancing stars during the Golden Age of Hollywood in a series of musical vehicles tailored especially for her talents, such as Born to Dance (1936), Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937) and Rosalie (1937), believed to be equaled only by Fred Astaire in terms of dancing talent. In 1965, she was named the World’s Greatest Tap Dancer by the Dance Masters of America.
Powell was born in Springfield, Massachusetts to Clarence Gardner Powell and Blanche Torrey. 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, minor musical films.
In 1935, the leggy, fresh-faced Powell made the move to Hollywood and performed a speciality number in her first major film, George White's 1935 Scandals, which she later described as a disaster because she was accidentally made up to look like an Egyptian. The experience left her unimpressed with Hollywood and when she was courted by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, she initially refused their offers of a contract. Reportedly, Powell attempted to dissuade the studio by making what she felt were unreasonable salary demands, but MGM agreed to them and she finally accepted. The studio groomed her for stardom, making minimal changes in her makeup and conduct.
She was well received in her first starring role in 1935 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 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 that they made the company profitable again. Miller also credits Powell for inspiring her own dancing career, which would 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, including James Stewart, Robert Taylor, Fred Astaire, George Murphy, Nelson Eddy, and Robert Young. Among the films she made during the height of her career in the mid-to-late 1930s were 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 draw criticism. Her characters also sang, but Powell's singing voice was usually (but not always) dubbed. (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." In his introduction to the clip, featured inThat's Entertainment, Frank Sinatra said, "You know, you can wait around and hope, but you'll never see the likes of this again."
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. Lady Be Good (1941) gave Powell top billing and a classic dance routine to "Fascinatin' Rhythm". 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. In another routine from Ship Ahoy, she dances to the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra with Buddy Rich on drums and the two perform a great musical partnership with the number "Tallulah". 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.