Jane Powell, Howard Keel, and fellow Seven Brides for Seven Brothers cast members
Howard Keel, best remembered for MGM musicals such as Show Boat, Kiss Me Kate, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, is Turner Classic Movies’ next-to-last "Summer Under the Stars" star. On Tuesday, August 30, TCM will be presenting 14 Howard Keel movies, including one TCM premiere — Charles Crichton’s British crime drama Floods of Fear. (TCM had initially announced another premiere, the 1948 British drama The Small Voice, starring Valerie Hobson and James Donald; instead, as per its website TCM will be showing — once again — the 1951 comedy Three Guys Named Mike, starring Jane Wyman.) [Howard Keel Movie Schedule.]
Tall, baritone-voiced, and handsome, Howard Keel could at times be a quite effective actor, whether in comedies (Callaway Went Thataway, when not singing in Annie Get Your Gun, Calamity Jane and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) or in dramas (the Western Ride, Vaquero!, when not singing in Show Boat).
TCM will be showing five of the aforementioned six movies: the three George Sidney musicals Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Show Boat (1951), Kiss Me Kate (1953); Stanley Donen’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954); and Melvin Frank and Norman Panama’s Hollywood-set comedy Callaway Went Thataway (1951).
In Annie Get Your Gun, Keel was slated to star opposite Judy Garland, who was fired during filming. MGM then borrowed Paramount’s Betty Hutton, who is at her best as Annie Oakley. Watching Hutton burn up the screen, one can hardly believe that the shoot of this lively musical was such a miserable experience for the actress, who later said she felt that MGM’s actors and crew people resented her as "Garland’s replacement." Annie Get Your Gun went on to become one of the biggest moneymakers of the year and one of the biggest box office hits in the careers of both Hutton and Keel.
Show Boat is probably my personal favorite among the Hollywood musicals of the ’50s. Keel is perfectly believable as a kind-hearted loser, while Kathryn Grayson for once showed that she could be a capable dramatic actress. But the top acting honors in this romantic musical set in the 19th-century American South go to Ava Gardner as the tragic mulatto Julie. Gardner may not have been part-black in real life, but what matters in Show Boat are the various emotional layers she brings to her characterization. Curiously, Gardner’s singing was dubbed by Annette Warren in the film, but her voice can be heard on the soundtrack album.
Both Keel and Kathryn Grayson received good notices for Kiss Me Kate, in which they play stage performers at odds with one another while staging a musicalized version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. But Kiss Me Kate truly belongs to fiery Ann Miller in a supporting role.
Nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a highly enjoyable romp that some consider the near-apex of ’50s musicals — right after Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain. Personally, I much prefer the verve displayed everywhere in Stanley Donen’s musicalized version of The Rape of the Sabine Women, from the performances of Jane Powell and Howard Keel, to the songs by Saul Chaplin, Gene de Paul, and Johnny Mercer, and the dance numbers choreographed by Michael Kidd. The lush cinematography is by veteran George J. Folsey. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was reportedly Keel’s favorite among his films.