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Howard Keel Movies: MGM Musicals 'Kiss Me Kate,' 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers'

Howard Keel moviesHoward Keel ca. 1950.

Howard Keel movies: 'Show Boat,' 'Kiss Me Kate'

Howard Keel, an actor and singer best remembered for his series of Technicolor MGM musicals of the early 1950s, died of complications from colon cancer on Nov. 7, '04, in the Southern California town of Palm Desert. He was 85.

Among the best-known Howard Keel movies released by MGM are Show Boat (1951) and Kiss Me Kate (1953), both co-starring Kathryn Grayson, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), with Jane Powell. Keel was also seen to advantage in Calamity Jane (1953) – with Doris Day in the title role – made at Warner Bros.

'Rotten childhood'

Born Harry Clifford Keel (some sources erroneously have Harold Clifford Leek; see comment further below) on April 13, 1919, in Gillespie, Illinois, Keel once remarked:

I had a terrible, rotten childhood. My father made away with himself when I was 11. I had no guidance, and Mom was six feet tall, bucktoothed and very tough. I was mean and rebellious and had a terrible, bitter temper. I got a job as an auto mechanic, and I would have stayed in that narrow kind of life if I hadn't discovered art. Music changed me completely.

Besides his personality, he also had his name changed to Howard Keel in the late 1940s, when he landed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer following a stint in the Broadway musical hits Oklahoma! and Carousel,[1] and a key role in Fergus McDonell's British thriller The Small Voice / The Hideout (1948), starring Valerie Hobson and James Donald.

Howard Keel movies: Only four top musicals

MGM musicals were then at the height of their popularity and prestige, and the young Howard Keel was about to kick off his Hollywood career at the very top: playing opposite Judy Garland (as Annie Oakley) in George Sidney's Annie Get Your Gun. Garland, however, was eventually fired from the project, being replaced by Paramount musical star Betty Hutton. Luckily for him, Keel kept his job as Wild West variety show marksman Frank E. Butler, in what turned out to be one of the biggest moneymakers of 1950.

At the time going through a difficult period – MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer was about to be fired and replaced by Dore Schary – the studio seemed unsure about their new star's capabilities, casting Howard Keel mostly in less prestigious productions, some with music, some not.

His best-remembered musicals of the period, the first two also directed by George Sidney, were:

  • A remake of Show Boat, with Keel (in the old Allan Jones role) singing opposite Kathryn Grayson (in the old Irene Dunne role).[2]
  • The critically acclaimed musical comedy Kiss Me Kate, once again with Grayson – whom Keel also romanced in Mervyn LeRoy's less well-regarded Lovely to Look At in 1952.
  • The exuberant Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, opposite Jane Powell. Directed by Stanley Donen, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was Keel's favorite among his movies, in addition to being his only star showcase to receive a Best Picture Academy Award nomination.
Howard Keel Seven Brides for Seven Brothers Jane PowellHoward Keel in 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,' with Jane Powell.

Besides Jane Powell and Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel's other MGM musical co-stars were Ann Blyth (Kismet, Rose Marie) and Esther Williams (Pagan Love Song, Texas Carnival, Jupiter's Darling).

Additionally, Keel was featured opposite non-musical leading ladies Dorothy McGuire (Callaway Went Thataway), Jane Wyman (Three Guys Named Mike), and Polly Bergen (who actually had a good singing voice, in the comedy Fast Company).

Of note, Howard Keel delivered what may well be his finest performance in John Farrow's 1953 Western Ride, Vaquero!. In the film, he plays Ava Gardner's husband; Robert Taylor is the other man. That same year, Keel was Wild Bill Hickok in Doris Day's most enjoyable musical, David Butler's Warner Bros. release Calamity Jane.

Later years: 'Dallas' success

In the late '50s, Howard Keel's movie career came to an abrupt halt after the demise of the MGM-style Hollywood musical. A renaissance would unexpectedly take place nearly three decades later, when Keel joined the cast of the hit TV soap Dallas, playing Clayton Farlow, the husband of Barbara Bel Geddes' Miss Ellie Ewing. The actor remained with the series until it folded in 1991.

Howard Keel's last feature film appearance was in Larry Holden's little-seen 2002 indie My Father's House. Keel's autobiography (with Joyce Spizer), Only Make Believe: My Life in Show Business, was published posthumously, in Sept. 2005.

'Oklahoma!,' 'Carousel' replacement

[1] Howard Keel replaced Alfred Drake in Oklahoma! and John Raitt in Carousel.

Gordon MacRae was the male lead in the movie versions of both Oklahoma! (1955) and Carousel (1956).

'Show Boat' 1929

[2] In 1929, Universal released the part-talkie Show Boat, starring Laura La Plante and Joseph Schildkraut in the roles played by Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel in MGM's 1951 film version. The 1936 Irene Dunne-Allan Jones version was also released by Universal.

 

Howard Keel quote via the Los Angeles Times.

Howard Keel image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer publicity shot.

Jane Powell and Howard Keel Seven Brides for Seven Brothers image: MGM.


         
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2 Comments to Howard Keel Movies: MGM Musicals 'Kiss Me Kate,' 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers'

  1. Susan Grandy

    I love 7 Brides for 7 Brothers. My mother introduced me to the movie in my teens. It was her favorite movie. It is also mine. Mr. Keel will be surely missed my many. I am 64 years old and I will watch that movie over and over for the rest of my life.

  2. Just wanted to mention that Howard Keel's real name was NOT Leek, it was always Keel, he mentioned this himself in his autobiography 'Only Make Believe: My Life in Show Business.
    Also, his first name was Harry not Harold, when he first went into Show Business he was mistakenly called Harold by someone who assumed that Harry was an abbreviaton for Harold, and the name stuck until it was changed to Howard when he went to Hollywood.