Howard Keel & the demise of the old-fashioned Hollywood musical
Stanley Donen’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers became Howard Keel’s favorite among his films. The 1954 blockbuster would also turn out to be both the apex of his movie career and his final big-screen success.
The same year Seven Brides for Seven Brothers grew into one of Hollywood’s biggest sleeper hits ever, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released one other moneymaking musical: Richard Thorpe’s The Student Prince ($451,000 in profits), starring Rose Marie’s Ann Blyth and non-singing newcomer Edmund Purdom (plus Mario Lanza’s singing voice).
Also at MGM in 1954, flopping alongside Rose Marie and Brigadoon (see previous post) was another tuneful Richard Thorpe effort, the Jane Powell star vehicle Athena ($511,000 loss), and two other Stanley Donen musicals: the late 1953 release Give a Girl a Break ($1.15 million loss), starring Singin’ in the Rain’s Debbie Reynolds, and the all-star Sigmund Romberg biopic Deep in My Heart ($435,000 loss), in which Keel was one of the guest performers.
That helps to explain why the old-fashioned musical – at Metro and elsewhere – was about to go the way of the dinosaurs.
Non-singing & non-dancing talent vs. song-and-dance stars
The following year (and into 1956), Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film adaptation of the Tony Award-winning Broadway smash Guys and Dolls – an independent Samuel Goldwyn production distributed by MGM – became the studio’s no. 1 blockbuster.
Starring non-singers, non-dancers Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons, plus Frank Sinatra and former Fox star and Broadway cast member Vivian Blaine, Guys and Dolls scored an impressive $9 million worldwide – offset by a gargantuan $5.5 million budget (not including Metro’s marketing and distribution expenses).
On the downside, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s It’s Always Fair Weather, a sequel of sorts to their popular On the Town, was an indisputable bomb ($1.67 million in the red), and so were three other in-house musicals: Roy Rowland’s all-star Hit the Deck, with Jane Powell and Debbie Reynolds ($454,000 loss), and two big-budget productions co-starring Howard Keel.
‘Jupiter’s Darling’: First (and last) Esther Williams & Howard Keel flop
In his autobiography, Only Make Believe: My Life in Show Business, Howard Keel would avow that Jupiter’s Darling, his fourth collaboration with director George Sidney and third with co-star Esther Williams, showcases “my best performance at MGM.” The studio, which put $3.3 million into the project, was not impressed.
Based on Robert E. Sherwood’s 1928 play about the relationship between Carthaginian military commander Hannibal (Keel) and a Roman denizen (Williams; singing voice by Jo Ann Greer), Sidney’s disappointingly subpar Ancient Rome-set musical comedy lost a disastrous $2.3 million – a major professional blow to its leading man, coming on the heels of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ hugely profitable run.
It’s no coincidence that Jupiter’s Darling was the last nail in the MGM coffin for George Sidney (who would resurface at Columbia), Esther Williams, and dancers Gower Champion and Marge Champion.
‘Kismet’: Prestige-filled bomb
Howard Keel’s follow-up star vehicle was supposed to be one of his most prestigious efforts.
Produced by Arthur Freed on a $3 million budget and directed by Vincente Minnelli – the team responsible for acclaimed hits like Meet Me in St. Louis and An American in Paris, and posh flops like The Band Wagon and Brigadoon – Kismet was planned as a lavish adaptation of Charles Lederer and Luther Davis’ 1953 Tony Award-winning Old Baghdad-set musical comedy (itself based on Edward Knoblock’s 1911 play) featuring Robert Wright and George Forrest’s reworking of several 19th-century Alexander Borodin compositions. Lederer (His Girl Friday) and Davis (The Hucksters) were themselves tasked with the screenplay.
Besides Keel as Old Baghdad’s baritone-voiced street poet (a role initially intended for Ezio Pinza), Kismet’s name cast included Ann Blyth, Tony Award winner Dolores Gray (Carnival in Flanders, 1954), pop star Vic Damone (singing “Stranger in Paradise” to/with Blyth), and Broadway and Hollywood veteran Monty Woolley (The Man Who Came to Dinner, The Pied Piper).
Things may have looked great on the production board, but Kismet was an all-around disheartening experience for its male lead. “Most directors don’t know how to talk or handle actors and don’t want to,” Keel would gripe in Only Make Believe. “Minnelli certainly didn’t. Kismet was doomed from the start. Nothing planned fell into place.”
Worse was to come after the musical opened. An even more dire box office bomb than The Band Wagon and Brigadoon (and, for that matter, Jupiter’s Darling), this Freed-Minelli collaboration ended up $2.5 million in the red.
Farewell MGM – and to the Hollywood musical?
Kismet was Howard Keel’s final Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer release. However distressing on a personal level, his departure at age 36 was hardly a unique development.
