Howard Keel Movies: 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,' 'Show Boat'

Howard Keel, Jane Powell in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
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.) (Check out below TCM's 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.

Howard KeelCallaway Went Thataway is a pleasant comedy in which Keel has two roles: that of a cowboy star who spends most of his time wasted and a naive hick hired to impersonate said cowboy star. Keel is fine in both comedic roles, and so is Dorothy McGuire as the Hollywood slicker who falls for him. Fred MacMurray, as usual, is just there; also there are Elizabeth Taylor, Clark Gable, and Esther Williams playing themselves in brief cameos.

Charles Walters' Texas Carnival (1951) is a disappointingly flat Esther Williams musical. Not even Ann Miller manages to save this one. Robert Alton's Pagan Love Song (1950) uses the song and the setting – but not the story – of the 1929 Ramon Novarro blockbuster The Pagan. Nacio Herb Brown and future producer of MGM musicals Arthur Freed wrote the hit song “Pagan Love Song,” sang by Novarro in The Pagan and added to the silent film's score. (I should add that among Freed's MGM productions were the Howard Keel musicals Annie Get Your Gun, Pagan Love Song, Show Boat, and Kismet.)

Mervyn LeRoy's Lovely to Look At (1952) is a just watchable remake of Roberta (1935), with Gower Champion and Marge Champion in the old Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers roles. Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel, for their part, replace Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott. Ann Miller, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Land of the Giants' Kurt Kasznar have small roles.

An even less successful remake, despite choreography by Busby Berkeley, was Rose Marie (1954). Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, who had experienced more creative days while working with Berkeley at Warner Bros. in the '30s, Rose Marie has Keel and Fernando Lamas more or less replacing Nelson Eddy, and Ann Blyth replacing Jeanette MacDonald as star-crossed lovers belting out the “Indian Love Call” in the Canadian Rockies. Considering that in the 1954 film the heroine has two leading men, the ending in this Eastmancolor remake is radically different from the one in the 1936 version; that, in fact, is one of the remake's chief problems – even though it's supposed to be more faithful to Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II's operetta.

As an aside: After two decades at the studio, Rose Marie turned out to be Mervyn LeRoy's last MGM effort. In 1955, LeRoy returned to Warner Bros., where he would direct several major box office hits in various genres, among them Mister Roberts, The Bad Seed, and Gypsy.

Howard Keel died on November 7 in Palm Desert, Calif. Keel, who had been suffering from colon cancer, was 85 years old.

Howard KeelSchedule (ET) and synopses from the TCM website:

6:00 AM DESPERATE SEARCH (1953) A man fights to find his children after their plane crashes in the Canadian wilderness. Dir.: Joseph Lewis. Cast: Howard Keel, Jane Greer, Patricia Medina. Black and white. 71 min.

7:15 AM FAST COMPANY (1953) The heiress to a racing stable uncovers underhanded dealings. Dir.: John Sturges. Cast: Howard Keel, Polly Bergen, Marjorie Main. Black and white. 68 min.

8:30 AM KISMET (1955) In this Arabian Nights musical “king of the beggars” infiltrates high society when his daughter is wooed by a handsome prince. Dir.: Vincente Minnelli. Cast: Howard Keel, Ann Blyth, Dolores Gray. Color. 113 min. Letterbox Format.

10:30 AM ROSE MARIE (1954) A trapper's daughter is torn between the Mountie who wants to civilize her and a dashing prospector. Dir.: Mervyn LeRoy. Cast: Ann Blyth, Howard Keel, Fernando Lamas, Bert Lahr, Marjorie Main. Color. 104 min. Letterbox Format.

12:30 PM LOVELY TO LOOK AT (1952) All-star remake of Roberta, with three Broadway producers inheriting a Parisian fashion house. Dir.: Mervyn LeRoy. Cast: Kathryn Grayson, Red Skelton, Howard Keel, Ann Miller, Gower Champion, Marge Champion, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Kurt Kasznar, Marcel Dalio. Color. 102 min.

2:30 PM SHOW BOAT (1951) Riverboat entertainers find love, laughs and hardships as they sail along “Old Man River.” Dir: George Sidney. Cast: Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner, Howard Keel, Joe E. Brown, Agnes Moorehead, Gower Champion, Marge Champion, Robert Sterling, William Warfield. Color. 108 min.

4:30 PM ANNIE GET YOUR GUN (1950) Fanciful musical biography of wild West sharpshooter Annie Oakley. Dir.: George Sidney. Cast: Betty Hutton, Howard Keel, Louis Calhern. Color. 107 min.

6:30 PM FLOODS OF FEAR (1958) Two escaped convicts are trapped in a remote farmhouse during a flood. Dir.: Charles Crichton. Cast: Howard Keel, Anne Heywood, Cyril Cusack. Black and white. 85 min.

8:00 PM THREE GUYS NAMED MIKE (1951) A stewardess can't choose among three suitors. Dir.: Charles Walters. Cast: Jane Wyman, Van Johnson, Howard Keel, Barry Sullivan, Phyllis Kirk. Black and white. 90 min.

9:45 PM SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (1954) When their older brother marries, six lumberjacks decide it's time to go courting for themselves. Dir.: Stanley Donen. Cast: Howard Keel, Jane Powell, Jeff Richards, Russ Tamblyn. Color. 102 min. Letterbox Format.

11:30 PM KISS ME KATE (1953) Feuding co-stars reunite for a musical version of Shakespeare's “The Taming of the Shrew.” Dir: George Sidney. Cast: Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, Ann Miller. Color. 110 min.

1:30 AM CALLAWAY WENT THATAWAY (1951) A real cowboy signs on to impersonate a faded western star for public appearances. Dir.: Norman Panama, Melvin Frank. Cast: Fred MacMurray, Dorothy McGuire, Howard Keel. Black and white. 82 min.

3:00 AM PAGAN LOVE SONG (1950) An American tourist romances a Tahitian beauty. Dir.: Robert Alton. Cast: Esther Williams, Howard Keel, Minna Gombell. Color. 77 min.

4:30 AM TEXAS CARNIVAL (1951) A penniless carnival worker runs up a mountain of debts when he's mistaken for a millionaire. Dir.: Charles Walters. Cast: Esther Williams, Red Skelton, Howard Keel, Ann Miller, Paula Raymond, Keenan Wynn, Tom Tully. Color. 77 min.

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