In the mid-1950s, the Hollywood studios were grappling with myriad bottom-line-related issues – e.g., U.S. TV households soared from 3.8 million in 1950 to 30.7 million in 1955; moviegoers, increasingly less assiduous, seemed to be growing younger. With relatively few exceptions, those perceived as “old-timers,” whether in front or behind the camera, were getting axed, especially talent associated with the musical genre.
At Metro, just about every single musical star of the preceding ten years – Keel, Jane Powell, Kathryn Grayson, Esther Williams, Judy Garland, June Allyson, Van Johnson, Cyd Charisse, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ann Miller, Red Skelton, Vera-Ellen – was either already gone from or on their way out of the studio. By the early 1960s, most of these had all but disappeared from the film world altogether.
Elsewhere, meeting a similar fate were Betty Grable, Gordon MacRae, Dennis Morgan, Betty Hutton, Mitzi Gaynor, June Haver, Danny Kaye, Jane Russell, Donald O’Connor, Dan Dailey, and Bing Crosby (despite White Christmas and, in 1956, High Society).
MGM alumni Debbie Reynolds and Frank Sinatra; Howard Keel’s Calamity Jane romantic interest, Doris Day; and, after going their own way in 1956, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, were among the few mid-century Hollywood musical stars to succeed in remaining box office draws in other genres.
Big-budget + big-name transformation
For all that, and notwithstanding bombs, flops, and “disappointments” like the MGM titles mentioned earlier in this post, and, elsewhere, Warner Bros.’ costly A Star Is Born, 20th Century Fox’s Daddy Long Legs, Paramount’s The Vagabond King and The Court Jester, Columbia’s Three for the Show, and Universal’s The Second Greatest Sex, the Hollywood musical had hardly become passé.
Instead, in spite of occasional “old-style” hits – MGM’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and High Society; Paramount’s White Christmas; Fox’s Carmen Jones, April Love, and Let’s Make Love; and Columbia’s Pal Joey – the genre underwent a radical transformation beginning in the mid-1950s.
That’s when big-budget (at times, mega-budget), “prestige” productions like Guys and Dolls, Oklahoma!, The King and I (Best Picture Oscar nominee, 1956), South Pacific, the Arthur Freed-Vincente Minnelli collaboration Gigi (Best Picture Oscar winner, 1958), and (the underperforming) Porgy and Bess became the norm.
In front of the camera, singing and/or dancing (or swimming) abilities were no longer key considerations, as attested by the casting of Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Deborah Kerr, Rossano Brazzi, John Kerr, Louis Jourdan, Sidney Poitier, and, even in the more traditional musicals, Grace Kelly and Kim Novak.
New breed of Hollywood musical & ‘musical star’
As a result of this assembly-line rearrangement, apart from youth-oriented fare like the Elvis Presley and Beach Party flicks, mainstream Hollywood musicals would not only become more expensive and more grandiose but also less frequent productions, almost invariably relying on tried-and-true – though by now means “flop-proof” – properties imported from the Broadway stage.
Examples, some of which were ardently embraced by both critics and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members, include MGM’s 1960 flop Bells Are Ringing (a cross between the old-fashioned and the newfangled musicals, and the last film made by Arthur Freed’s production unit), United Artists’ West Side Story (Best Picture Oscar winner, 1961), Warner Bros.’ The Music Man (Best Picture nominee, 1962) and My Fair Lady (Best Picture winner, 1964), Fox’s The Sound of Music (Best Picture winner, 1965), and Columbia’s Funny Girl (Best Picture nominee, 1968).
Actors not known for their vocal range or nimble steps but cast in key roles included Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Gypsy (1962); Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady; Christopher Plummer in The Sound of Music; and the Jean Seberg, Lee Marvin, and Clint Eastwood combo in Paint Your Wagon (1969). Not to mention Cary Grant, Warners mogul Jack Warner’s box-office-friendly initial choice for the male leads in both The Music Man and My Fair Lady.
In fact, there would be little room for Hollywood musical “old-timers” in these productions – with Doris Day in Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962), Debbie Reynolds in The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), and Fred Astaire in Finian’s Rainbow (1968) among the few conspicuous exceptions.
So, what was Howard Keel doing during that post-MGM, pre-Dallas period?
Howard Keel: Five-year movie stardom
In all, Howard Keel’s Hollywood stardom lasted a mere five years – from the big hit Annie Get Your Gun in 1950 to the big flops Jupiter’s Darling and Kismet in 1955.
Sounds bad? Well, it was about as long as Louis B. Mayer’s replacement, Dore Schary, lasted as head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, having gotten the boot himself in 1956.
After Keel and MGM parted ways he would be gone from the big-screen for three years, during which time he was briefly seen on the Broadway stage in a September 1957 revival of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Carousel, once again playing singing antihero Billy Bigelow.
In the ensuing 15 years, he would be featured in three other Broadway productions, none of which either commercially successful or, as per his autobiography, professionally satisfying: Saratoga (1959–1960), No Strings (1962), and Ambassador (1972).
During that period, Howard Keel’s movie work was for the most part both sporadic and minor – e.g., the British thriller Floods of Fear, the B Hollywood Westerns Waco, Red Tomahawk, and Arizona Bushwhackers. There were, however, two – non-singing – exceptions:
- The Buena Vista/Disney-distributed The Big Fisherman (1959), directed by two-time Oscar-winning veteran Frank Borzage (7th Heaven, for the period 1927–1928; Bad Girl, 1931–1932), and featuring the former Wild Bill Hickok as St. Peter. Although based on a bestseller penned by Lloyd C. Douglas (The Robe, Magnificent Obsession), the semi-biblical drama did nothing to restore Keel’s standing in the industry.
- The Burt Kennedy-directed John Wayne-Kirk Douglas Western The War Wagon (1967), with Keel in a supporting role as a long-haired Native American.
Aside from his infrequent appearances on the big and small screen (on TV, he was notably seen opposite Patricia Morison in a 1964 adaptation of Kiss Me Kate), dinner/musical theater and summer stock – e.g., South Pacific, Camelot, a 1978 reunion with Jane Powell in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – would remain the bulk of Keel’s money-making activities from the late 1950s onward.
Howard Keel ‘Dallas’ comeback
That all changed in the mid-1980s, when Howard Keel became a regular cast member in the popular TV series Dallas, playing wealthy and short-tempered rancher Clayton Farlow, the second husband of Miss Ellie Ewing (Donna Reed on Season 8, Barbara Bel Geddes in the other episodes) – and, in Keel’s own words, “the biggest wimp I’ve ever played.”
Thanks to Dallas, Howard Keel made his Los Angeles concert debut at the Greek Theatre in 1989. When the Los Angeles Times asked him to name his favorite song, the answer was Show Boat’s “Ol’ Man River” – which he did not get to sing in the 1951 film. His explanation: “That’s a great old song, and it fits my voice.”
Howard Keel would die at age 85 in November 2004 in the Southern California town of Palm Desert.
In addition to the article linked to at the top of this post, the preceding articles in this five-part series on Jupiter’s Darling, Kismet, and Dallas actor Howard Keel are the following:
Howard Keel box office: Inflation-adjusted figures
 Jupiter’s Darling and Kismet budget (not including marketing and distribution expenses) and box office figures, and those of other Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer titles discussed in this post, were collected by way of online reports referencing MGM’s Eddie Mannix Ledger and the Ledger itself, found at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library.
Guys and Dolls’ production budget via A. Scott Berg’s Goldwyn. Hit the Deck loss figure found in Bernard F. Dick’s That Was Entertainment: The Golden Age of the MGM Musical.
If one uses the Motion Picture Association of America’s and the National Association of Theater Owners’ estimates (via Boxofficemojo.com) of average annual domestic movie ticket prices (not directly correlated to the Consumer Price Index), Annie Get Your Gun ($4.7 million in domestic rentals) would have earned MGM approximately $85 million in the domestic market if released in 2019.
If in line with reports for movies of the last half century or so – and that’s not an insignificant if – the Betty Hutton-Howard Keel musical’s total domestic box office gross would have been around twice that amount, or $160–$170 million. Below are several more inflation-adjusted estimates:
- Show Boat ($5.3 million) approx. $90 million in domestic rentals; gross $170–$180 million.
- Lovely to Look At ($2.6 million) approx. $40 million; gross $70–$80 million.
- Kiss Me Kate ($2 million) approx. $30 million; gross: $55–$60 million.
- Rose Marie ($2.8 million) approx. $55 million; gross: $100–$110 million.
- Seven Brides for Seven Brothers ($5.5 million) approx. $110 million; gross $210–$220 million.
- Jupiter’s Darling ($1.5 million) approx. $27 million; gross: $50–$55 million.
- Kismet ($1.2 million) approx. $22 million; gross: $40–$45 million.
Though a more accurate reflection of a film’s success with the public (i.e., its number of tickets sold), inflation-adjusted estimates should be taken with extreme caution; for instance, they’re based on average ticket prices whereas many major releases earned a large chunk of their grosses at top-price theaters.
Worldwide box office data would be much trickier to adjust for inflation, as currency fluctuations and international “movie ticket inflation rates” would need to be factored in as well.
Lastly, bear in mind that it would be pointless to compare inflation-adjusted box office figures to inflation-adjusted (using the Consumer Price Index) budget figures.
Unless otherwise noted, Howard Keel quotes via Only Make Believe: My Life in Show Business.
Information on U.S. TV households via David Bianculli’s Teleliteracy: Taking Television Seriously.
Donna Reed and Howard Keel Dallas image: Lorimar Productions.
Esther Williams and Howard Keel Jupiter’s Darling image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Dolores Gray and Howard Keel Kismet 1955 image: MGM.
Barbara Bel Geddes and Howard Keel Dallas image: Lorimar Productions.
“Howard Keel: Dallas Resurgence Following Abrupt Downfall & Decades-Long Hollywood Limbo” last updated in July 2019.